l'accent tonique

Les hasards du métier: I have been hollered at...while photographing the locals...but this is the first time I have ever been mooned by one! Photo taken in the town of St-Maurice-sur-Eygues, coming soon to a Cinéma Vérité "theater" near you!

l'accent tonique (lah-ksahn toh-neek) noun, masculine

    : tonic stress (aka "accent d'intensité)

Audio File:
Listen to my son Max's definition: Download "accent tonique"
L'accent tonique c'est quand tu appuies sur une partie d'un mot, genre insister sur une syllable. Tonic stress is when you put stress on a certain part of a word, for example, by insisting on a syllable.

*     *     *

Today we're going to talk about "tonic stress" à la français. In case you were wondering (as I was...), "Tonic Stress" is not a new fitness fad for forty-somethings. Non. And Tonic Stress is not an Anglophile cocktail-- served up with an olive and a twist of lemon--at the Bar Hemingway in the Ritz Hotel....

Be not mistaken: Tonic Stress is not a modern-day malady (you won't find the term in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, no SIR-ee ... or might that be sir-EE?). Again, Tonic Stress is not some Parisian potion to put on our hair spare heads, as if! Comme si

Finally, Tonic Stress is not a reaction, one undergone or suffered by French pigeons, when stalked by an uber-anxious American expatriate. No, tonic stress is.... well, it is...

(...the "pressure of finding a suitable definition for Tonic Stress" -- might that be what tonic stress is?).  Apparently not. Read on, in the following letter:

Hi, Kristin,

Signing your “livre d’or”, in addition to reminding me that I owed you another story, also reminded me of an incident that casts some light on the difficulties of understanding spoken French.

I used to subscribe to the audio series “Champs-Elysées”, and on one of their tapes (yes, it was tape cassettes at the time), a word popped up which sounded like “dédor”.  It was in the context of an award being given in the fashion industry.  Of course, with “Champs-Elysées”, you get a transcript of the tape, so I looked it up.  The actual expression was “dé d’or”, meaning “golden thimble”.

My immediate problem was that I had not previously known the word for “thimble”.  But on a deeper level, a problem with spoken French is that, for various reasons, it’s very hard to separate the words in a spoken stream.

One reason is that most final consonants are not pronounced at all.  Another is la liaison, which attaches the final consonant from one word, modified, to the beginning of the next (running them both together).  But perhaps the major reason French words run together is the lack, in French, of what in linguistics is called a “tonic stress” (in French, “l’accent tonique”).

In English, the tonic stress is very important.  It moves around as a word is varied, and it’s important for speakers to get it right.  Thus, for example (showing the stressed syllable in capitals):

“Photograph” is pronounced /FOE-te-graf/

“Photographic” is pronounced /foe-te-GRA-fic/

“Photographer” is pronounced /fe-TOG-re-fer/

Which syllable is stressed is a major part of distinguishing these words when you hear them, as the actual endings added, “ic” and “er”, are themselves very short.  And if, in a sentence, you hear two stressed syllables, there’s a word division in between somewhere.

Alone among all the languages I know, French has no tonic stress on individual words.  Instead, in French, the stress falls on the last syllable of a group of words united by their meaning.  Other Romance languages have tonic stress on individual words.  In Spanish it’s so important that if the stress doesn’t fall in a standard position, the stressed syllable is marked with a written accent mark.  In Italian, it’s not marked (unless it’s on the last syllable), but you’d better know where it is (as in English).

Only in French is it lacking, which can cause all the words in a spoken sentence to run together, as if they were one word.  Showing the stress:

Je vais aller à l’université deMAIN.

If that were an English sentence, it would probably be read:

Je vais ALLer à l’uniVERsité DEmain.

For all the above reasons, if in a spoken French sentence you encounter a word you don’t know, then you don’t know where it ends.  Then you don’t know where the next word begins, and you risk losing the entire rest of the sentence.  In other languages, particularly Germanic languages like German and English, you have a better chance of actually hearing the divisions between the words.

Having studied French, Spanish, and Italian, I find them to be quite similar, and of about equal difficulty, in their vocabularies and grammar.  But French is much harder to speak and to understand when spoken.  This is for the above reasons, and also because it has a lot more sounds than Spanish and Italian, and some of them, for a native English speaker, are very odd and hard to produce.

Just some thoughts on the language.



Note: Larry Krakauer, a retired engineer, organizes a free conversation group every other Wednesday evening, in the vicinity of Wayland, Massachusetts (USA). Contact Larry at:  [email protected] 

Exercises in French Phonics A Vous de Parler / Your Turn to Talk
Many thanks to Larry for his thoughts on language. Now, let's talk about "Tonic French"--that is: Let's get our French in shape by talking about l'accent tonique and more: share your comments about language learning. Do you have difficulty, as I do, pronouncing French? What are some questions that you have always wanted answered, about the French language? To all French teachers, students--and Francophones-- who may be reading: please help answer any forthcoming questions in the comments box. Merci beaucoup!

Don't miss an entertaining anecdote by Larry, here.

And check out the bestseller Exercises in French Phonics, by Francis W. Nachtman, for more on French pronunciation and how to pronouce French words correctly!


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Jules Greer

Hi Honey - I just woke up and there you are first thing this morning, waiting patiently in my email box to brighten my day. I haven't yet read your post, I looked looked at your photo's quickly and thought I would like to try and be the first commenter this beautiful morning. I would like to claim BOTH OF YOUR PHOTO'S to paint for my blog. These are two of your greatest photo's, you don't even need to write your stories. I detected a serious subject - now that you know how wonderful you are to be here for me this morning I'm on my way back to savor your story with a nice cup of coffee. I'll be back later with a comment on whatever you are talking about this morning. I love you.....MOM

Style Spy

What a great explanation -- that was really useful.

I find French not so difficult to pronounce (I'm a good mimic, due to years of theater training), but much more difficult to understand. It makes me feel bad -- like I'm a bad listener -- that it's so much easier for me to generate French than comprehend it. This post helps me to feel a bit better about that. Thanks!

Jim Herlan

Related to tonic stress is la syllabation. Most Americans do not say "he is" correctly in French. One usually hears "il é" instead of the right version, which is "i lé." That's because English favors closed syllables (ending in consonant) while French prefers open syllables (ending in a vowel). It's a tough challenge for anglophones, but we should try anyhow!


"Pas d'accent tonique en français"? ('No tonic stress in French'?) The tonic stress, “à la française”, is of a different nature from the stress “à l'anglaise”.

In English, the stress on a syllable is a matter of WEIGHT... you press on the stressed syllable, you put some weight on it – you push it down... you hit it.
Say: 'I am going to the Station'. What did you do when pronouncing the stressed syllables 'go', and “sta”? You pressed them down / you 'hit' them and you could clap your hands at the same time when pronouncing 'go' and 'sta'.

Now, if you could listen to a French person (parlant distinctement) and saying: “Je vais à la Gare”, you would immediately realize that the French put “un accent tonique” on “ga” – Yes but, the tonic stress, in French, is of a different nature (I virtually underlined those last 2 words).
The French 'tonic stress' is a matter of LENGTH. You must stretch / lengthen the French stressed syllable – and give the same short length to the syllables before “je-vai-za-la” / “j'vai-za-la”

'Here is my father' → “He” and “fa” are stronger / heavier.
"Voici mon père" → “voi-ci-mon”: same short length, but “pè” is longer (not heavier) and “re” is pronounced rather discretly and quickly.

A bit tricky when words have got (or nearly got) the same spelling in both languages. We mustn't assume the tonic stress will go on the same syllables. For ex: In French: la fon'TAI'ne and in English: 'FOUN'tain

There is much more to the subject... There are a few useful rules to follow... We must also take into account the importance of the intonation that goes with it... the way words run in a sentence, etc etc. All in all, I think the big point to start with is to be / to become aware of the difference of nature between l'accent tonique in French and the tonic stress in English. Then it's a matter of listening, recognizing, listening, mimicking, repeating... The discerning ear will pass on messages to the brain, which will then help with general understanding and oral expression... With time and practice, “tout viendra, petit à petit” ('everything will come, little by little')...

Pat Cargill

Many thanks, Larry, for elucidating the complexity of the langue francaise in its spoken form. I do have the natural inclination to stress syllables and it's tough to stop it. This is very helpful to me, though, as I wasn't aware of this aspect of the "language beast." Alas, je suis un vieux chien, who is learning the tricks of this lovely language, but I will persevere. Merci encore Kristin for today's most helpful post!


PS Kristin, I love the enamelled clock, the idle pigeons not bothered by the photographer and not bothering about the minutes so clearly dotted under them.
Locals hollering at you!... and one being that rude! That won't stop you, I know!.. so, un grand merci à l'avance for the next set coming soon. Still enjoying the last set and looking forward to the one coming on Saturday! One week in between each delivery is absolutely perfect!

Jan Lund

Holler is not spelled with an a in English.


Newforest: Rather than the rules, I like the idea that the "discerning ear will pass on messages to the brain, which will then help with general understanding and oral expression" -- kind of a "hands on" or "ears open" approach! PS: glad you like the clock -- I do hope my Mom will paint it. Mille mercis for your feedback on Cinéma Vérité!

Jan: thanks for the correction... on my way to fix that one, now.


Thanks, Newforest, for your very interesting and informative explanation. I've always felt the same as Larry, also having studied Italian, Spanish and French (in that order). For years I was too scared even to try to learn French because, although I could understand written French moderately well because of its similarity to the other two languages, when I heard it spoken I could barely tell where one word ended and the next one began. I've always been given to understand that there's no stress in French, and the explanation about stress of length rather than weight was very useful.

Gina Liuzza

I have not read your suggested book on french phonics (yet) but can vouch for the fact that learning how phonics works à la française - helped my spoken french and how I hear french tremendously. I spent hours and hours in the then language labs at the University of Texas many years ago.... I also took italian (and some german) and interestingly, I don't remember any similar courses offered in those languages. One exercise that I am recalling required placing a sheet of paper in front of our mouths while speaking -- it wasn't supposed to move -- and then there was the problem of diphthong (a special problem for many with "southern" accents)... ahh, the memories! Thanks again for another great post.

Pat Cargill

Kristin, the second photo of the small hut with a very funky tile roof is, as Jules said, inspiration for painting and interesting. The tree/large tall bush? stands like a giant billowing of green smoke, up from the ground...wonder what in inside the dark doorway? The beautiful blues in the distance urge me to faire une promenade to what lies beyond.


Both explanations from Larry and Newforest gave me a new perspective on listening to French. After lots of years of classroom French, and living in an area of the US where the second language is Spanish, my opportunities to speak and hear French are few and far between. Then, our annual visits to France arrive, and, while my pronunciation is pretty good, I often struggle to make sense of what I hear. Hopefully, I will now be listening in French instead of English!

Pat Cargill

p.s. to Newforest:

Just saw either Denny or Furzey on the goshawk nest who came into site noisily from off-camera and picked at the nest a bit. Have not seen them in quite sometime. The sound on this live cam is so good, I even hear insects buzzing.


I am glad to hear you found the explanation about Length and Weight very useful.
This, to my ears, leads to the gracefulness and fluidity of the French language and to the bounciness and rhythm of the English language.
Vive la différence!

Margaret Boerner

"Tonic accent" is not really a suitable term for any pronunciation of French, for tonic accent denotes speaking a given syllable LOUDER than another, which does not happen in French. The words in a French phrase or sentence should be pronounced as we English speakers pronounce, for example, "one, two, three, four, five" -- without a rise in loudness differing the syllables from each other. (That is, one does not say "one, TWO, three, FOUR, five" in English).
In addition, the stress placed at the end of a French sentence is also not a tonic accent -- a rise in loudness -- but a rise in pitch -- which we English speakers do only with questions (unless we are valley girls)-- that is, when asking a question, our voice goes from, say, middle C to F. To my ear, Portuguese speakers end all sentences with a rise in pitch, so that they seem to be always asking question.


When my students would comment (as they always did) about the difficulties of French pronunciation I would then write all the "ough" English words on the board - cough, through, though, bough, enough, etc. Every language has it's difficulties (and joys!) because each reflects the cultures and history of the people who speak them. That, a mon avis, makes language learning an experience that is not to be missed. It opens our eyes, ears and understanding to the differences which unite us all.

Marianne Rankin

The comments by Larry and Newforest in particular were quite clarifying. A note from something I read somewhere follows.

English is called a "stress-timed" language. That is, in a given unit of time, there is kind of a rhythm. You can notice this especially when people call names (TOM-ee, SAL-ee, MI-chael)or say such things as "You can't catch me." They are almost sing-song at times.

French, on the other hand, is a "syllable-timed" language, without the same kind of rhythm, just putting however many syllables into a breath.

Therefore, in English, a given sentence could be crammed into more or less "space" (time it takes to say it), whereas in French, although one might be able to speak a bit faster if one tried, there is a minimum length of time required because all the syllables receive the same amount of emphasis. Is this clear?

I rarely have trouble understanding spoken French (unless it's slang I don't know), or pronouncing it, but having taught it, I can see how difficult it can to learn. A friend has sent me a few of her Champs-Elysees CDs, and they help keep my ear "tuned" in the absence of regular practice.

Robyn Daniels

Hi Kristin

Just a little French oddity I had meant to share with you when I was in Chaunac (Charente Maritime) staying in a small gite. It was in connection with a story you did about the making of house tiles on women's thighs. There was a little covered walkway from the gite to the large but dilapidated dove house with tiles made as you mentioned but along the edge there were marks made (by man) that resembled pigeon footprints. A lovely little idiosynchratic customisation by the tile makers I presume knowing what they were to be used for. Your photo of pigeons today reminded me of it. Also your love of photographing French architecture - I think I took a pic of it but it is still languishing on my digital camera. But these sweet little things are what make me love the French!

Robyn x


I took hollar with an 'a' to be SW USA twang :-)

I have a small collection of old wristwatches, so I'll have to check out SAEZ (on the clock).

I just know that bottom photo is for me. Tree with a view.


Hi Kristin,
I was wondering how everyone, including you, take so many pictures without problems. Thank God you are disclosing that it is a risky activity and sometimes people yell at you.
I don't have much problem with pronunciation (so I think, ha ha) because I learned the language when I was younger but speaking is a different story because I don't have anyone to talk to. I did not know about this accent tonic, I have to now pay attention as I listen to TV5 sometimes. I do have trouble with French movies, especially when it starts, then gradually I get it...slang is also challenging but slang is challenging in English too. I find Belgian French easy to understand, and Parisian difficult, and Canadian French sounds English to me.
Oh, this is what I wanted to say. Pronunciation centers in the brain develop in childhood, this is why for example Chinese have difficulties with L and R, because in their language the L and R centers are closely mapped on their brain so they get mixed up.

Bon Mercredi!


Leslie in WA, in view of the Olympic Mountains

Just a wee tangent here from the sujet de l'accent tonique: many years ago, I went to school in France then was a fille-au-pair in Belgie. Returning to the States for school, my phonics teacher gave me bad grades because I had a belgian accent- I never did figure that out. Yes, I agree with many above that en francais many words run together in the spoken language and us native english speakers need to pay closer attention.


Larry's very detailed explanation gets right at the heart of why I have trouble understanding French when its spoken at a normal (pas rapide) rhythm. My French friends have trouble understanding me because I have the beginner's tendency to separate all the words in my sentences and adding "l'accent tonique" everywhere. I can read and understand just about anything in the language (with a dictionary), but I don't think I'll ever get comfortable speaking it at a level higher than a two-year old child.

Jeane Gautier

Thanks for all the technical explanations that help with the mysteries of trying to speak and listen to spoken French. I came late to the language at the age of 50 when I met my French husband. My goal in learning the language was primarily to understand what was happening around me, and I have achieved that to some extent. I just want to pass on the impression I had on my early visits to France: I told my American friends that they (the French) all sounded like so many sewing machines stitching away.
Another observation I have regarding my experiences in France. I never can understand my husband's grandchildren, who speak very quickly. But when we visit with his sister-in-law and her friends (in their 70's) the language is much easier to comprehend. And all of them lament the way the young people speak!


Thank you Larry and Newforest for your comments on the French spoken language. The running together of the words - the liaison -definitely make it difficult for me to understand people when they speak, especially when they speak fast. I have a much easier time reading and writing, but when I speak, I do not run my words together, therefore, I speak like an American who uses the weighed or stressed accents and words.
Hopefully, some day I may improve on my listening skills especially since I continue to take French lessons.

Lawrence Krakauer

Thank you, everyone, for the illuminating comments my musings provoked. Kristin, what a thoughtful bunch of linguists you have following your blog.

Jim Herlan, that’s an interesting way of thinking about French syllabification. I think that in addition to English favoring closed syllables, it tends to have an audible glottal stop between words, like other Germanic languages. In some ways, it doesn’t matter that French prefers open syllables (although that’s true), because they all run together anyway.

I’ll also be listening more carefully with the comments by Newforest in mind. I think that stress in English involves weight AND pitch AND length. I do think a stressed syllable in French still has a bit more “weight” to it. At least one grammar book calls this stress “l’accent d’intensité”. It says:

« Dans la phrase, ‘l’accent d’intensité’ (on dit aussi ‘accent tonique’) frappe la dernière syllabe articulée, non pas de chaque mot, mais de chaque groupe de mots unis par le sens et prononcés sans aucun repos de la voix (chaque groupe est un seul ‘mot phonétique’, un ‘groupe rythmique’). » – Précis de Grammaire Française, Maurice Grevisse

On the other hand, another book makes it clear, in agreement with Newforest, that the added weight in French is not very strong:

« … d’un accent d’intensité, assez faible d’ailleurs. » – Grammaire pratique du français d’aujourd’hui, G. Mauger

Margaret Boerner uses the term “tonic accent” as a synonym for greater intensity. That’s not reflected in most of my dictionaries, which just use it as a synonym for “primary stress”. But I think these definitions vary quite a bit from field to field, and I want to stress (no pun intended) that I’m only an amateur linguist.

Marianne Rankin, I also found your comments very interesting. I think American speakers sound very sing-song to the French. And as Gina Liuzza noted, US Southerners, with their long drawn-out diphthongs, must have a particularly hard time speaking French, in which the vowels are short and pure.

What a fascinating discussion! Of course, I’m a linguistics nerd, so I love every minute of it.

Larry Krakauer


I just had a flash back to my junior year abroad days at the Institut International d'Etudes Francaises (Universite de Strasbourg). One day we had to do a language lab where the point was to hear the difference in the spoken language between the future and conditional tenses - i.e. the oral difference between "je donnerai" (I will give) and "je donnerais" (I would give).

Christine Cormack

Like Larry, I also studied French in Pau. I rented a room from a delightful lady, Michelle, close to the chateau, just inside the old walled city, in 1994. Michelle's 'alarm clock' was a cafetiere on a timer. Each morning we were woken by the deightful aroma of fresh coffee. When she was speaking, Michelle followed the local custom and stressed every syllable. For example, "bonne nuit" was said "bon-NE nuit". I resisted because I knew l'accent tonique would not be so acceptable in Paris - or Australia, where I came from. I still speak French, but fairly slowly, as we speak English in my hometown in North Queensland.

Bon-NE nuit a tous, et merci bien Kristin.


Cynthia in France

Oh, my goodness! Now I understand why I'm having such a difficult time with learning and understanding this language! Thanks for the tonic stress lesson. When the French speak, the sentences all sound like one word to me. There's no pause, no ending to the words, no way to figure out what the individual words are. After a year of listening to it, I'm still lost. Geez! Why couldn't I have fallen in love with an Italian! Cynthia in the French Alps

Bob Head

My goodness. So I'm not alone here!! I was beginning to feel like the dumbest student of French language on the planet!
Is there any hope for us?
I'm with Julie and Cynthia's comments (not that I want to fall in love with an Italian!)- will I EVER comprehend this STRess difference? (Pun intended)

Cynthia in the French Alps

Too bad, Bob, that us dummies don't all live in the same town and we could make each other feel smart! :-) I'm 50 so my tired brain doesn't help matters...not to mention the 16 hour work days between contract work, starting businesses, my blog, and 4 hours in the kitchen everyday doing the French meals (the French spend way too much time cooking/eating - great only if you're retired and have all the time in the world. Yes, I know I'm sounding like an American). Bon courage! Cynthia in the French Alps

dorothy dufour

Dear Kristen, Heavens, your erudite correspondents make me feel uneducated. I learned Quebec French very quickly at 20 because I wanted to know what the laughter was about - although I still can't roll an r. And I learned not to say "Je suis pleine" regarding
food because to them it meant "I am pregnant" (although I often was!)
I enjoyed Larry and James'contributions, the recipe, and especially your adventures with Braise, which I sent on to friends. Dorothy

Jennifer in OR

I ditto all the folks who share the sentiment of "thank goodness I'm not alone in this challenge!" Misery loves company. :-) Seriously, a great subject and helpful as I continue learning this beautiful language.


I too, like Julie, shall aspire to speaking french on a two year old level, although perhaps after following Kristin's FWAD...a very sophisicated two year old!!

Thank you Larry on initating an entertaining discussion on linguistics!


PS I hope you did better than me Douglas, as all I could find on "Saez" clocks was a site for Saez Beer Clocks...somehow I don't think applies in this situation.... :)

Marianne Rankin

The few times I've had occasion to listen to Canadian French, it sounded very different from regular French (yes, a bit English/American), and wasn't especially easy to understand compared to Parisian.

While some Americans aren't all that great at learning another language, they are probably the most tolerant people in the world when it comes to listening to others trying to speak English.

Another suggestion for a discussion sometime: the Rules of French Liaison. Liaison has made it harder for students to understand French, but for me at this point, the hard part of it is knowing when NOT to use it. For example, the word "et" is never supposed to be ellided, per my French books. And liaison is not supposed to occur between preceding words and those following which begin with H aspiree. For the numbers "six" and "dix," the pronunciation depends on whether the word is isolated (by itself), or followed by a noun, in which case liaison may or may not occur.

Any tips to correct liaison will be appreciated.


Hi Marianne,
your 3 points about liaisons

1) Case of ET (and)
One of the main reason why you must NOT make a liaison after "et" (= 'and', pronounced "é") in front of a vowel is often to avoid nonsense and confusion. Bear in mind there is a compulsory liaison after "est" (= 'is', also pronounced "é") after which you must make a compulsory liaison with following vowel
--> une poire "et" une pomme (= a pear 'and' an apple)
NO liaison between "et" and "u"ne
If you did make a liaison (é-tune pomme) what you said would then mean:
--> une poire "est" une pomme (a pear 'is' an apple!)

Play with little examples like:
--> Il était en retard... et il est arrivé à minuit!
- NO liaison after "et" ->
-> "et il" ---> pronounce "é-il" = 'and he'
If you made a liaison, "é-til", what you said would mean "est-il...?" = 'is he...?'
- Compulsory liaison after "est"->
"est arrivé" (= 'arrived')---> Pronounce é-ta-ri-vé

2) Case of SIX, and DIX is quite easy.
-> If not followed by anything, final "x" is pronounced like "ss".
-> If followed by noun starting with a consonant, pronounce "SI", "DI"
-> If followed by a noun starting with a vowel, you must make the liaison ("x" pronounced like "z" and attaching itself to the following vowel).
How many (things) would you like?
Simple and short answer: "SIX" (pronounced "siss")because there is nothing following the number 6.
but, in the following examples:
- "Six euros" -> pronounce si-zeu-ro
- "six ans" (6 years)-> pronounce si-zan
- "six bougies " (= 6 candles). The word "bougies" starts with a consonant, so, no liaison. Pronounce "si-bou-gi"

3) I don't want to lengthen my post so I won't embark on when to make a liaison or not between consonant + word starting with "H"... a chapter to be left on its own.

Bonne soirée!


by "left on its own", I mean:
"dealt with, separately"

Lawrence Krakauer

I always thought the issue of liaison to a leading H was very simple - you make a liaison (or contract the article) before a "mute" H, and don't before an "aspirated" H. Any dictionary will tell you which is which.

So it's "L'hotel", but "Le halle".

A curious way that I used to think about it: aspirated H is a silent consonant (so no liaison), but mute H is a silent vowel (so there is a liaison).

From the great book "From Latin to Romance in Sound Charts", by Peter Boyd-Bowman:

"H fell silent in Latin, and has left no trace [in the Romance languages] except in learned spellings. Latin H must not be confused with later Germanic H (now silent also) that prevents 'liaison' in many French words."

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