French Rhythm - Le Rythme

Provencal Musicians Aix-en-Provence
Chris Hellier/Getty Images

You've probably noticed, or at least heard others say, that the French language is very musical. The reason for this is that in French there are no stress marks on words: all syllables are pronounced at the same intensity (volume). In addition, many final consonants are liaised or "enchaînés" onto the next word. The lack of stress marks combined with liaisons and enchaînements are what give French its rhythm: all of the words flow together like music.

In contrast, English words each have a stressed syllable, which makes English sound comparatively choppy or staccato. (I'm speaking purely from a linguistic point of view - this is not a judgment about which language sounds "prettier.")

Instead of stressed and unstressed syllables, French sentences are divided into rhythmic groups (groupes rythmiques or mots phonétiques). A rhythmic group is a group of syntactically-related words in a sentence.* There are three basic kinds:

  • Nominal (noun) groups
  • Verbal groups
  • Prepositional groups

*Note that since the individual words within rhythmic groups are syntactically related, they are usually subject to required liaisons.

The last syllable of each rhythmic group is accentuated in two ways.

Intonation 

Intonation refers to the pitch of someone's voice. The last syllable of each rhythmic group inside the sentence is pronounced at a higher pitch than the rest of the sentence, while the final rhythmic group's final syllable is pronounced at a lower pitch.

The only exceptions to this are questions: in this case, the last rhythmic group's final syllable is also at a high pitch.

Tonic accent

The French tonic accent is a slight elongation of the final syllable in each rhythmic group. Rhythmic groups normally have up to 7 syllables, but this varies according to how quickly they are being spoken.

If a sentence is spoken very quickly, some of the shorter rhythmic groups may be joined together. For example, Allez-vous au théâtre ? is short enough that you might choose to pronounce it as a single rhythmic group rather than Allez-vous | au théâtre ?

The following chart shows how rhythmic groups fit together. Click on the Listen links to hear each sentence pronounced at two different speeds. Due to the (lack of) quality of internet sound, I exaggerated the accentuation in the slow version. Please remember that this is just a guide to help you better understand rhythm and improve your French listening and speaking skills.
 

Nominal groupVerbal groupPrepositionalListen   
David et Luc |veulent vivre |au Mexique.slow   normal 
Mon mari Étienne |est prof d'anglais |à Casablanca.slow   normal 
Un étudiant |est arrivé. slow   normal 
Nous parlons | d'un film.slow   normal 
 Allez-vous |au théâtre ?slow   normal 
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Your Citation
Lawless, Laura K. "French Rhythm - Le Rythme." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/understanding-french-rhythm-1369588. Lawless, Laura K. (2017, February 27). French Rhythm - Le Rythme. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-french-rhythm-1369588 Lawless, Laura K. "French Rhythm - Le Rythme." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/understanding-french-rhythm-1369588 (accessed November 23, 2017).