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.

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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:  LJK@alum.mit.edu 

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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