Syllable Length

When you are close enough to hear people speaking, but not close enough to hear the words they are using, you can still tell if they are speaking English or another language.  That’s because each language has its own rhythm.  French and English differ in significant ways in their rhythm.  By trying to develop a French cadence when you speak French, you will automatically sound less American.

English words each have their own stress; that is, stress can fall on any syllable of the word.  It cannot be predicted, which is why many English learners have a great deal of difficulty with it.  And sometimes changing stress can change the meaning of the word.  Say these words with the stress on the first syllable and then on the last syllable.  You’ll notice a change in meaning:

  • record
  • object
  • content
  • suspect

In addition, English is a stress-timed language.  That means that the stressed syllables of words come at regular intervals in a sentence.  For that to happen, since stress can occur anywhere in a word, those syllables that are not stressed can be reduced to make everything fit.  So, frequently, vowels are reduced to sounds like “uh” and “i” to take up less time.  Notice the changes in the vowels of these related words.  Say them out loud.  Tap your fingers to match the rhythm and notice that there are some long beats and some short beats:

  • photo
  • photograph
  • photographer
  • photographic
  • photography

French, on the other hand, has very predictable stress: it’s always on the last syllable.  In addition, French is a syllable-timed language.  That means that each syllable gets equal time, whether it is stressed or not.  (Although stressed syllables are a couple of nanoseconds longer).  Vowels are never reduced.  Listen to the following words and compare them with English:


Click here to look at some graphs of the words orthographique and orthographic.  The bright bands of yellow, orange, and pink show the vowels.  Notice how the French vowels are all about the same size while there is considerable variation in the English vowels.

Another important fact about French is that there is a marked preference in the language for open syllables; that is, syllables that end in a vowel.  French syllables can begin only with the following sounds: s, a stop or a fricative, a resonant, a semi-vowel.  Not all of these sounds have to be present, but they must be in that order relative to each other.

So, in order to sound more French, keep these rules about syllables in mind:

  • The word stress falls on the last syllable only.
  • Each syllable gets the same amount of time.
  • Do not reduce the vowels to “uh” and “i”.
  • Syllables tend to be open.
Introduction | Syllable Length | C'est passionnant! | Huffing & Puffing |
How Many Syllables? | Dipthongs | Say aaaaaah! | Know How to Whistle? | Grrrrrrr! |
Front Rounded Vowels | e-caduc | Nasal Vowels
Arizona State University Dept. of Languages and Literatures