All languages that are spoken in different places have different accents. It’s one of the things that makes language so interesting! And French is spoken in many different places. The “Language of Love” is spoken on 5 continents by more than 230 million people on a daily basis. There are more French speakers outside of France than within its borders, with Francophone populations in more than 100 countries. It’s also the 2nd most studied foreign language in the US and Europe.
Sounds of the French Language – French Accents Around the World
That means that the French language has a number of major accents and hundreds of more subtle regional differences. In this article, we’ll look at some of the most popular French accents around the world, what makes them unique, how they came about, and some interesting differences within France itself.
Speaking of French accents, Luca recently made a video on this very topic. You can watch it on our YouTube channel or right here. It’s in French of course, but there are subtitles in English and 5 other languages if you need them.
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Main French Accents in Mainland France
As with most countries, there are a lot of different regional accents in France. With such a long national and linguistic history, and a geographical position that puts it in close contact with German, Dutch, Italian, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Arabic, the French language has been influenced by (and has influenced!) many different languages. However, it is possible to separate the different regions into four main dialects: Northern, Southern, Parisian and Lyonnais.
Probably the most well known, and certainly the most commonly exported thanks to the film industry. It’s become known as the “default” European French accent, mainly because of its economic, political and social importance throughout France’s history. If you’re learning French, this is probably the accent you hear the most. You can distinguish Parisian French by a few subtleties.
How to recognize the Parisian accent
- First, Parisians tend not to pronounce vowels with the accent circonflexe differently, as other French speakers do. So, pâtes (“pasta”) and pattes (“paws”) are both pronounced like “pat” in English, whereas elsewhere, pâtes is closer to “pot.”
- On the flip side, they have a tendency to over-pronounce the o in toi and moi, giving toe-ah and moe-ah.
- Nasal vowels, the famous French –an in maman (mother), -on in bidon (belly), -un in commun (“common”) and -in in bain (“bath”), are a little all over place: an becomes on, which becomes un, which becomes in, which becomes an. Yep. So the totally absurd and meaningless sentnece, “Maman a un bidon hors du commun dans le bain,” (Mom has an unusual belly in the bath… see? Absurd.) sounds like “Mamon a un bidun hors commin dans le ban.”
- And of course, the very famous Parisian “euhhhhh” at the end of so many, many sentences! C’est dinguuueeehh, on est bien euhhh!
Check out this video on how Parisians think they sound:
Lyon is the third largest city in France and historically one of the most important, as it was the capital of Roman Gaul. But the accent lyonnais is spoken through central France, in both the Rhône and Loire regions. There is also a regional French dialect, with its own rules of grammar and syntax, called le parler lyonnais, or “Lyon speak,” which carries vestiges of Frankish and Provençal, a language of modern-day southern France.
How to listen for the Lyonnais accent
- The pronunciation of certain vowels is “closed,” so that a is closer to English “aw” rather than English “ah.”
- There is also a clearer difference between certain “open” and “closed” vowels, so haut (“high”) and hôte (“host”) are further apart than in other French accents.
- The “e caduc,” is almost always omitted. Which means that forteresse (“fortress”) is pronounced in two syllables (for-tresse) rather than three (for-te-resse).
In this video, Lyonnais chefs talk about the city’s famous cuisine:
Historically, France was linguistically split into north and south. The northern language was known as the Langue d’Oïl because “yes” was pronounce oïl, while in the south, “yes” was pronounced oc and so the language was known as Langue d’Oc. If you have seen the movie Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks, in English) you have heard one of the northern dialects, ch’ti. Don’t worry if you didn’t understand much, even French people from other parts of the country have a hard time!
There was a third language that I didn’t mention: Lingua di Si, so called because “yes” was pronounced si – which became modern Italian. The south of France also had much closer ties to Rome, as Provençal was not only geographically closer but became a province earlier as well. You can hear a southern French accent in cities like Nice, Marseille and Toulon. Described as a “chantant,” or “lyrical,” any French speaker will quickly recognize this accent.
How to recognize a southern French accent
- Words ending in e have a much stronger pronunciation of the final consonant, with an “euh” sound for emphasis. So je viens de Narbonne (“I’m from Narbonne”) becomes je viens de Narbonneuh.
- Nasal vowels (-an, -in, -on, -un) are “dénasalized” (“dénasalisées”), so pain (“bread”) is closer to “paing” than “pan” and bien (“good”) is closer to “bieng” than “ben.”
Discover the Marseillais accent in this video (because the narrator is Parisian, you can really hear the difference!):
Main French Accents Outside of France
Outside of France, French is also one of the official languages of both Belgium and Switzerland, and a small, very special region in Italy!
French is spoken by a little less than 40% of the population of Belgium, and although there are different regional accents, a few things reunite all Belgian accents. The Belgian and French accents are quite similar (although both sides would probably disagree!), given that they have a common ancestry. The Belgian accent is influenced by Dutch, which, along with German, is an official language. Belgian French accents tend to be a little more nasal, and they distinguish between certain sounds that the French pronounce the same way.
How to listen for Belgian accents
- First of all, the ui as in nuit or puis is pronounced like oui, as in Louis, with a pronounced o sound.
- Next, whereas the French pronounce the w in wagon like a v (“vagon”), a Belgian will say “wagon” like we do in English.
- There are some subtle slang and word differences as well. In France, you have your “petit déjeuner” for breakfast, “déjeuner” for lunch, and “dîner” for dinner. Whereas in Belgium, it’s “déjeuner” in the morning, “dîner” at noon, and “souper” in the evening.
For a better understanding of Belgian accents, check out this video:
Like Belgium, Switzerland has more than one national language: French, German, Italian and Romansh. Like the Belgian accents, Swiss accents are fairly close to those of mainland France. They also share an influence from German, but also from Italian and Romansh. Each of these languages in Switzerland is in turn influenced by French. So there’s a lot going on! Nonetheless, Swiss French accents are quite close to their eponymous neighbors, and oftentimes what the French mistake for the Swiss accent is actually a German-speaking Swiss person speaking French as a second language!
How to recognize Swiss French accents
- One of the main differences is that the Swiss tend to emphasize the second-to-last syllable in a word, whereas the French will place the accent on the very last syllable. This different rhythm is quite noticeable, so many French people have no trouble picking out a Swiss accent — although they may have more difficulty finding the exact region or town.
- Both Belgian and Swiss French count numbers a little differently than mainland French.You may have heard that in French, “70” is said soixante-dix (literally “sixty-ten”), “80” is pronounced quatre-vingt (“four-twenty”), and “90” is pronounced quatre-vingt-dix (“four-twenty-ten”). The Belgians and Swiss both decided this was a little off… So instead, they use “septante,” “huitante,” and “nonante,” which is closer to “seventy,” “eighty,” and “ninety” in English.
Check out this YouTube video to hear and learn more about Swiss accents!
In North America
The Québécois accent differs pretty significantly from the France French accents. When Quebec was “New France,” both regions spoke with the same accent. However, once ties were broken after France ceded its North American territories to the British, the French accent continued to evolve, while the Québécois accent stayed more or less the same. Basically, the Québécois accent is the French accent from about 500 years ago!
How to listen for the Québécois accent
- First of all, you’ll definitely hear a difference. A strong Québécois accent is one of the more difficult French accents to understand. That’s partly because many vowels and syllables are condensed or dropped. Whereas a French person will say en tout cas for “in any case,” a Québécois will say en’t’ca.
- Another dead giveaway is the fact that Québécois speakers have an affricate t and d. Wait, a what? An “affricate” is just the combination of two consonants. In Québécois, the letter t is pronounced ts before certain vowels, while d is pronounced dz. So while a French person will say, “tu es parti,” a Québécois speaker will say, “tsu es partsi.”
To learn how to speak with a Québécois accent in 5 minutes:
There aren’t many Acadian accents left in the world. It’s a variety of Canadian French distinct from Québécois, spoken in the Maritimes, on the east coast of Canada, as well as some parts of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Acadians are descendants of the French colonists who settled in the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their history contains some particularly tragic elements, including what is known as the Great Expulsion, when British forces relocated nearly 12,000 Acadians, many of whom perished from disease and drowning as a result. Some of them ended up in modern-day Louisiana and developed Cajun culture.
How to recognize Acadian accents
- There are some important differences, both with French accents and Québécois accents.
- The letters q and t are commonly pronounced ch before a vowel, as in check and choose. Ergo, whereas a Québécois or French speaker will pronounce quel with a k sound, “kell,” an Acadian speaker would use tch as in “chell.”
- Similarly, g and d take on a j sound — which is how “Acadien” became “Cajun”! Some sounds are also reversed. The prefix -re is often pronounced -er, making “reçu” (received) become “erçu,” or “erpas” in place of “repas” (meal).
- The -ent and -ont suffixes for third-person conjugations (ils mentent, “they’re lying,” ils courent, “they’re running”) are pronounced depending upon the region. So, Acadians say ils menton, like the Provençal city, instead of ils ment(ent) with a silent -ent.
You can listen to 5 people discussing their Acadian accents here:
French colonization of Algeria lasted from 1830 to 1962, and the two countries remain closely tied. About 30% of the population can read and write French.
How to listen for Algerian French accents
- The Algerian French accent is heavily influenced, of course, by Arabic. So you’ll often hear Arabic words frequently thrown into French sentences (and vice versa).
- The Arabic r is also often trilled, or rolled, like in Spanish, and this comes through in French Algerian accents.
For a hilarious tour of African accents, including Algeria, check out this stand-up comedy sketch:
The Democratic Republic of the Congo
French in the DRC cohabitates with four national languages and dozens of regional dialects, which makes this country a complicated melting pot of accents.
How to listen for Congolese French accents
- A sort of French creole results from a mixing of French with all the languages present, and vice versa. It’s not unusual to hear Portuguese, English, Swahili, and others mixed in.
- The accent is heavily influenced by the national and local African languages, such that the prosody, or rhythm, of Congolese French tends to be more halting.
- You can distinguish individual words more clearly than in European French, which is described as more lyrical, whereas the Congolese accent has been described as “chatoyant, qui fait danser” — shimmering or sparkling, and rhythmic.
- Speakers also tend to “swallow” their r’s and l’s, which contributes to this more pronounced rhythmicality.
Listen to Congolese author, journalist and poet Alain Mabankcou talk about the Congolese accent:
We hope you enjoyed this short world tour of some different French accents! Be sure to leave us a comment down below to let us know which is your favorite, or if you’d like us to cover any other fun French accents.
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