Written by: Daniel Boyle / Accent / January 25th, 2018
Whether you already speak French or are learning, awareness of different accents is important for solidifying your own pronunciation and enabling you to understand a variety of speakers.
As learners of a language, especially, we hear speakers from many different places who may have very different accents.
This can be confusing to the ear, and we can end up with a bit of a “Frankenstein” accent that comprises features of many different dialects.
Of course, there are many more differences between French dialects including vocabulary, grammar, and so forth. For now, let’s explore some of the key accent features that distinguish major dialects of French.
This article will compare “standard” or Metropolitan French (sometimes referred to as Parisian French) and typical Québec/Canadian French. However, there are many more dialects from Acadian to Lebanese that may have their own key features.
Tu, ‘Ti, Du, Dit
It’s possible to guess where a French speaker is from just from their pronunciation of one single word: “tu”. In European French, the /t/ sound typically goes cleanly into the following vowel. In Canadian French, however, a little /s/ slips in between, making it sound like a bit like “tsu”.
This difference applies to all cases where a /d/ or a /t/ comes just before a “high” vowel like an /i/ or a /y/ (spelled in French as “i” and “u”). This means that the “t” or “d” in Canadian French can sound quite different depending on the context.
This has to do with how the tongue tip pulls away from the roof of the mouth after making a “t” or “d” sound. When the tongue tip pulls away more gradually, some air slips in between the tongue tip and the roof of the mouth, making an “s” or “z” sound, depending on the whether the sound before was voiceless (like a /t/) or voiced (like a /d/), respectively.
The “R” Sound
Historically, Québec dialects of French (such as from Montréal) used what is called a “trilled R”, where the tongue tip trills against the roof of the mouth, near the teeth. This /r/ sound is also found in Spanish and Italian.
Since roughly the ‘50s, however, this sound quickly became replaced by the uvular “R” (or /ʁ/) as commonly used in France, where the back of the tongue makes contact with the uvula to make the sound. For this reason, you will still find many speakers throughout Canada, particularly older speakers, who will use this more frontal /r/ sound.
The pronunciation of /r/, in general, can vary quite a lot from place to place and is thus one of the more prevalent markers of nationality, dialect, or even socioeconomic status in speech.
Tense and Lax Vowels
Try saying the English words “bee” and “bit”. Now, try the French words “vie” and “vite”.
In Metropolitan French, the vowels in both “vie” and vite” words will typically sound the same—a bright, tense /i/ sound just like the English “beat”. In Canadian French, an “open syllable” (i.e. one ending in a vowel) will take the tense /i/ vowel, whereas a closed syllable (i.e. ending in a consonant) will take a more “lax” vowel like in the English “bit”.
This pattern applies to a variety of vowels.
In Metropolitan French, the vowels in these word pairs will sound roughly the same (if not a bit shorter in length, in the closed syllables); in Canadian French, they can sound quite different as the closed syllable uses a more “lax” vowel, just like in English tense/lax word pairs like “bee/bit” and “boo/book”. This difference exists even in highly formal registers of Canadian French.