French Tone Rules and Structures


David Le Gac (Rouen)


This paper proposes a phonological model of focus and topic intonation in French declarative and interrogative sentences.


We will assume that the focus is defined in terms of the discourse notion of presupposition: the focus is the nonpresupposed part of the sentence, preceded by the morpheme “c’est” (‘c’est-cleft’ constructions 0). Thus, the sequence “c’est Valérie” is the focus of the sentence (1b), answer to a question such as (1)a. The other elements are the presupposed parts of the sentence and will be defined as the topics of the sentence.





à l'école


l'a grondé














à l'école

c'est Valérie

qui l'a grondé





at school

it is Valérie

who scowled him




Following 0’s notation of intonation, sentence (1b) presents the following intonative tones (Figure 1): the last syllable of the focus is characterized by a LOW tone preceded by a HIGH tone (see also 000), an LH pattern is found on the pre-focal topics and the post-focal topics are characterized by steadily declining low tones (L¯…L¯) 00.


Figure 1

In French, a sentence like (1b) can express a Yes-No question as well: the syntactic structure remains unchanged, and the modality is only conveyed by the intonation. In this case, we observe the INVERTED tone sequences of declarative utterances (Figure 2): the sequence “c’est Valérie” is now characterized by a final HIGH tone preceded by a LOW one, the pre-focal topics are marked by LOW tones, and declining HIGH tones appear on the post-focal topics (H¯…H¯).


Figure 2


In order to account for the intonation of both declarative and interrogative sentences, we will argue for a hierarchical intonative structure with three intonative units (cf. figure 3): the intonative word (IW), the intonative phrase (IP) and the intonative sentence (IS). We will also claim that the IP containing the focus is the HEAD of the intonative structure (IP*).


Following 0’s general framework, we assume that the intonative units are associated with tones. However, the tones associated with IWs and IPs are not specified in this level of representation. Only the tone associated with the IS is specified according to the modality of the sentence: a low tone in declarative sentences and a high tone in Yes-No questions (figure 4). As the head of the sentence, the focus attracts the IS-tone which links to the final syllable of the focus. Furthermore, we claim that the focus governs the realization of ALL the tones associated with the IPs according to two oriented rules (figure 3): the first rule applies from right to left and implies TONE INVERSION, the second rule applies from left to right and implies a process of TONE COPY and LOWERING.

Thus, the IS LOW tone linked to the focus in declarative sentences generates the HIGH tones of the pre-focal and focal IPs. Conversely, the IS HIGH tone in Yes-No questions generates LOW tones on the pre-focal and focal IPs. Following the second rule, the IS low or high tone is iteratively copied and lowered from the left adjacent focus to the post-focal topics.


Finally, to account for the surface tonal string as a whole, we will show that tone inversion rule not only applies between the focus and the topics but also within IPs and generates secondary high or low tones.


Figure 3

Figure 4




{1} Di Cristo A. (1999), "Le cadre accentuel du français contemporain : essai de modélisation : deuxième partie" in Langues vol.2 n° 4 pp.258-267

{2} Lambrecht K. (1994), Information structure and sentence form : Topique, focus and the mental representations of discourse referents, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 71, Cambridge University Press

{3} Martin P. (1981), "Pour une théorie de l'intonation" in Rossi et al. L'intonation, de l'acoustique à la sémantique, Paris, Klincksieck

{4} Pierrehumbert J. & M. Beckman (1988), Japanese Tone Structure, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

{5} Rossi M. (1999), L’intonation, le système du français : description et modélisation, Paris, Ophrys