If you're learning French, you will probably be learning “standard French” – also known as “Metropolitan French” – based on the language of Paris, rather than a regional French variety.
However, if you travel to other parts of the country, you'll need to be able to understand what people are saying there, too.
French is spoken around the world in many forms. But even within France itself, many varieties of regional French exist.
In fact, there are no fewer than 28 distinct French accents. And that doesn’t include the 45 regional languages and dialects that you can hear around the country.
To help, here’s an introduction to eight of the most distinctive French regional accents you’re likely to encounter. Come join me on a tour of France through accents.
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A Very Brief History Of French
To understand the accents of France, first, you need to know a bit about the history of the French language. In the past, not everyone in France spoke French. People in different parts of the country spoke a wide range of languages and dialects, some closely related to modern French and others not at all.
To simplify things, in the north, people mostly spoke languages belonging to a group known as the langues d’oïl. While in the south they spoke a related group of languages called the langues d’òc.
The langues d’òc included languages like Occitan and Provencal, which I’ll tell you about in a second. Modern French is descended from the langues d’oïl dialect that was spoken in Paris, which, after the French Revolution, gradually established itself as the national language.
Incidentally, oïl and òc were the words for ‘yes’ in the respective languages – and oïl eventually became the oui of the French we speak today.
Regional French: Languages, Dialects & Accents Of France
There is some argument over what constitutes a language and what constitutes a dialect.
One famous definition states that a language is a ‘dialect with an army and a navy’, something that is reflected in the way the Paris dialect, the language of the capital, became the dominant language of France.
You don’t need to worry about the language vs dialect debate. What concerns us here is the different accents people have when they speak French.
By that, I mostly mean the variations in pronunciation – as well as perhaps one or two particular turns of phrase you are likely to hear in certain regions.
Something like Occitan – which is still spoken today – is a separate language. And in this post, I'm not talking about how to speak Occitan.
However, in areas where Occitan was once common, it had an effect on the way people there pronounce French. And this is what I'm interested in here, as you'll soon see.
So now let’s have a look at eight of the regional French accents that you're likely to come across, even as a French learner.
#1 Parisian French
Of the accents of France, the Paris accent is perhaps the hardest to nail down. And that’s because Parisian French is considered “standard French” – or French without an accent.
Also, not every Parisian speaks the same way (just think how many accents there are in London). So is there anything we can call a specifically Parisian accent as opposed to the standard accent-less French spoken everywhere? Possibly.
Parisians often speak very fast. And many of the sounds are swallowed, blend into each other or become shortened: je ne vais pas y aller (I'm not going to go there) becomes j'vais pas y’aller. Parisians also tend to use more anglicisms than elsewhere in France.
However, since “Metropolitan French”, “standard French” and “Parisian French” are now practically synonymous, it can sometimes be hard to identify someone as a Parisian just from their accent.
Another Parisian accent known as le titi parisien has now all but disappeared. But you may still hear it in old films. Titi parisien translates as ‘Parisian street urchin’, and it was once common among those who grew up in some of the poorer neighbourhoods of the city.
An example of this accent comes from the classic 1938 film Hôtel du Nord when actress Arletty famously exclaims Atmosphère! Atmosphère! Click here to listen to her unmistakable titi parisien pronunciation of the ‘è’ sound!
However, you are very unlikely to hear anyone speaking like this nowadays.
#2 Meridional French
Meridional French is the French spoken in the south of France, especially in the south-west where Occitan was once the predominant language. French spoken with the Meridional accent sounds similar to Spanish or Catalan.
This not surprising since Occitan is very closely related to Catalan. Before, they were even considered to be dialects of the same language. Click here to hear an example of spoken Occitan.
There are a couple of distinctive sounds that will quickly tell you a speaker is from the south-west. For example, you will quickly notice that nasal vowels acquire a ‘g’ sound, so vin (wine) and pain (bread) sound like “ving” and “ping”.
Another sound that’s pronounced differently is –ien, as in bien (well, good). In the south-west, bien is pronounced more like the Spanish bien – but again, with a subtle ‘g’ sound on the end. The ‘r’ is also closer to a Spanish ‘r’ than the ‘r’ of standard French.
Also listen out for the e caduc, the ‘e’ at the end of many words that is silent in standard French. In the south-west, it is often pronounced – so, for example, Coupe du Monde (World Cup) becomes ‘cou-puh du mon-duh’.
The Marseille accent can be heard in the south-eastern city of Marseille and the surrounding area.
It sounds similar to Meridional French but is spoken in the areas where Provencal was once common. To hear spoken Provencal, click here.
As with the south-western accent, speakers in the south-east add a ‘g’ sound to nasal vowels. In Marseille, vin is pronounced more like “vaing” – and pain is pronounced to rhyme with it.
You will also hear people pronouncing the e caduc. And Marseille speech is characterised by a rhythmical sing-song melody.
The accent you'll hear in Lyon has been influenced by Arpitan (also known as Franco-Provencal), a language closely related to Occitan and Provencal.
The difference between le parler lyonnais (the Lyon accent) and standard French is not as noticeable as further south, although there is a more pronounced difference between open and closed vowels than in standard French.
For example, the Lyon accent distinguishes between haute (high) and hôte (host), whereas in standard French, the difference is minimal.
However, you will notice the biggest difference in some local expressions. The most famous of these is the tendency to use the pronoun y where standard French uses le or la.
So, for example, in most of France, you would normally hear je le sais (I know it). But in Lyon, you're just as likely to hear j’y sais.
Having said that, not everyone speaks like this – younger speakers, as well as those with higher levels of education, are less likely to use these forms.
One of the most famous regional accents comes from Hauts-de-France in the far north, an administrative region encompassing the former regions of Picardy and Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
The local Picard language, also known as Chtimi or Chti, which came to prominence after the release of the 2008 film Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis, heavily influences the French in this region.
The English title of the film was loosely translated as “Welcome to the Sticks”. And it tells the story of a postal worker from the Marseille area who is sent to work in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais as a punishment.
There, he has to deal with the locals and their impenetrable accent – with hilarious results.
Chti pronunciation can be difficult to comprehend at first. Notably, the ‘s’ sound is pronounced like the ‘ch’ of standard French – so les siens (theirs) sounds like les chiens (the dogs).
The French ‘ç’ sound is also pronounced like the ‘ch’ of regular French. So ça (that) sounds like chat (cat). With this in mind, you can probably imagine the humorous mix-ups that are possible!
Brittany is the region comprising the north-western tip of mainland France. And the original language spoken there was Breton.
This is a language most closely related to languages like Cornish or Welsh. And the French spoken there today shows influences from this language. The locals have their own distinctive pronunciation. But you're more likely to notice the slightly eccentric syntax or word order.
For example, the subject is often placed at the beginning of a sentence, followed by everything else – as in ton ami, tu l’as vu? Literally, this would be “‘your friend, have you seen him?”
You may also hear people using demonstrative pronouns instead of personal pronouns when talking about people – instead of elle est méchante (she’s nasty), you might encounter celle-là est méchante (that one is nasty).
In many regions of France, you'll hear people using peculiar or unusual turns of phrase like this. And the way French is spoken in Brittany is a good example.
Alsace is the part of France that borders Germany. And down the years, the territory has changed hands between the two countries several times. The local language, Alsatian, is a dialect of German. And unsurprisingly, the French spoken there shows a strong Germanic influence.
The stress is often placed on the first syllable of the word, unlike in standard French, giving it a different kind of musicality from the kind of French you might be used to hearing.
Other sounds are pronounced more as they would be in German. For example, the ‘j’ in je can sometimes sound closer to the ‘j’ in the German ja.
There are also many expressions that come from German – as well as some local creations that combine elements of both languages. For example, ça geht’s? is a combination of French ça va? and German wie geht’s? This is a local way of asking “how are you?”
Corsica, France’s Mediterranean island that lies just next to Italy’s Sardinia, has its own distinctive regional accent.
The Corsican language is closely related to Italian. And although fewer and fewer people now speak it as their first language, it has had a significant effect on the local version of French.
Corsican French sounds something like a cross between Marseille French and Italian. Or perhaps you could describe it as sounding like an Italian speaking French with a strong accent.
Among other differences, you will hear the pronunciation of the e caduc and an ‘r’ that is more like Spanish or Italian.
Also, the contracted form of tu es (you are) comes out as t’ies instead of t’es. And an à (in, at, to) is added to express seeing a person – as in J’ai vu à Jean (I saw Jean).
A Rich Patchwork Of Regional French Accents
If you’ve only ever learnt French in school, you might be surprised by the amount of regional variation there is in the language, not to mention the number of other languages that are still spoken in every corner of the land.
Since Metropolitan “standard” French is the language that everyone understands, that is the one you should try to imitate. It's also the one you're most likely to come across as a French learner in your learning materials.
But at the same time, try to expose yourself to as many varieties of spoken French as you can to give yourself the best chance of understanding what is said, whoever you find yourself speaking to.
Over to you – what's your favourite regional French accent? Which ones do you find easiest or hardest to understand? Let me know in a comment below.