We asked John McEvoy, who is taking part in the British Council's English Language Assistant programme in Québec, how Québecois French differs from the French spoken in France.
What are the historical differences?
Denis Diderot, a celebrated Enlightenment philosopher during the 18th century, wrote that French is the language ‘le plus propre aux sciences’ (best suited to science); a language that ‘le bon sens choisiroit’ (common sense would choose).
His view that French was a lucid and prestigious language was not new within France. In 1635, Cardinal Richelieu (the chief minister to King Louis XIII) founded the Académie française 'to work with all possible care and diligence to give our language certain rules, and to render it pure, eloquent, and able to deal with the arts and sciences.’ The Academy's Perpetual Secretary, Maurice Druon, explained that: 'We do our best to induce a sense of sin in those who maltreat the French language.' These efforts encouraged the distinction between a pure, standard French and the other regional dialects of the time.
Why did French develop differently in Québec?
Things were different in Québec with regard to the perception of French. The early colonisers of modern-day North America during the 16th and 17th centuries had more pressing concerns than setting out rules for communication: namely cultivating food, establishing settlements, and surviving a bitter winter that lasts roughly half of the year. Unlike in France, where deviation from the prescribed standard French might have been seen as linguistic corruption, Québec may have been less troubled by variations in how people communicated.
Cultural perceptions of French differed between both regions, and soon the way people spoke did too. In 1763, following the Seven Years’ War, France ceded to Britain all of its territories in mainland North America. Once within the British Empire, Québec became isolated from the rest of the Francophone world. As a result, the French spoken in Québec followed its own unique trajectory. Some thirty years later, in 1791, the Constitutional Act carved Canada into two legal linguistic communities: upper Canada (English) and lower Canada (French).
Today, Canada is an officially bilingual country in which Anglophones outnumber Francophones. The Québécois are, as a linguistic minority, inclined to prioritise their language’s existence over its purity. Any attempt by learners to speak French, no matter how inexpertly, is therefore likely to be appreciated as a helpful nudge towards the survival of the language in North America.
How does Québécois French today differ from that spoken in France?
If you were to read formal emails from both a Québecker and somebody from France, you might not be able to decipher who was who (unless, in fact, they used the word 'email’: in France, ‘mél’ is the officially-recommended term; in Québec, you will find the expression ‘courriel’).
Both observe the same grammar and share much of the same lexicon. However, the Québécois often borrow words and phrases from their English-speaking neighbours. For example, ‘je vais aller parker le char’ (pronounced 'shar' rather than 'car') can be understood by most Anglophones, even with little comprehension of French. Similarly, if you were to see your partner ‘cruiser’ (flirt with) or even ‘necker’ (nuzzle or kiss) someone, they may indeed find themselves ‘dompé’ (dumped).
The grammatical path taken by Québécois French can often be seen in the direct English translation of a phrase. ‘Retomber en amour’ after a heartbreak, for instance, can easily be traced to the ‘(re-)falling in love’ found in English. The Parisian French would opt for ‘être amoureux/se’ - synonymous, but expressed in a quintessentially French manner.
Québec’s Anglophone neighbours may have also influenced the usages of ‘tu’ and ‘vous’. For those whose native language does not differentiate between a formal and an informal ‘you’, deciding which to use can be a relatively intense affair. I will forever be haunted by the piercing glance of a Toulousain university professor after unthinkingly addressing him with the more intimate and casual ‘tu’. In Québec, less importance is placed on this distinction.
The most remarkable difference is in pronunciation – so much so that, when spoken, Canadian and European French are not always mutually intelligible. As I am from Birmingham (a separately persecuted linguistic community), it seems apt to begin with vowels. According to linguists, Québecois French has a greater number of vowel sounds than that of Paris – perhaps over fifteen in total. These can be found, for example, when a Québecois replaces the sounds ‘mwa’ and ‘twa’ (me and you) with ‘moé’ and ‘toé’.
This greater variation in vowel sounds is a sign of the preserved aristocratic tongue of Québec's early colonisers. Because it was already cut off from the Francophone community in 1789, Québec missed the ‘phonetic revolution’ which occurred alongside the French Revolution: when the new French order replaced the old, the manner of speaking changed too. Elements of the accent of the pre-revolution elite consequently remain in Québec today. Old-fashioned pronunciations are heard, for example, when a Québecker says ‘il fait frette’ in place of ‘il fait froid' (it’s cold). You might often require ‘un mouchouér’ (handkerchief) for a winter cold.
Eventually, one must attend to the matter of swearing. In Québec, a swear word is called ‘un sacre’, owing to the region’s historic relationship with the Catholic Church. In France, the crow of a cockerel might herald a new day. But in Québec, you are more likely to hear a dawn chorus of early risers determinedly clearing the snow from their driveways, with grumbles of ‘Tabarouette!’ (a softened version of ‘tabarnacle’); ‘Câline!’ (a softened version of ‘chalice’); or ‘Seigneur!’ (‘Lord’) – among many others.
Every year, around 2,500 language assistants from the UK teach English in 14 countries around the world.