The Peculiar French of Quebec

Montreal sports the second largest French-speaking population of any city besides Paris.  Yet the French spoken by natives of Quebec differs markedly from standard French.  Residents of Quebec have noticeable accents; so strong that in some cases those from France itself have trouble deciphering the local accent and patois.  Quebecois films often sport two sets of French subtitles: Quebecois French, and the translation into standard French.

For many Quebecois, these differences add to the complexity of their relationship with language, compounding the already contentious relationship with their English-speaking neighbors and creating a sort of double inferiority complex when it comes to language.  As the minority language within Canada, Quebec’s defenders of the French language have taken a militant stance towards maintaining the integrity of the French language and prevent the encroachment of English into daily life.  This has often been an uphill battle, especially with English necessary to travel and work outside the province of Quebec.  Add to that the idea that Quebecois French represents a deviation of the norm from standard French, and one can understand why some Quebecois adopt a defensive stance toward their language.

In some cases, Quebecois French and standard French differ little.  Quebecois French tends to collapse words together, relying more on contractions than would regular French.  Quebecois French speakers also tend to speak more from the back of the mouth than from the front, as would a speaker trained in standard, international French.  The Quebecois, as one native French woman told me, “swallow their words.”

Quebecois vocabulary also differs substantially from French proper.  In formal language, Quebecois French borrows fewer new words from English, as does French proper, preferring instead to come up with neologisms to avoid capitulating to the historical power hierarchy of English in Quebec.  France, with no history of English rule, lacks the same source of hesitancy.  Quebec French, as a testament of Quebec’s long separation from France, also tends to use older forms of French more relevant in the eighteenth and seventeenth century than the twentieth to twenty-first century.  Many obscenities and profanities in Quebecois French draw from the language of the Catholic Church, or relate to particular religious themes, a holdover from pre-Revolutionary French society, where the Church had far more influence in day-to-day life.

In the area around Montreal, one can find a number of speakers of the joual, one of the most distinctive dialects of Quebecois French. Most particularly associated with the working-class suburbs of Montreal, some deride the language as an uneducated corruption of proper French, while others have celebrated it as a symbol of a distinctive national identity.  Speakers of standard French have great difficulty in understanding this form of French, insofar as its speakers have heavy accents, and often use contractions and pronunciations unrecognizable in standard French, as well as non-standard word order and sentence structure.

The presence of the many varieties of French in Quebec, as well as the historical nature of the language, make it a fascinating linguistic study, especially for anyone interested in history.  Paying close attention to the way that the Quebecois language functions, as well as the terms that it uses provide insight into the historical evolution of language, as well as hos the province’s history has influenced the way in which its residents communicate.  It also serves as a constant reminder of how distinct Quebec remains within both Canada, as well as the francophone world.  Small wonder, perhaps, that many Quebecois have strong opinions about language.

Comments are closed.