HomeBBC NEWSTravelThe royal roots of Quebec's French

    The royal roots of Quebec’s French


    Quebec French has long been ridiculed for its gruff sound, but this version of the language was more likely spoken by 17th-century French aristocrats – including the king.

    As we reminisced, the sounds of the local accent drifted around us – and I was reminded of something I heard recently: While the French spoken in Quebec may not sound as romantic or sweet as contemporary Parisian French, now considered the gold standard, the way Quebecers speak is actually closer to the way 17th century aristocrats and even kings The French language used by the nobility and even kings of the 17th century.

    I grew up in Montreal in the 1960s and 70s, when English speakers and French people from France mocked the coarse pronunciation of Quebec French, comparing it to the quacking of ducks. In French immersion schools, I myself was always very embarrassed in the company of my English-speaking classmates. So-called experts from France and Morocco and my teachers said that the easy Quebec pronunciation was shameful and that it made a mockery of Molière’s language.

    As it turns out, the famous 17th century playwright probably sounded more like a modern Quebecer than they knew – not a contemporary Parisian.

    I really hesitated a few weeks ago when someone told me about this over lunch at a café in North Hartley, a quaint village in a small town in the eastern part of the mountains southeast of Montreal. I know that Quebec French retains many traces of “le français du roy” or “the King’s French”, especially in its vocabulary, but I draw the line at pronunciation. “Louis XIV could not have said ‘paw, look’, or ‘toé et moé’!” I said incredulously, as I compared these to the more commonly accepted pronunciations of pas, voilà, and toi et moi.

    But there are logical linguistic and historical reasons why Quebecois French differs from French French (what linguists call “canonical” or “neutral” French).

    Molière and Louis XIV spoke French that likely sounded more like a modern-day Quebecois (Credit: Getty)

    “The one thing that characterizes Quebec French is its rhythm,” says Chantal Bouchard, a sociolinguist in the French department at McGill University in Montreal and author of Méchante Language: La Légitimite Linquistique du Français Parlé au Quebéc (Chantal Bouchard, author of Méchante Language: La Légitimite Linquistique du Français Parlé au Quebéc, says of the legitimacy of spoken French in Quebec). “We in Quebec have preserved something of 17th-century French: the distinction between long vowels and short vowels.”

    She gives the example of the ai/ê vowel. If you say vous faites (“you do/make”), the Quebec vowel is short (as in “get”), but if you say la fête (“party “), the vowel is long (as in “hey”).

    “The French don’t retain this short/long vowel difference,” she explains. “They still spell faites and fête differently, but they pronounce them the same way.”

    Claude Poirier, a historian of Quebec French at Université Laval in Quebec City, spent a lot of time studying 17th-century archival documents to determine whether the spelling of certain words could give us an idea of how they were pronounced. He found that in a 1658 court decree, a lawyer who came to Quebec from Poitou in west-central France “spelled perdre (‘lose’) as pardre, which is closer to how some people in Quebec still pronounce the word. Another example he found was the word devoir (“must” or “obligated”). It is spelled devour and pronounced devou-air, he says, and many older Quebecers still pronounce it that way today.

    Quebecois French has retained many vestiges of “le français du roy” or “the king’s French” (Credit: Getty)

    Another major difference is the vocabulary. Words such as char for “car”; piasse, slang for “dollar”; dispendieux for “expensive”; patate for “potato”; and barré for “lock” rather than the canonical French fermé à clef (“to close with a key”) all have their origins in a more Both originate from a more archaic French language that is no longer used in France.

    How, then, does the Quebec version retain more 17th-century aristocratic relics than the recognized French language seat of Paris?

    Both Bouchard and Poirier point out that the French settlers who immigrated to Quebec (then known as New France) in the 16th and 17th centuries tended to be natives of northern and western France. With the exception of royalty and nobility, only one-third of the people in France at the time spoke French. The rest spoke their regional languages, such as Breton, Provençal or Norman.

    In New France, however, there was a concerted effort to teach the newcomers French – the version spoken at court by the northern and western aristocracy. As a result, aristocratic French became generalized among the settlers. In the mid-1700s, the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville even wrote that “the Canadian accent is as pure as that of the Parisians.

    But everything began to change in 1759, when France lost its colony to Britain at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. The ties between France and New France broke down, and with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, a large part of the elite returned to Europe.

    The French Revolution brought about even more dramatic changes, severing the ties between the mother country and its former colonies for another four years.

    “It seems more like Old France lives on in Canada, and that it is our country [France] which is the new one”

    During this period of alienation, according to Poirier, French scholars began to vigorously promote the use of French and regulate its grammar and pronunciation. “The bourgeoisie discarded all pronunciations they considered imperfect and continued to purify them throughout the 18th century,” he says.

    In short, French changed in France, while it remained largely unchanged in Quebec. “Quebecers are conservatives,” Poirier says. “They kept the French language as it was spoken in the ‘old system’.”

    By about 1830, when the French again began to travel to Quebec (then known as Lower Canada), the differences had become extreme. when the famous French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831, he wrote in a letter to his mother, “Canada has aroused our curiosity. The French nation has always been preserved there. Thus one can observe the customs and language of the time of Louis XIV. reign.” In another letter, he admitted: “It looks more like the old France lives in Canada, and our country (France) is the new one.”

    Perceptions have changed a lot over the past 10 to 20 years as a huge influx of French expats has arrived, particularly to Montreal and Quebec City (Credit: Elizabeth Warkentin)

    While some YouTube users still make fun of Quebec accents, perceptions have changed considerably over the past 10 to 20 years with the influx of French expatriates, particularly in Montreal and Quebec City. Marielle Lumineau and her sister Irène Lumineau moved to Quebec from France 20 and 16 years ago, respectively, and have worked for “Marielle says the duo has mastered some Quebec accents and variations, and their children, ranging in age from 7 to 16, are “totally Quebecois. Younger generations in France, Belgium and French-speaking Switzerland have also picked up the accent. What’s more, Quebec films have won prestigious César awards at Cannes, and Quebec comedians like Sugar Sammy are in high demand on the French stage.

    The French language and pride in Quebecois identity have really come a long way. “The French language is at the heart of Quebec identity,” says Bouchard. “We’ve made a lot of progress since the 1960s in terms of the use of French in public spaces, French as a lingua franca, the right to work in French, the number of people here who are fluent in French, but it’s still very fragile.”

    Indeed, many people here remain self-conscious about the way they speak. But Dominique Chouinard, a former French teacher in Montreal who now works as a course consultant for other French teachers, wants to end that attitude. “French is full of idiosyncrasies – each country in the French-speaking world has its own characteristics,” she says. “Some immigrants from France and francophone countries like Morocco insist that their children don’t speak Quebecois French and that they are just snobs. We need to stop blaming ourselves for that. We need to stop thinking we don’t speak French.” Speak proper French.”

    Latest articles

    House price squeeze: ‘I bid dozens of times but lost’

    As U.S. home prices soar at a record pace, the American dream is becoming...

    Jean-Luc Godard: Nine things about the man who remade cinema

    Jean-Luc Godard, who died at the age of 91, was one of the most...

    ‘Captain’ Gallagher: The legend of Ireland’s ‘Highwaymen’

    As Ireland prepares for its 100th anniversary of independence, a little-known robber - and...

    Twitter shareholders approve $44bn Musk deal

    Twitter's shareholders voted to approve a deal with Elon Musk to buy the company...