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A Brief History Of Québécois (a.k.a. Canadian French)

Québécois, the variant of French spoken in Québec, has its own unique characteristics as a result of its fascinating history far removed from its European roots. Here’s a portrait of the language and its evolution.
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A Brief History Of Québécois (a.k.a. Canadian French)

Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.

In Québec, French is the mother tongue of around 7.3 million people, which makes up almost 80% of the population (a further 8% are English native speakers, and 12% are classified as “allophones,” meaning they speak a language other than French or English). But if you thought that the French spoken in Québec was the same as the French spoken in France then you couldn’t be more wrong. Québec French, or québécois, possesses its own unique characteristics and words that are a testament to its separate history. Let’s take a look at how québécois evolved throughout the centuries to become the language it is today, and if you’re feeling inspired, you can try your hand at a few juicy québécois words and phrases too!

New France And English Domination

After the first exploration of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in 1534, France laid claim to what we now know as Canada and quickly established a thriving colony. French was imposed as the lingua franca to the detriment of local dialects. But after the capture of Québec and Montreal by the British, New France was ceded to the British crown in 1763. The French elite left the province, trade with the continent ceased and the teaching of French declined. The Canadian Confederation was created in 1867 and, from then on, politics and the economy were ruled by the English-speaking minority.

This where the French spoken in Canada, which had been identical to Parisian French, started to evolve independently. At the end of the 19th century, industrialization led much of the rural population to move to the (predominantly English-speaking) cities. Common French speech began to mingle with English. In time, this would give rise to joual — the derogatory term was initially a corruption of parler cheval, or to “to talk horse” — which we now call québécois.

Political Recognition In The 20th century

In the 1960s, the uprising known as the Quiet Revolution led to great social and political change, and language was at the heart of the debate. In 1974, French became the official language of Québec and was adopted in the fields of labor, commerce, administration and education. The Charter of the French Language, also known as Bill 101, was passed in 1977. Various institutions were created, like the Office of the French Language, which worked with university researchers to create standards for québécois. They also produced numerous lexicographical works, such as a database of grammar and language tips called the Banque de dépannage linguistique, and a terminology hotline service.

En garde! Linguistic Debate And Evolution

Dissent over the forms of French in Quebec began in the middle of the 19th century and intensified over the following hundred years. Some felt that québécois should align itself with the French spoken in France, arguing that the archaisms and anglicisms of the popular tongue were simply wrong — the gap between spoken and written language was already sufficiently obvious. Up to the end of the 1970s, Radio-Canada, the public broadcaster of Quebec, was still trying to establish a “correct” standard of French. But the clock was ticking on elitist attitudes towards québécois:  Important figures in theater, such as Michel Tremblay, started writing plays in Candian French.  Gradually, the conventions of spoken québécois became accepted in literature, cinema and the media.

What Are Some Examples of Québécois?

When speaking in québécois, personal and demonstrative pronouns often get merged with the verb. Je suis becomes chu (I am), il becomes y, elle is a, je vais slips into j’va or m’a, and cette contracts neatly into c’te. This pronunciation, which was used in 18th century France, is still used in popular French today and in certain dialects.

Meanwhile, pronouns are generally doubled: Quand est-ce que vous venez, vous autres ? sounds a bit like “When are you coming, you guys?” — except that they lop the endings off, so you get vous aut’ and c’est correc’. Just for fun, many speakers occasionally add an extra “you” into a question like c’est tu fini? (literally: “Is it you finished?”).

If you want to get a flavor of the pronunciation, treat yourself to the bent delights of independent québécois filmmakers like Denis Côté or Xavier Dolan, or enjoy some short sketches like Têtes à claques, Appendices or Solange te parle.

And a personal confession: When I first heard two travelers speaking québécois, I couldn’t keep the look of incredulity off my face. Surely, I thought, no one actually speaks like this! Nothing reveals our deep-seated biases quicker than a radically different accent.

What About Québécois Expressions?

Like all languages, québécois reflects the passage of time and its historical contexts. Some sayings mirror the concerns of the colonists from Northwest France, such as maritime vocabulary. One can embarquer dans une voiture (embark in a car) or couler un examen (literally, to “sink” an exam, meaning to fail), for example.

The climate has also given rise to some appropriate expressions, such as Accroche ta tuque avec une broche! (Fix your beanie with a buckle!) — a warning to get ready to run, to buckle up or to stay sharp. Another delightful québécois speciality is using sacre to curse: A sacre crisse (sacred Christ), câlisse (chalice), hostie (host) or tabarnak (tabernacle) will land you in a whole heap of merde if you use them in the wrong situation. They’re a reflection of the repressive role of the Church in Québec society from the 17th century until the Quiet Revolution.

The Thorny Question Of Anglicisms

For obvious historical and geographical reasons, québécois is filled with anglicisms, and often quite old ones. Since the 1970s, English terms have been translated in a quasi-systematized fashion: courriel is “email,” pourriel is “spam,” baladodiffusion is “podcasting,” a skateboard is a rouli-roulant and clavarder means “to chat.” Paradoxically, québécois is also stuffed with anglicisms in current usage. You’ll hear C’est une bonne place, être dans le trouble, bienvenue! (“welcome,” used in response to “thank you”), oh boy!, cute, y est fucké! (a good first phrase to learn), watcher and truster, just to name a few.

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Julie Piérart
Julie Piérart grew up in a multicultural metropolis of 374 inhabitants in northern France. She completed her studies in French Literature and Art History in Germany. Passionate about dance and cinema, she contributed to the French cultural magazine Berlin Poche for five years.
Julie Piérart grew up in a multicultural metropolis of 374 inhabitants in northern France. She completed her studies in French Literature and Art History in Germany. Passionate about dance and cinema, she contributed to the French cultural magazine Berlin Poche for five years.