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A Brief History Of Canadian French

Québécois, the variant of French most commonly spoken in North America, possesses its own characteristics as a result of its fascinating history far removed from its European roots. Here is a portrait of the language and its evolution.

In Quebec, French is the mother tongue of around 7.3 million people, which accounts for almost 80% of the population (a further 8% are English-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 Quebec was the same as the French spoken in France then you couldn’t be more wrong. Quebec French, or québécois as it is known, possesses its own unique characteristics and words that are a testament to its own fascinating 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 even try your hand at a few juicy québécois words and phrases too!

New France and the domination of English

After the first exploration of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence by Jacques Cartier 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 (in France, under the ancien Régime, French was only spoken by a third of the population). But after the capture of Quebec and Montreal by the British, New France was ceded to the British crown in 1763. The French elite quit the province, exchanges with the continent ceased and teaching of the language declined. The Canadian Confederation was created in 1767 and, from then on, politics and the economy were ruled by the English-speaking minority.

The French spoken in Canada, which had been identical to Parisian French, started to evolve independently, mainly in an oral form. 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, it would give rise to joual — the derogatory term was initially a corruption of parler cheval, or to "to talk horse" — the working-class French of Montreal, 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 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; for example, the Office of the French Language worked with university researchers to create standards and to produce 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 started in the middle of the 19th century and intensified over the next 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 pronounced. 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 the theatre, such as Michel Tremblay, started writing plays in québécois; gradually, the conventions of spoken québécois became accepted in literature, cinema and the media.

Say what?

When speaking in québécois, personal and demonstrative pronouns often get elided 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. 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, they’ll 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, instead of reading about voiceless alveolar affricates, 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.

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.

Language, history’s dance partner

Over the course of the centuries québécois has made certain choices, like taking soulier instead of chaussure for "shoe." Like all languages, québécois is a socio-historical vector that reflects the passage of time and its historical contexts. Some archaisms echo the concerns of the colonists from the north-west of France, such as maritime vocabulary. One can embarquer dans une voiture ("embark in a car") or couler un examen (literally, to "sink" or fail an exam), expressions that probably have their roots in the seafaring culture of Brittany. 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, câlisse, hostie or tabarnak (sacred Christ, chalice, host and tabernacle, respectively) will land you in a whole heap of merde if you use them in the wrong contexts. They’re a reflection of the powerful and repressive role of the Church in Quebec 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 means "email", pourriel is "spam", baladodiffusion is "podcasting" (no, me neither), a skateboard is un rouli-roulant and clavarder means "to chat". Paradoxically, québécois is 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, to name a few.

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