Written by Kaleb Houle-Lawrence – high school Intern
Thank you to Henri Vaillancourt, native French speaker and student of the language’s origins, for his insights which formed the basis of this blog.
The French language has a long history in North America, stretching from the colonial periods of the US and Canada up until the present day. But in North America, there are distinct differences to the dialects of French, separating it from the French spoken in France. In fact, the French of North America is diverse in itself, spread out across Canada and the US with a variety of dialects, which fall into four major groups: Québécois, Acadian, Cajun, and Métis. These four groups are all distinct in their own manner, with complexities and nuances within the vocabulary and expressions, yet they are still the same language at heart. To learn more about dialects, I spoke with Henri Vaillancourt, a lifelong French speaker and learner. Henri graciously spent well over an hour speaking with me, and we discussed dialects in a manner that brought light to the topic. One of Henri’s greatest passions is learning about French dialects, a topic to which he has dedicated many years of his life (to learn more, join him and Robert Perreault on Thursday, March 18th at 7pm).
Perhaps the most well known French dialects in Canada is Québécois, which has a long history itself. In the 1960s, Henri explained, the Québécois dialect experienced a large movement to modernize the dialect and close the growing divide between European French and Québécois. This led to French being declared the official language of Québec in 1974. Around this time was when the main Québécois dialect diverged from the New England Québécois dialect. According to Henri, the New England dialect is based in the old Québécois and Acadian words and dialects. Geographically, the Québécois dialect is concentrated in the central areas of Canada, stretching a bit west and south into New England. As a group of dialects, the Québécois dialects dominate the regions of the Québec province, the Gaspé peninsula, and New England, Henri noted. Since the Québécois dialect borders English-speaking nations, it has more exchanges of words and phrases with English-speaking neighbors. This often results in a mixing of various words and phrases between the two languages. Henri highlighted that the dialect also retains many regional phrases which have been phased out of regular use in other parts of the French-speaking world.
Québécois French also differs from Standard French in a few key areas. Often, Québécois speakers pay more attention to open and long vowels, exaggerating them to make clear distinctions. Some Québécois speakers also use the word tu (traditionally being the 2nd-person pronoun, you) as a yes-or-no question marker. For example, in Québécois French, one may say “C’est-tu prêt?” (Is it ready?), while the Standard French version is “C’est prêt?; here, the word tu is simply being used as a question marker, not a pronoun. Another example of differences is the pronoun il (he), which becomes shortened to y in Québécois. The pronoun elle (she) becomes a in Québécois, except when contracted with some verbs. Henri highlighted another distinction made by some speakers in Québec and the Québécois diaspora is retention of the older French words moé and toé as opposed to moi (me) and toi (you). This video also highlights some major differences, including some of the above examples. One of the most interesting examples that Henri gave was asteur (which is also used in Cajun and Acadian dialects). Asteur, meaning now, is a shortened form of à cette heure (at this hour). In Standard French, maintenant is the word used for now. The word frette (cold) can replace froid in Québécois. Sometimes, consonants are added to the ends of words. For example, ici (here) becomes icitte. Contracting several words into one like that is a common thread through the Québécois dialect, most notably occurring in contractions of sûr. Sûr (about or on) gets contracted into s’a (sûr la; on/about it, feminine) and s’es (sûr les; on/about it, plural).
Comparing the Dialects
|Standard French||Yup||Québécois Dialect|
|Tu – you (2nd person, singular pronoun)||Tu – 2nd person, singular pronoun & yes/no question marker|
|Elle – she (3rd person, singular, feminine pronoun)
Il – he (3rd person, singular, masculine pronoun)
|A – she (3rd person, singular, feminine pronoun)
Y – he (3rd person, singular, masculine pronoun)
|Moi – me (1st person, singular stress pronoun)
Toi – you (2nd person, singular stress pronoun)
|Moé – me (1st person, singular stress pronoun)
Toé – you (2nd person, singular stress pronoun)
|Sûr La – on/about it (singular, feminine)
Sûr Les – on/about it (plural)
|S’a – on/about it (singular, feminine)
S’es – on/about it (plural)
|Maintenant – now
Froid – cold
Ici – here
|Asteur – now (from a contraction of à cette heure)
Frette – cold
Icitte – here
Another interesting fact about the Québécois dialect is where it originated from in France. In France, there are two main groups of dialects: Langues d’oïl and Langues d’oc. Langues d’oïl are most prominent in the Northern and Western sections of France, where most of the French immigrants originated from. This group of French dialects was what spawned the dialect of Québécois meaning that it is, essentially a variation of a variation. The map of the origins of settlers in New France shows just how lopsided the distribution was, and how more than 90% of New France settlers came from a region speaking the Langues d’oïl. Once they arrived in New France, they began to move away from the traditional dialects, and formed their own, which is what we know today as the Québécois dialect. These same people are also responsible for creating the Acadian dialect, which will be discussed in the next edition of this series.
You may think that communication between people of different dialects is difficult. Sometimes, that is true. Henri understands this difficulty well, perhaps better than anyone. In his regular attendance at Prêt-à-Parler (an event hosted by FAC on the first Tuesday of each month), he often finds new words to share with us that he recalls from his childhood. During his life, he has been immersed in the Québécois dialect, allowing him to pick up many of the intricate nuances and overall complexity. Sometimes, this can make communication with others in the group difficult. For example, when I first began attending these events in the spring of 2020, I was thrown off by Henri’s accent. In a way, it sounded so much different than the French I was learning in school and the French spoken by other members. Over time, I have become accustomed to the difference in dialect and now find myself understanding Henri well.
Some people are ridiculed for their French accents and dialects, especially in regions outside of France. People often refer to Québécois and Acadian French as “uneducated” or “bad” French. I believe that this idea of these dialects is misinformed. As mentioned earlier, these dialects are based on older French words and phrases from the period of immigration into Canada and the United States by French-speakers. As the dialects began to prosper in this new world, they were changed and altered bit by bit. However, this change is not “uneducated” or “improper.” This is how language works and should be celebrated by speakers of the language. The speakers of these dialects speak their French, which is no better or worse than any other version of French. It is the variety in language, and life in general, that gives it is beauty. That variety of language should be celebrated internationally.