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» Wednesday Linguistics: Quebec (by special request)



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Wednesday Linguistics: Quebec (by special request)

2006-06-28 @ 10:25

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In a comment on last week’s instalment, Mr Pregunto asked me what was my opinion “on the value of the local dialects of French, here in Quebec”. Well, here goes.

From a purely utilitarian point of view, I actually find it quite advantageous to speak a dialect that is further from the “standard” than most European ones. That meant I learnt another variety at school, and hear it in movies, tv shows, etc. The result of which is that I can understand many French dialects (although by no means all), whereas most French speakers from outside Quebec would understand me if I didn’t tone down mine.

This also serves to illustrate something foundamental that has to be understood: one has to use the appropriate “sublanguage” to the situation. If I publish a paper, I’ll use a more “standard” or “international” form of French than if I write a blog, a poem or a children story.

We often hear how French in Quebec is contaminated, to a high degree, by English. In a way, it is true: the “day-to-day” language, the language of the streets does contain many anglicisms, be they lexical or syntactic. So much so that there also are false ones: phrases that are believed to be copied from English but are actually native, like tomber en amour (”to fall in love”) which some (prescriptive) grammarians claim should be tomber amoureux (doesn’t really translate), or la fille que je sors avec (”the girl I’m going out with”) — ending a sentence with what is thought to be a preposition is not kosher in French either (although the word is actually an adverb).

But a recent study confirmed that, in the more “official” or “standardized” language (the one used, for instance, by media and politicians), France has a much higher number of anglicisms. What we call a stationnement they call a parking, what we call a traversier is a ferry, our magasinage is their shopping, our commenditaires are sponsors, and so on. Quebec French is much more productive, in that we often try to create a new word (or recycled an obsolete one) instead of borrowing the foreign word. Also, we have a host of words left from the colony days. Words that disappeared in Europe but stayed alive here (a result of the British conquest which cut us off from France).

The same goes for our accents. They are remnants of the XVIIth c. Paris accent (a majority of women came from the Isle-de-France area, whereas most men came from the regions: you pick up your accent from your mother — the mother tongue — but you learn a lot of vocabulary from your dad — the words of the trade). As the accent is probably one of the biggest impediment to being understood, it easy to see how Quebecers can be seen as speaking bad French: our accents are further from then norm than most others.

Some claim that our accents are slack, lowbrow. The fact is that Quebec French actually uses more phonemes than in France (2 or 3 vowels); it is therefore arguably richer. Many “purists” dislike, for instance, the Montréal “a”, see it as a “wrong phoneme”. Why should that be? It’s a bona fide phoneme in many languages (e.g. Hungarian).

4 comments to “Wednesday Linguistics: Quebec (by special request)”


  1. Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/mab/ideas/wp-includes/functions-formatting.php on line 76

    “…We often hear how French in Quebec is contaminated, to a high degree, by English…”

    Likewise, there are people who fret and fuss over the corruption of the English language. Personally, I have the impression that such people are misguided wherever I find them. I am very willing to support efforts to preserve cultures–and the languages that give those cultures their flavor. But I think the effort to achieve such an end by trying to maintain linguistic purity is a waste of everybody’s time, no matter what the language. (Well, I will make note of at least one exception: artificial languages like Esperanto whose raison d’etre depends entirely on linguistic purity for both grammatical and ideological reasons.)

    Languages, in their natural state, tend to shed the trappings of linguistic purity. It seems to me that one of the reasons that English is so widespread–not ignoring the obvious reason of the British and American expansions–is that English is an extremely promiscuous language. Despite that many highly educated speakers rant and rave about the way our language is being corrupted (threatening, of course, to lead to the very collapse of society itself), the truth is that English will adopt almost anything from any language and consider it its own. For some that is the sin of linguistic promiscuity. For others that is the virtue of an embrace that welcomes all.

    As far as attitudes of some regarding the linguistic purity of French in Quebec, I don’t think the biggest problem is the effort to keep English and other foreign influences from “contaminating” the language. Rather, the biggest problem is the unspoken tendency to view Quebec’s legitimate dialects as contaminants. Although I see the logic of teaching a closer-to-standard variety French, I think it is just as important to value the local dialectical variations.

    “…ending a sentence with what is thought to be a preposition is not kosher in French either…”

    This ordinary joe goes into a snooty upscale restaurant and waits to be served. After a long while, a rather superior looking waiter, finally walks over to him and, looking down his nose at the customer, asks if he may take his order.

    The customer replies “I sure would like to order. Unfortunately, I don’t know what my choices are. May I ask where the menu is at?”

    The waiter stares for several seconds at the customer with great disdain. Finally, he says, in perfectly enunciated English, “Sir, in a restaurant of this calibre, we only serve the class of people who end their sentences with prepositions.”

    The customer looks back up, then smiles and says, “Oh, dear, where is my grammar? What I meant to say was, ‘Where is the menu at, asshole?’”.

    “…The same goes for our accents. They are remnants of the XVIIth c. Paris accent (a majority of women came from the Isle-de-France area, whereas most men came from the regions: you pick up your accent from your mother…”

    I once went to a movie about Robin Hood, starring Kevin Costner. Costner played Robin Hood with an American accent, which a lot of critics commented on and made fun of (”…The fact is that Quebec French actually uses more phonemes than in France (2 or 3 vowels); it is therefore arguably richer…”

    It has long seemed to me that the spelling of many French words (like ‘beauté’, perhaps) that have multiple vowels in sequence–but are pronounced as a single vowel in standard–is probably reflective of a some former French standard when those same words would have been more richly diphthongized. Possibly, it once sounded much more like it’s English cognate ‘beauty’. If I am right, I am inclined to think that vowel purity in French is a fairly recent acquisition.

    I am very curious about the variety of local dialects in Quebec and how they differ. Are you able to describe them and how they differ?



  2. Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/mab/ideas/wp-includes/functions-formatting.php on line 76

    I just noticed that I accidentally overwrote part of my commnents about the Robin Hood movie.

    I was going to say that, in defending the movie, some people have pointed out that the modern standard UK-English accent that we are so familiar with–the Queen’s English–is a fairly recent development, and that it is likely that accents much more like those heard in the present day US (and Canada, I suppose) may well have been common in Robin Hood’s time.



  3. Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/mab/ideas/wp-includes/functions-formatting.php on line 76

    Sorry if it took a while…

    “English is an extremely promiscuous language”
    I don,t know that it is any more promiscuous than any other language (in its natural state). Actually, the thing that bothers me about adopting foreign words, in any language, is when that language is perfectly capable of coming up with its own, or worst, already has a word. For example, when e-mails became widespread, France started to use things like “mèl” whereas here, we coined the word courriel (from “courrier électronique”, electronic mail). Sure, when we talk, the word e-mail can crop up, but now, courriel is the accepted usage in Quebec. I think it’s a question of pride: why resort to some other language when your own can do the job (plus it’s fun to come up with new words…)

    The same thing goes for using your own dialect instead of someone else’s, or worst, nobody’s (as “international” dialects tend to be).

    “It has long seemed to me that the spelling of many French words (like ‘beauté’, perhaps) that have multiple vowels in sequence–but are pronounced as a single vowel in standard–is probably reflective of a some former French standard when those same words would have been more richly diphthongize”
    Actually, it doesn’t always have to do with the number of vowels written. It’s true that in some variety of Quebec French beauté could have a diphtonguized o sound; but most diphtonguization actually occur with single (written) vowels, like the “traditional” way of saying fête in the Saint-Hyacinth area (”fèite”).

    The difference in vowel phonemes between France and Quebec has to do with pairs like a/â and in/un (sorry if I don’t use the phonetic alphabet). Here in Quebec, the words patte (”leg” for an animal or furniture) and pâte (”pasta” or “paste”), or brin (”blade” of grass or “strand”) and brun (”brown”) are not pronounced the same, whereas in many regions of France (part. Paris), they are.

    I’m not too versed in the particulars of Quebec French dialectal differences, except what I was able to observed. There are many differences that tend to disappear, as people tend to move around more. For example, up-town Québec city speakers used, in specific contexts, shorter or higher vowels, but that is much less marked. The “a” in the Montréal Island was closer to “o” (or to the Hundarian “a”, as opposed to “á”) or “ow” and the “r” was rolled. This is still the case for many speakers, especially older people, but as the population of the city comes more and more from outside, this particularity tends to disappear in younger generations (and the a thing is frowned upon). The Beauce and Gaspé regions sometimes exhib surprising features, like a “j” that is closer to “h” (or the Spanish jota).

    And each region has it’s own lexical particularities. Some are more influenced by English, some retain more olden words, some are particularly creative…

    As for Robin-Hood era English, I’d go more with lowland Scots, but I’ve been away too long from Middle English and its phonetical considerations (my main subject was more grammar) to remember much. I know that many sounds were actually closer to the French (or German) way of speaking than the current American one. But that movie had so many other problems that the dialects used didn’t make much difference (its only redeeming qualities is Carcassone, the French medieval city where it was filmed, and Alan Rickman).



  4. Deprecated: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/mab/ideas/wp-includes/functions-formatting.php on line 76

    “…Actually, the thing that bothers me about adopting foreign words, in any language, is when that language is perfectly capable of coming up with its own, or worst, already has a word….I think it’s a question of pride: why resort to some other language when your own can do the job…”

    How much does adopting foreign words bother you? Is it something you consider very important?

    If this is something you consider important, I would appreciate very much if you would be willing to explore this subject further.


What do you think?