THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN QUEBEC FRENCH AND METROPOLITAN FRENCH
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in many countries around the world. Indeed, French is an official language in 29 countries. According to a demographic projection led by the Université Laval and the Réseau Démographie de l’Agence universitaire de la francophonie, French speakers will number approximately 500 million people in 2025 and 650 million people, or approximately 7% of the world’s population, by 2050.
What some people don’t know is that Canada is one of the countries where French is spoken, primarily throughout the province of Québec, but also in New Brunswick, Ontario, and smaller communities throughout the country. In fact, at the provincial level, French is the sole official language of Québec, and outside of Québec’s largest city, Montréal, English is scarcely spoken. Québec is Canada’s largest province by area and the country’s second most populous province with a population of over 8 million.
So how exactly is Québec French different from the French spoken in France? Are the differences similar to, say, Continental Spanish /Portuguese vs. their Latin American counterparts?
Before delving into this question, let’s first have a quick look at why French is even spoken in Québec in the first place. If you are not interested in the history of the region, you can skip this part and go directly to the next section.
Why French in Canada?
The quick answer to the question “Why French in Canada?” is that King Francis I of France commissioned an expedition to find a western route to Cathay (China), and in 1534, Jacques Cartier planted a cross in the Gaspé Peninsula and claimed the land in the name of the King. It was the first province of New France, but initial French attempts at settling the region were unsuccessful because most of the early settlers did not survive through the harsh winter of the region.
At the time of first European contact and later colonization, Algonquian, Iroquois and Inuit tribes were the peoples who inhabited what is now Québec. The land where these native inhabitants lived was full of unexploited and valuable natural resources, which eventually attracted all of Europe. By the 1580s, French trading companies had been set up, and ships were contracted to bring back furs.
In a nutshell, then, New France (French: Nouvelle-France) was the area colonized by France in North America during a period beginning with the exploration of the Saint Lawrence River by Jacques Cartier in 1534 and ending with the cession of New France to Spain and Great Britain in 1763. At its peak in 1712, the territory of New France extended from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains and from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, which is over half of present-day Canada and the U.S. combined.
By the early 18th century, the colony’s total population was limited, however, by a winter climate much harsher than that of France, by the spread of diseases, and by the refusal of the French crown to allow French Protestants to settle there. The population of New France lagged far behind that of the Thirteen Colonies to the south (U.S.), leaving it vulnerable to attack.
In 1754, a surprise attack was launched on a group of Canadien soldiers. This frontier aggression, known as the Jumonville affair, set the stage for what Quebeckers call La guerre de la Conquête (i.e. “The War of Conquest”, known as the French and Indian War in the U.S.). By 1756, France and Britain were battling the Seven Years’ War worldwide.
France eventually ceded most of its North American possessions to Great Britain through the Treaty of Paris (1763), in favor of gaining the island of Guadeloupe for its then-lucrative sugar cane industry. The British Royal Proclamation of 1763 renamed Canada (part of New France) as the Province of Quebec. From this time onwards, the French language and culture was suppressed, and Quebeckers suffered discrimination and repression from the then-ruling British colonists.
Why does Québec French sound like 300-year-old French?
It is often said that the French variance spoken in Québec sounds similar to 300-year-old French. Linguists indeed agree on that fact, but why is that?
First, it is important to specify that the initial settlers of the Nouvelle-France colony emigrated from the old provinces of northwest France, including the Île-de-France (Paris) region. They spoke various provincial dialects, not necessarily mutually intelligible. In other words, some dialects might be spoken in one province, but not necessarily understood by the natives of other provinces.
The initial settlers had to work closely together to survive the harsh Canadian weather, the wilderness, and the isolation. The Île-de-France dialect eventually became the lingua franca, and by 1700 it became the only dialect spoken in the colony, although a limited number of words from other dialects were preserved, from which we have remnants up to this day.
Thus, when the French ceded their North American possessions to Great Britain through the Treaty of Paris (1763), Québec essentially ruptured its contact with France, and from this time onwards Québec French evolved in almost total isolation. At this time, English became the main language of administration in Québec, and for the next two centuries, industry and commerce operated mostly in English, which explains the influence that English has had on French in Canada. Despite this fact, Quebeckers retained their language and their distinct culture.
Québec French these days
The Quiet Revolution (French: Révolution tranquille) was a period of intense change in Québec in the 1960s, which had a great influence on the preservation and development of the French language in Québec and of Québec culture. It can also be credited for the surge in Québec nationalism, which remains a controversial topic in modern Québec society (to this day, many Quebeckers still want to separate from the rest of Canada, and Quebeckers in general tend to strongly identify with “Québec” rather than “Canada”).
In 1977, during their first term in office, the sovereignist Parti Québécois, with René Lévesque as its party leader, enacted the Charter of the French Language (La charte de la langue française), known in English as Bill 101, whose goal was (and still is) to protect the French language by making it the language of business in Québec, as well as restricting the use of English on signs. The bill also restricted the eligibility for elementary and high school students to attend school in English, allowing this only for children of parents who had studied in English in Québec.
These days, then, French is still the language most widely spoken in Québec, by far. According to the 2011 Canadian census, 599,225 people (7.7% of population) in Québec declare English as a mother tongue. However, in many areas of Québec, the percentage of English speakers is much lower; in Québec City, the second largest city in the province after Montréal, they represent a mere 1.9% of the total population.
And thanks to the Charter of the French Language, by law almost everything needs to be translated to French. Literally every single label on consumer products is both in French and English, and company names are at times translated into French if the name clearly contains English nouns (proper nouns are OK; some exceptions do exist). For example, the fast food chain “Kentucky Fried Chicken” (KFC) becomes “Poulet Frit Kentucky” (“PFK”) in Québec. And “Staples”, an office supply megastore chain, is known in Québec as “Bureau en Gros”, whereas “Shoppers Drug Mart,” a large pharmacy retailer, does good business under the name of “Pharmaprix.”
Finally, it should be pointed out that the French spoken throughout the province of Québec varies significantly in accent and flavor from region to region and varies depending on the level of education and social status one has (as in most countries). The French spoken in certain countryside regions of the province has a very distinct accent from, say, Montréal French, as well as different slang words. The French spoken in the news in Québec is, however, considered “Standard French”, and has a more European flavor to it. French people would have no trouble understanding the more “neutral” type of French dominating both news and cultural broadcasts, whereas actual French spoken on the streets can be, at times, rather hard to decipher for French people.
The Difference between Québec and Metropolitan French
Before we go any further, it’s important to understand that written French is the same in Québec as in France. Indeed, throughout the province of Québec, people use Standard Parisian grammar. Although some words do differ between Québec and France (for example, we use “magasiner” when meaning “to go shopping”, whereas in France they use “faire du shopping”), the grammar remains the same, and it could be quite hard to tell whether a formal text was written by a French or by a Quebecker.
The big differences that exist between the two French versions are definitely when it comes to the spoken language. Compared with many languages, Standard French (SF) contains a very rich vocalic inventory. This means that French has a lot of vowels (12 in total, but this varies from source to source) compared to many other languages, such as Spanish (which has only 5 vowels, /i e a o u/). According to linguists, however, Quebec French has even more vowels than that of SF (15 or more). If you are familiar with how Portuguese sounds, you will be accustomed to their use of many nasal vowels when speaking. This means that air escapes both through the nose as well as the mouth when speaking, whereas oral vowels are ordinary vowels without this nasalisation.
Quebeckers also tend to reduce their use of consonants significantly, and to use abbreviations extensively. Articles (le, la) are similar with Portuguese. Instead of saying “le” or “la” (the), Quebeckers will often say “el” (or l’) and “a”. In some cases, “le” becomes “l apostrophe” in front of a consonant. So instead of saying “Il est où le gars qui est supposé réparer la TV?” (Where’s the guy who’s supposed the repair the TV?), we would say “Yé où l’gars qu’yé s’posé réparer a’ TV?” I won’t go too much into the details of Québec French pronunciation and phonetics, both because I’m not a linguist and it’s also boring to read through, but I encourage you to listen to Québec French for yourself and feel the difference. (For funny cartoon-like videos that were extremely popular back a few years ago, check out “Les Têtes à Claques”.)
Although we have seen that due to the Charter of the French Language, by law almost everything needs to be translated to French, it is not true that Quebeckers do not use anglicisms. However, in some cases French people use angliscisms where Quebeckers don’t, and vice-versa.
Finally, Quebeckers use a variety of words that were either created in Québec, or that came from French spoken in the 17th century from northwestern French provinces. For a list of the Québec French lexicon, see this page on Wikipedia.
Where can I learn Québec French?
First of all, many of you might be wondering: “Why would anyone be interested in learning Québec French? Obviously, French from France is the original and Standard French understood in most French-speaking countries around the world.”
While it is certainly true that the French spoken in France is recognized as the “standard” language, and is usually the version that most people prefer to learn, there are quite a few reasons why someone would want to learn the Québec version instead.
Québec is Canada’s largest province by area and the country’s second most populous province with a population of over 8 million. Québec also has the second largest gross domestic product (GDP) in all of Canada, behind Ontario. It also has the second largest amount of imports, and the third largest amount of exports in the country. Undoubtedly, then, Québec has a very important economy, and opportunities abound for those who would like to start a new life there.
Aside from its economy, Québec also has a vibrant and distinct culture, with an active movie and music scene. Additionally, Quebeckers are often known as open-minded, frank, and bon vivant. Plus, Quebeckers will very quickly warm up and open their minds to you if they see you have made the effort of learning their language, and they will be especially delighted if you can use some Québec slang!
So, in earnest, let’s look at a few resources you can access to learn and practice Québec French.
–Les Têtes à Claques is a very popular website that posts humorous videos. You’ll get to hear a lot of Quebec slang and funny expressions. If you are an advanced learner of French, you will most likely appreciate watching some of these videos!
-The Québec movie scene is vibrant and active; every year a good two dozen or so movies are released in theatres. Follow this link to take a look at the box office list of the most popular Québec movies, listed by year, or check out the Wikipedia page about the cinema of Québec.
Check out this website where the top 200 songs that were the most influential in the 2000s is listed. If you go through that list, you’ll certainly get to know a LOT of musicians! Also have a look at the Wikipedia page where you’ll find an exhaustive list of musicians from Québec.
French Fun: The Real Spoken Language of Québec, by Steve Timmins
NTC’s dictionary of Canadian French, by Sinclair Robinson
Speak Québec: A Guide to Day-to-day Québec French, by Daniel Kraus
Quebecois Dictionary & Phrasebook: English-Quebecois/Quebecois-English, by Renata Isajlovic and Isabelle Martin
That’s it for this guest post everyone! I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit more about Québec, its language, and its culture. If you have any questions, please don’t be shy to ask!! I would be more than happy to help you with anything in regards to Québec French or language learning in general.