Questions From Our Readers

The Story of French Paul writes:

I am a Franco American trying very hard to rediscover my French. I am at my wit’s end with questions asked of me: “Do you speak real French or Québecois?!” I know you surely have heard this before. But here is my question: How did it happen… historically, politically… that speaking French in Canada became known as Québécois, implying a language (dialect?) other than French? Did the expression le québecois originate from the people of Québec who themselves wanted to identify their “parler français” as their own, and for what reason? Or did the term come from elsewhere? It seems to me that the French spoken in Québec, Canada and New England is French. People in Mississippi do not say they speak Mississippian because their accent or certain expressions are proper to them.

Also, I am asked if my ancestors are Canadian or real French (ugh!). Our ethnic origin is French, not something primarily geographical. While I am sensitive to the tremendous efforts needed to maintain one’s identity, I would appreciate any help in understanding some of these questions.

Please accept my gratitude for whatever help you can provide. By the way, I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend to others The Story of French.

Bon Courage!


Julie answers:

You are absolutely right. The French spoken in Quebec, Canada and New England is French.

First let me answer the historical question, which is a good one. You might be surprised to hear that the French spoken by Quebeckers was long reputed to be “pure” – mostly because early colonists in New France were more educated than the average Frenchman at the time. This lasted until the end of the 18th century. However, in the middle of the 19th century, English Canadians and Americans began referring to the French in Canada derogatively as a “patois.” According to McGill linguist Chantal Bouchard, English elites did this mainly to hasten the assimilation of francophones, the idea being to strip Quebeckers of the confidence they could get from speaking the most important international language of the time, French. Evidently, the label has stuck to this day. And to some extent, the ploy worked, though there were other reasons Quebec became isolated from France.

Before I explain further, let me say, personally, that I am always amazed when educated people today insist that Quebec French is a “patois.” Sure Quebec French has its own accents and expressions, and those even vary across the province, but the same is true in France or in any other French speaking country for that matter. Like any language, spoken anywhere, French in Quebec is used in different ways depending on the situation and the relation of its speaker – no one speaks to their spouse with the same style they use for a job application.

The language used in any formal situation in public life – whether business, academia, government, or media like Radio-Canada – is standard French. The written language used in any situation is standard French. It abides by the same grammar rules and adheres to the same spelling as the French used in Paris. There are bound to be some differences in vocabulary, but the French varieties used in Quebec and France aren’t mutually incomprehensible! How else would Quebeckers manage to communicate with other members of the francophone world everyday, as, of course, they do?

Now let me go back to the first point. By relegating Quebec French to the status of a “patois”, English-speaking Quebec elites (with plenty of help from the French-speaking Catholic clergy by the way) really did help isolate Quebec from contact with the French-speaking world. But those days are long gone. Today, Quebec is a thriving, prosperous and influential society, and an extremely important player in the French-speaking world, thanks mostly to its relatively well-educated population.

As far as I’m concerned, the label “patois” should be buried along with the past.