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Pardon my French: French from Québec and French from France

August 25, 2016 39 comments

Flag_of_Quebec.svgI’ve just spent three weeks in Québec and I thought I’d tell you a bit about French from Québec compared to French from France. This is a billet, not an academic dissertation. It is just my impressions and I don’t pretend to know anything more than the few observations I can make after my three weeks stay in this lovely Province. I don’t know if I have readers in Canada (except for one) but my intentions aren’t to offend anyone, so don’t be angry with me if I say something you might not like.

In a B&B, an tourist asked me: “Is French from Québec very different from yours? Because for us, it’s just French.” My answer was “as much as English in America is different from English in the UK”. The words and the accent are different but we understand each other. Mostly.

Sometimes the spelling is different, like phantasme in Québec instead of fantasme in France.

Sometimes we can be surprised by false friends. Take Dépanneur. For me, it’s a tow truck. For a French Canadian, it’s an emergency grocery store, like a 7/11, a place to go when you miss an ingredient for a recipe or just need a few items. Literally, it means a “Helper out”. In French, we call them L’Arabe du coin because these stores were traditionally owned and run by French with origins from the Maghreb. I realise I don’t know how they say tow truck.

The accent. French Canadians have a lovely accent with a lot more musicality than ours. French from France is rather flat, except in the South. French Canadians have an accent that allows them to insert Anglo-Saxon names in the flow of the sentence without distorting the original sound of the names. It’s alsmot impossible for us and I envy them for that. Robert Lepage, the theatre artist from Québec, made fun of us in his play Les aiguilles et l’opium. It’s a play about a brokenhearted French Canadian who’s staying in Paris to record a radio show about Miles Davis’s time in the City of Lights in 1949. Lepage makes a great show of telling how the French say Miles Dévisse while unscrewing an imaginary light bulb because “dévisser” means “to unscrew”. Hilarious. To have an idea of a thick Québecois accent, it’s all in La grosse femme d’à côté est enceinte by Michel Tremblay. Wonderful book, billet to come as soon as I can catch up with blog entries.

All in all, we understand each other very well, provided that the accent isn’t too thick. Once we were at a historical park watching a show about the place in 1927 and the accent was so thick I couldn’t understand the story they were telling. I thought “No worries, bilingual country, there’s gonna be an English translation”. Que nenni! as we say in French. No translation at all. I hope there weren’t any tourists from Ontario in there or they might have been as frustrated as me.

Speaking about bilingual countries. In Ottawa, signs were first in English and then with a French translation. In Montreal, the French comes first and then there’s the English. And in the Lac Saint Jean area (where the famous Maria Chapdelaine comes from), there were no English translations. Tiny details that speak volumes.

French Canadians have a different relationship with the French language and the invasion of English words in it. After attending another outstanding play by Robert Lepage, 887, and reading a little bit about the history of Québec, I might understand where they come from. It was also explained by Québécois writers at a panel at Quais du Polar this year. They fight for the preservation of the French language in their country. For example, one writer from Québec was shocked that the independent booksellers on the salon had T-shirts that said Libraire’s not dead because it was in English. He said “Why do you use English for that?” and for me, it was just a parody of the slogan Punk’s not dead and that’s all. For him it was another victory of the English language. Here, we’re more relaxed about it and we tend to accept English words pretty well and to use them because it’s cool. It doesn’t bother me, probably because I see a lot of French words in English literature or shops with French names abroad. I think it works both ways.

We tend to adopt English words for things that don’t exist in French or don’t belong to France because they’re North-American. And we forget that French Canadians have a North American way-of-life and live in French and probably already have a word for it. They have rangers that they call garde-parcs instead of saying ranger like us. They use service au volant instead of drive in but I’m not sure impatient French people would say a lengthy service au volant instead of a short drive in. I love the word traversier for ferry, it’s rolls off the tongue and it’s a lovely way to call these boats. This is a creative way of updating the French dictionary and we should look their way before using the English words.

147_PFKSometimes I find their attachment to the French language a bit extreme. Road signs are translated. Stop becomes Arrêt and sometimes it’s written in both languages. Some brands get translated. Starbucks Coffee becomes Café Starbucks. KFP is now PFK which I assume means Poulet Frit du Kentucky, the French translation of Kentucky Fried Chicken. And there’s the famous chien chaud or hot dog but I have to say I’ve seen it written both in French and in English. I can understand the fight for the right to speak French but that’s a bit too much for me. A language is alive, it has to change and nobody would even think of replacing sushi with a fabricated French word. Some words come from other cultures because they cover a reality that doesn’t exist in ours.

The paradox is that the English seeps into their French anyway because of the close proximity to the English language. I don’t like it when English syntax worms their way into the French one. I don’t have an example in mind right now but I’ve heard it several times. It happens when you spend a lot of time hearing or speaking English instead of French. It’s happened to me with all the reading, blogging and working in English. I hate it when I catch myself doing that. I don’t like it either when I hear a literal translation of an English expression when there’s already a perfectly good one in French. For example, I’ve seen several signs for a vente de garage which is the exact translation of a garage sale. That’s American. In French, it’s a vide-grenier, not a vente de garage. I guess it’s inevitable.

All in all, I think we have a lot to learn from each other, that French Canadians have great words we should use here and that they might relax a bit with some English words. Like this American tourist said, in the end, it sounds French anyway. I wonder which French the Anglophone Canadians learn in school.

Here we learn English from England in school and American on TV. We’re doing OK in Ireland and in Canada but we’re desperate in Wales and Scotland. And sometimes we end up frustrated like my daughter this summer in the US: “They don’t know what a bin is! It’s the only word I learnt to say trash can!”

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