Home > Personal Posts > Pardon my French: French from Québec and French from France

Pardon my French: French from Québec and French from France

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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  1. August 25, 2016 at 10:38 pm

    What an interesting and fun post, Emma. I am always curious about the different usages of American English and British English. New dimensions here!


    • August 28, 2016 at 8:36 am

      Thanks Dagny.

      My main concern about American English and British English is to avoid mixing the two in one sentence by mistake.

      PS : Sorry for the slow answer, real life is busy at the moment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dorothy H Willis
    August 26, 2016 at 12:24 am

    Before moving to the Seattle area I lived in Maine. I volunteered at a program for adults with beginning and advanced dementia. One of our favorite clients was a French speaking US citizen who served in WWII. He survived the Bataan death march and came to spend the rest of his working life as a postman. One of our volunteers was also a native French speaker. She, too, was a wonderful person with great stories of growing up on a farm with her Canadian French family. Also, I’ve visited Montreal and Quebec City. People there were fantastic and I never had any negative feedback caused by my English only speaking. Here in the USA we are so unlucky not to have borders or proximity to other countries. I took Spanish in high school but when I visited Honduras I was paralyzed when trying to speak.
    Today, I teach English pronunciation to mostly Chinese students. This is a great volunteer job for an 80 year old. I greatly enjoyed your post.


    • August 28, 2016 at 8:46 am

      Great stories, Dorothy. It’s fanstastic to be around people from other countries or with other backgrounds. I grew up near borders in France and the exchanges with the other countries are part of everyday life.

      Montreal and Québec City are great cities to visit and are probably the most bilingual places in Québec with the Sherbrooke area. Plus Québec City is very touristy and there seem to be lots of American tourists as well.

      One of the French Canadian writers present at the Quais du Polar festival said that some Anglophones in Montreal refuse to speak French to a French Canadian but will to a French from France. I’m sure it’s not the majority but I’m also sure these things happen like they do in Belgium between Flemish and French speaking Belgians.
      The language is tied up with political issues.

      I understand what you mean about your Spanish. I took 9 years of German and I can’t speak it. I was in Austria last year and I can’t even order a thing in a restaurant! People speak English anyway…


  3. August 26, 2016 at 1:55 am

    How interesting! I really did enjoy reading this.
    I hope to get to Canada one day, and Quebec will be on the itinerary, but *chuckle* PFK? That’s daft, it really is…


    • August 28, 2016 at 8:48 am

      I’ve been to the West of Canada and Québec. Both were fantastic trips but Québec would be best to practice your French.

      PS: I had to look up “daft”. Thanks for teaching me a new word!

      Liked by 1 person

      • August 28, 2016 at 10:20 am

        One of my mother’s favourite expressions was, ‘Don’t be daft!’


        • August 28, 2016 at 10:37 am

          That’s British, isn’t it?

          Liked by 1 person

          • August 28, 2016 at 10:48 am

            Yes, I think so…

            Liked by 1 person

            • August 29, 2016 at 9:50 pm

              Well, according to Dagny, it’s also used in the US.


              • August 30, 2016 at 1:08 am

                LOL it’s good to hear the English language spreads far and wide!


          • August 28, 2016 at 9:11 pm

            Daft is also quite popular here in the U.S.


            • August 29, 2016 at 9:44 pm

              Good to know. New word for me, I’m always glad to enrich my vocabulary.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. August 26, 2016 at 7:48 am

    I totally agree with you about the issue of changing everything to French. Your example is superb, hope they don’t need to translate ‘sushi’ into French? I think it’s more a political rather than a language issue. I live in Alberta, in the Canadian West, and glad that we don’t need to be so ‘political correct’ ensure power equality in languages. Here, we call Chinese dim sum, dim sum. Experienced non-Chinese patrons order their dim sum in Cantonese, e.g. ‘har gau’, instead of saying ‘shrimp dumpling’. 😉


    • August 28, 2016 at 8:57 am

      To be honest, Arti, there’s a similar movement in France and the governement tries to enforce the use of French words. I wrote about this here:

      My opinion on that matter hasn’t changed.

      In case of Canada, it is a political issue and that’s why I said I understand where the French Canadians come from and why they feel so strongly about the French language. I’d probably feel the same if I were in their shoes.

      I’ve been to British Columbia and Alberta and thankfully we didn’t expect to speak French otherwise we would have been in trouble. Some mandatory translations in French on food packages weren’t done by a fluent French speaker, I’m positive about it.

      I can’t tell you how fun it was to be able to travel and speak French all the time, to be able to read signs in museums without relying on our English, to be able to take guided tours without translating things to the children…This is something Anglophones don’t experience often because when abroad, if something is translated for tourists, it will be in English first and then maybe in other languages.


  5. August 26, 2016 at 9:13 am

    I really enjoyed this post too. Interesting to see your comments about the musicality in the French Canadian accent. I’ve always thought of the French accent as being rather musical anyway (certainly compared to English or German, for example), so Canadian variant must be lovely. It also reminded me of how my mother’s accent used to change whenever she went back to Ireland to see her family, the Irish lilt and timbre in her voice would come to the fore once she was back in her homeland.


    • August 28, 2016 at 9:10 am

      In French, there is no accentuation of in words like in English or in Italian. You don’t have to stress on a specific part of the word. This is something we have to learn when we learn another language and it’s not an easy part.

      I gradually lost most of my accent when I moved out of my native region but when I’m tired, it comes back. So I understand what you mean about your mother. The original accent never disappears completely.


  6. August 26, 2016 at 10:57 am

    Very enjoyable post – and I’ve told you my own issues with the sometimes thick accent in Quebecois French. I love the examples you’ve given (yes, some are extreme, because it’s political rather than linguistic) and I also agree with the reverse, that ‘mainland’ French could perhaps look to some Quebecois expressions instead of automatically adopt English ones which (if you don’t mind me saying so) most of them find difficult to pronounce anyone. I’m still torn about the ‘magasiner’ for ‘faire le shopping’ though. Can’t say I like either of the two expressions. ‘Faire les achats/les courses sounds much more reasonable.

    Romanian too has become full of English expressions. In some cases, perfectly justified, as this terminology did not exist 20-30 years ago, but in some cases replacing perfectly good old Romanian names.


    • August 28, 2016 at 9:17 am

      Sometimes the accent is pretty thick and it’s difficult to understand and it’s not so nice to hear. But still.

      I like “magasiner” because “faire les courses” means “to go grocery shopping”. I like our “faire du lèche-vitrines”.

      The worst case of Frenglish is in international companies. You spend so much time interacting in English with colleagues in our out of the country, writing memos in English and all that English words become part of the corporate jargon and you don’t even realise that you use English words when there are perfect French equivalent for them.


  7. Jane
    August 27, 2016 at 9:21 am

    I’m English but fluent in French and have lived in Montreal for a time. I was surprised to read that you find the French Canadian accent attractive! I found it quite ugly (sorry!) but love the Canadian English accent – much gentler than American English. Just goes to show that we’re all different!



    • August 28, 2016 at 9:19 am

      Hello, thanks for visiting and commenting. I really like their accent especially in cities where it’s lighter.

      Canadian Anglophones are easy to understand from my French perspective.


  8. August 27, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    I feel like Jane. I can’t stand the accent. It’s even worse than the French spoken in some parts of Switzerland. I’m not sure why. I love the way Haitians or Africans speak French.


    • August 28, 2016 at 9:23 am

      I don’t agree at all. You can’t compare the accent in Montreal to French Swiss accent which can be as terrible as the accent from Alsace.

      I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Haïtian speak French. I need to track down an interview of Dany Laferrière.


      • August 28, 2016 at 9:45 am

        As far as I remember he doesn’t have much of an accent. I met him in Paris and interviewed him. He didn’t even have a Canadian accent although he lived there for so long.


        • August 28, 2016 at 9:49 am

          Thanks for the info.


  9. Pat
    August 28, 2016 at 2:00 am

    Hi Emma, did you ever get to see Bon cop Bad Cop, a Quebec film where the Cop duo are played by Patrick Huard (who we then saw in Starbuck) and Colm Feore, Colm plays the Toronto anglophone cop, who speaks French and the film proposes an answer to the question on which French the anglophone Canadians learn (I’ll let you guess)
    The film had me laughing



    • August 28, 2016 at 9:24 am

      Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll look it up. Sounds nice to watch after our trip.


  10. Jeff
    August 28, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    Using French terms or references in England has, like most things, connotations of class and history. Class connotations because the middle-classes are more likely to learn other languages and own properties in their respective countries. Historical class connotations come from the influx of Normans who made the biggest land-grab in English history, and took over the legal and political administration, the effects of which still have an hereditary influence on who has wealth and power.
    The effect on language has been to separate the English into those who imagine themselves to be Anglo-American/Anglo-Saxon and those who imagine themselves to be continentals. Note that I say ‘imagine’. There is no direct connection between hereditary wealth and European sympathies. But the English imagination is more straightforward. There are those who love to use French vocabulary and/or references. And there are those who accuse this of pretentiousness. French culture is thereby treated as a litmus test for attitudes before anything else. The more I read about France, the more I see a country that exists independently of the process above; yet at the same time, as someone English, I suspect that that process limits how much I can see that independent existence in its own terms.
    Perhaps all this is behind the strangeness I always feel when encountering anything about Quebec? Perhaps I could read something on this aspect of French culture? Or should I say, maybe I could read something on this aspect of Canadian culture?!


    • August 29, 2016 at 9:50 pm

      I wasn’t thinking about using French words the way it’s done in Victorian literature. I can see how it can represent some social classes and hints at pretentiousness.
      I was more refering to French words that are now part of the English language, like touché, fiancé, sans or cul-de-sac. Or even better sautéed Or the last one I learnt verdigris, obviously coming from a mispronounced vert-de-gris.


      • Jeff
        August 30, 2016 at 10:32 pm

        Whenever anyone complains that it’s pretentious to pronounce chorizo as hco-ree-tho, I ask if they think cho-reetz-oh is the dee rigour way to pronounce it.


  11. September 7, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    Fascinating. I have to admit by the way that like Jacqui I’ve always thought of French French as being rather musical.

    It’s interesting how many people find Canadian French ugly. It’s something I was aware of, but I’ve not heard it so I have no personal view.

    I think now the best use of an anglified French word is George W Bush’s famous quote where he said that the French have no word for entrepeneur…


    • September 10, 2016 at 8:31 pm

      It’s not the first time I hear English speaking natives saying that French is musical. I wonder why my perception is different. I’m under the impression that French is spoken in a higher tone or more exactly that my voice becomes deeper when I speak English than when I speak French. I wonder if English native speakers who also speak French have the same impression.

      French Canadian accent can be heavy but it’s the same in France. (in Alsace or Lorraine for example)

      I didn’t know about this word from George W Bush. Sounds like something Trump might say.


  12. Vishy
    September 25, 2016 at 8:54 pm

    Loved, loved, loved your post Emma! Enjoyed reading the comments too. I loved your thoughts on the differences between French French and Québécois French and how there are different words for everything. I also loved that you found the Québécois accent musical. I am sorry others who commented don’t seem to like the Québécois accent, but I am glad you did. At some level I understand why French Canadians are so protective of their language and culture. In the aspect of French-Canadian culture that I am interested in – literature – I frequently find that when people talk about Canadian literature, they refer to only the English version, with writers like Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. The French part of the literary heritage is generally ignored. Even Canadians (the English speaking ones) who should know better ignore French Canadian literature. Sometimes it pains me when I have to introduce Nicole Brossard to English speaking Canadians – it should be the other way around. I don’t understand this ignoring of the literature and culture of a part of one’s own country. I am from a country where we have 22 official languages and we have literature in every one of them. We celebrate this diversity and read and enjoy and appreciate literature in these multiple languages, sometimes in translation. I can’t understand why English Canadians can’t handle two languages. Nicole Brossard and other French Canadian writers should be as much celebrated as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. English speaking Canadians should be championing Brossard, not me, though I am happy to do that. I also don’t understand why English speaking Canadians love speaking in French with French people, but don’t do that with French-Canadians. It is like saying that the Canadian version of French is not sophisticated enough. I don’t understand why they demean their own country this way. With all this politics, it is no wonder French-Canadians feel isolated and try hard to protect their culture and language. Sorry for the long rant. Thanks for this beautiful post, Emma 🙂


    • September 26, 2016 at 9:11 pm

      This is a rant-friendly blog. Feel free and indulge!

      22 official languages?! How many of them do you speak?
      For me “Canadian lit” means English Canadian lit. Otherwise it’s Littérature québécoise. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vishy
        September 26, 2016 at 9:35 pm

        Thanks Emma 🙂 Littérature québécoise sounds wonderful to me 🙂 On official Indian languages, I can speak three well – Tamil, Hindi and English (yes, English is also an official language) – understand a fourth, Urdu, reasonably well, and understand little bits of a few – Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu. I have read literature in most of the main languages in translation though. We have a literary academy here which translates important literature into all the main languages, which is a great help.


        • October 2, 2016 at 7:48 pm

          Wow. That’s a lot of languages. I’m always impressed by people who can speak several languages.
          When you say you’ve read literature in translation, in which language do you pick your translations? English?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Vishy
            October 2, 2016 at 9:29 pm

            Thanks Emma 🙂 I read the translations mostly in Tamil (my mother tongue) or in English.


  13. January 22, 2017 at 12:39 am

    Ah, the classic debate about France’s French, Quebec’s French, and how each is influenced by English! One of my best friends is from Nice and we’ve had endless discussions about that for 20+ years!! 🙂 I like accents. I like my accent (Montréal’s French), I like the accent of people who from Saguenay, from Quebec city, … I like the various accents you can hear in France, depending on the region you’re visiting. I like accents you hear in different African countries, Carabbean countries, and all the others! Same with Spanish. Same with English. Accents are a collective wealth. The different words that each culture uses translate variants in our way of thinking, our perspectives. It’s fascinating, and part of our global cultural biodiversity! In any case, let’s never forget that, in truth, everyone has an accent, as it can only exist from the perspective of the listener who’s ear isn’t used to it! Salutations de Montréal! 🙂


    • January 22, 2017 at 9:12 am

      Thanks a lot for your message, Jo and welcome to Book Around the Corner.

      I found that the accent in Gaspé was difficult to understand. 🙂 I agree with you about accent being an asset. I just read La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi, a writer from Gabon. His French is great, I loved discovering local slang. This is what makes French a lively language, one that is alive and creative. I’m very happy that the Académie française welcomed writers like Mabanckou or Amin Maalouf. They’re good for promoting the diversity of our language and open us to other horizons.
      I have a little pile of books by authors from Québec, so there’s more to come about Québec lit on this blog.

      A bientôt j’espère.


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