History of Québec French

Les Habitants The French that is spoken in Québec is very different from all the other varieties of French that exist in the world. Nevertheless, it is still French and not a creole, a dialect or a patois. It is not a regional French either, since this term only applies to a variety of French spoken in a region of France. Québécois French is nothing else than a national French. When the first contacts occur, a French speaker from outside of Québec may have some difficulties with the accent or certain local expressions, but he should get accustomed without great difficulty.

First of all, it is important to specify that we are talking about a Québécois French here, and not a Canadian French. Indeed, there is at least one other French-speaking community in Canada, the Acadien community, and their French is different from ours when it comes to the accent and to the local lexic.

Why is Québécois French so different than the variety spoken in France anyways? The answer, as it is often the case, can be found in the past. Many texts confirm that, towards the end of the 17th century, everyone in New France speaks French. At that time, in France, the patois are still numerous and in great use, and two inhabitants on five are completely unable to understand French. Only one Frenchman on five can understand and speak it fluently. The difference between France and New France is therefore quite incredible. In 1698, the sieur de Bacqueville, who was then controller general of the marine on official visit to Québec, writes « the French spoken here is perfect, and we can find no trace of any provincial French in it. » A navigator was all surprised that everyone here, even the peasants, spoke a French that was comparable to the one spoken in the King's court! As you can see, the use of French was generalised here before it was in France.

This phenomenon is due to two main factors. First of all, the colonists who populated New France came from different regions of France, and each spoke his maternal patois. But once here, they often found themselves with neighbours who spoke a different patois, so the need for a common language became very necessary. The most prestigious one would have been chosen, the King's French. Secondly, we all know the very important role women have played in this process since they are the ones who taught the language to their children. Studies have shown that the vast majority of our ancestresses had, at least, a partial knowledge of French.

And this is how New Fance came to speak the Royal Court's French, and not the variety used by writers and poets. It is in this royal ancestor that modern Québécois French takes many of his particularities, such as the use of « y » instead of « lui » (J'y ai donné l'argent que j'y dois) (I gave HIM the money I owe HIM) or the legendary « assisez-vous » instead of « asseyez-vous » (sit down). It is also from this Royal French that come the very common « moé » et « toé » (you and me). And since most of the colonists came from Normandie, we also find a lot of Normand particularities in Québécois French, such as the « -eux » used at the end of words, like in the words « siffleux, robineux, seineux, têteux, niaiseux, ostineux ou senteux ». (Everyone of them more flattering than the previous!) ;-).

Of course, there is also an interesting contribution made by the Indian languages, especially when it came to name realities, animals or objects that did not exist in Europe (calumet, achigan, ouananiche, masquinongé, carcajou, etc.) We also find a lot of maritime expressions (embarquer, virer, baliser, mouiller), mainly because of the difficult crossing of the Atlantic and the fact the St-Laurent river occupied such an important place in the lives of the founders.

After the British conquest of 1759, Québec finds itself isolated from France. Many travellers will observe that Québécois French is becoming archaic and is being invaded by English words. What we must understand is that since the French Revolution of 1789, France has changed its norm. The King's French has been replaced by Bourgeois French as the most prestigious variety. Of course, this change does not occur here and Royal French continues its normal evolution.

Because language evolves. Our language will go through a phase of anglomania, during which French will be depreciated and humiliated at the profit of English. French will be seen as an old poetic language, a stranger to technological progress (since all new technologies are acquired from England and the United States) and business. Then, in the nineteen-sixties, it will be the other extreme. A group of excessive « purists » will call Québécois French « le joual » (a very derogatory term), and will describe it as a language with no form, popular and full anglicisms. Some will also call it an « absence of language »! These so-called purists, in their crusade to « purify » the language, will declare war on all anglicisms and regionalisms. To this day, Québécois are very self-conscious about the language they speak.

In reaction to this crusade, many will say that our language is unique and is in fact a heritage from our ancestors that we should feel proud of. It is not a shame, but the result of our people's history and soul. Jacques Renaud publishes the first novel written entirely in Québécois French in 1964, the title is « Le cassé », but the most reknown and popular writer who still writes in our national tongue is Michel Tremblay. Many of his plays have been translated and shown worldwide.

Today, Québécois French is written, sang and celebrated. On the right is a picture of Robert Charlebois, on of our most reknown singers. But there are still many people who sadly look down upon Québécois French because too "colonial", and prefer using some sort of snobbish «international French» that has no color and no soul... there is still some educating work to be done.

Robert Charlebois
If you wish to see my little list of Québécois expressions, click here.

To read the legend of the Chasse-Galerie, click here.


BARBAUD, Philippe, LE FRANÇAIS SANS FAÇON, Hurtubise HMH, La Salle, 1987.

COUTURE, Patrick, My bachelor's degree in linguistics ;-)

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