Quebec French, also called Québécois French or simply Québécois, has sometimes been mocked for its different pronunciation and even vocabulary. Being called rudimentary or not proper, it turns out that Québécois is in fact a more authentic French than the one spoken in France today.
The city of Quebec was conquered by France in the 16th century. Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, mostly aristocrats moved to what was called New France. In the meantime, in Europe, only the King and nobility spoke French, while the rest of the country spoke regional dialects like Breton, Provencal or Norman.
Once they reached the new country, they were vehement about teaching French to the locals and it did not take long for the language to catch on. The French that King Louis XIV and Molière spoke was soon heard on the streets of Quebec.
1. What did the old French sound like?
“There is one thing that characterises Quebecois French and that is its rhythm,” explained Chantal Bouchard, a sociolinguist in the French department at Montreal’s McGill University who wrote Méchante Langue: La Légitimité Linquistique du Français Parlé au Quebéc (Wicked Language: The Linguistic Legitimacy of the French Spoken in Quebec). “We in Quebec have conserved something from 17th Century French: the distinction between the long vowels and the short vowels.”
One example is that of the ai/ê vowels, which are pronounced differently in Québécois than in French. In French, there is no difference in the pronunciation of ai and ê in “vous faites” and “fête”, both being a short [ɛ]. In Québécois however, the ê in fête is long, [e].
The French have not conserved this short/long vowel difference. They still spell “faites” and “fête” differently, but they pronounce them both the same way.Chantal Bouchard, sociolinguist at Montreal’s McGill University
Historian of Quebec French at Laval University in Quebec City, Claude Poirier, studied documents from the 17th century to see if the spelling at the time would give clues to their pronunciation. He found that a lawyer from west-central France “spelled “perdre” (to lose) as “pardre”, which is closer to how some people in Quebec still pronounce the word”. Moreover, “devoir” (must) was spelled “devour” and pronounced “devou-air”, which is how older people in Quebec still pronounce it nowadays.
2. What happened?
In the middle of the 18th century, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, a French explorer, wrote that “the Canadian accent is as pure as that of the Parisians”. So, what changed? Or rather how come Canada conserved this while France changed?
In 1759 France lost the colony to the British Empire, so the connections between France and New France were broken, with many nobles returning to Europe. Then, the French revolution further isolated Canada form France.
The bourgeoisie dumped all the pronunciations they didn’t deem perfect, and they continued their purification through the 18th Century.Claude Poirier Historian of Quebec French at Laval University
Poirier’s research revealed that during the time the two Frances were disconnected, scholars in Old France started standardising the language’s grammar and pronunciation. “The Quebecois are conservatives, they conserved the French language as it was spoken in the ‘ancien régime'”, said Poirier.
While the French in France changed, the one in Quebec stayed the same. By 1830, when French people started travelling to Quebec again, the differences were already major. So much so that French diplomat and philosopher Alexis Charles Henri Clérel, comte de Tocqueville, wrote to his mother that “Canada raises our curiosity. The French nation has been preserved here. As a result, one can observe the customs and the language spoken during Louis XIV’s reign. It seems more like Old France lives on in Canada, and that it is our country which is the new one.”