You may have heard that the French spoken in Canada is so different from the French in France that people in Metropolitan France have a tough time understanding French Canadians. I’ve never really understood that, having had great conversations with people from Canada, and also from other francophone countries, such as Algeria, Belgium, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Senegal, Switzerland, Togo, and Tunisia, and communication in French was not an issue. Lexical and phonetic variations from different francophone regions are not nearly as tough for me as the experiences I’ve had when hearing verlan, particularly during the first year I lived in France. When I did learn words in verlan, I tended to learn them as separate vocabulary words rather than inverted syllables of words I already knew. Bref, I was never particularly sympathetic toward French people who said they had trouble with Canadian accents until I was listening to a British television show from the ’90’s in which people from different parts of the UK were speaking to one another and I practically needed subtitles to make out what was going on in the conversation. Perhaps I’ll watch the show again with the French subtitles turned on.
The two main differences between Metropolitan French and Canadian French are pronunciation and vocabulary.
French in Canada differs from French in France because of its history and geographic location. Think of French Canadians as French people who have been in North America for a few hundred years. Explorers such as Jacques Cartier, who arrived from France during the 16th century, initiated France’s presence and control over the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and its tributaries, with colonization mainly happening in the 17th and 18th centuries. In both France and Canada, French has evolved and changed since the early modern period. It has also been influenced by regional languages and the languages of neighboring populations.
French is the official language of the Canadian province of Québec, as well as being one of Canada’s two official languages, the other being English, and inevitably some English terms or direct translations will slip into Canadian French. If you would like to thank your chum (boyfriend) for taking you to dinner, he might say “Bienvenue”, meaning “You’re welcome”. This might sound odd to someone from Metropolitan France, who would be used to hearing “Bienvenue” as a greeting. After being treated to dinner in France, you would likely thank your copain, after which he’d say “Je t’en prie”. Interestingly, both the French and the Québécois take very rigorous measures to protect their language from the overbearing presence of English, though they do this in different ways, since the French speakers in Canada must deal with their status as linguistic minorities in their own country while those in Metropolitan France must deal with people treating English as a lingua franca, even within France’s borders.
Differences in pronunciation can be attributed in great part to vowel sounds. Canadian French has a greater number of vowel sounds, a characteristic that dates back to the early modern period. After 1763 France ceded its North American territories to Britain, which resulted in a fair amount of isolation of the French-Canadian communities, accompanied by the continuation of some of the phonetic practices that the elite classes had brought over from France. It also resulted in Canadian French bypassing the phonetic changes that occurred in Metropolitan France alongside the French Revolution, which involved the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy (1789-99). Canadian French is characterized by a lengthening of vowel sounds in positions within words other than closed stressed syllables as with the /e:/ in maison (as opposed to /ɛ/ or /e/), the /o:/ in chômage (as opposed to /o/), and the /ɛ̃:/ in printemps (as opposed to / ɛ̃ /). Canadian French also shows a laxing of shorter vowel sounds, with the /i/, /y/, and /u/ of Metropolitan France being pronounced /ɪ/, /ʏ/, and /ʊ/ in closed final syllables, as in the words électrique, jupe, and pitoune. If we take the first word, électrique, we can imagine saying it with our lips less extended into a smile, thus reducing the tension of the vocal cavity in order to produce the Canadian French version.
Consonants in Canadian French can also be different from the consonants you may hear in Metropolitan France. Consonant systems in both Canadian and Metropolitan French are less complex than vowel systems. A prominent characteristic of Canadian French consonants occurs with t and d sounds when they are followed by a high front vowel, such as /i/, /ɪ/, /y/, or /ʏ/, resulting in /ts/ and /dz/ in words such as tigre and dur. These are called affricates, which involve a stop and its immediate release into a fricative consonant, and constitute a single phoneme. The pronunciations you would hear in Metropolitan France would not involve this level of expired breath.
In addition to differences in pronunciation, Canadian French includes some vocabulary words that differ from those used in Metropolitan France. This comes from its developmental path as a separate linguistic community from the early modern period on as well as its interaction with English. As mentioned above both France and Canada take conscious measures to find French versions of English words that appear on the world stage, as with the words they use for email, for which mél is often used in Metropolitan France, a French approximation of the English mail, and courriel is often used in Canada, an amalgamation of courrier électronique. (Of course, some French textbooks for American students use email, since heaven forbid students take the time to learn something that sounds and looks a bit more French.)
Other differences include words such as blonde in Canada for copine or petite amie in France. This means that if you are dating a woman from the Monterey Park area of Los Angeles who has a Taiwanese family and hasn’t changed her hair color, she will still be your blonde californienne. In addition, stop signs in Québec will have Arrêt written on them, whereas in France they will read Stop (the French didn’t feel the need to fight this English battle), pinotte or arachide in Canada is cacahuète in France, and a bleuetière in Canada is a champ de myrtilles in France.
French Canadians also have a particular way of swearing using religious vocabulary, mainly Catholic, since that is the most practiced religion among French Canadians. The French, on the other hand, are staunchly secular, so their swearing tends to be the French version of what English swear words would be. One of the most popular forms of religious swearing among French Canadians can be found in the term tabernacle and everything that could possibly modify it, the more words added on the better. But be sure to pronounce it tabarnak and to say it with force – tabarnak! I once heard someone from a posh suburb of Paris pronounce it gently, with a lilting rhythm, and it just sounded wrong. You could practically see the circumflex accents over the a’s of the first and third syllables in the speech bubble that appeared in front of his mouth, which doubtlessly matched the halo that simultaneously appeared over his head. Some other words you could attach to tabarnak, using de to string them along, include Christ, but pronounced Criss, a bit like the French version of the nickname Chris in English (same origins), sacre, calvaire, and baptême. You can also add in regular swear words for variety.
The differences between the French spoken in Canada and the French spoken in France are principally oral, with the written language showing minor differences. The grammar and vocabulary of the modern French language were standardized and polished in the 17th and 18th centuries, meaning that many structures of the written language were in place before the 1763 political separation between French populations in Canada and in France. The best way to enjoy the spoken language of both France and Canada is to have a conversation including a French speaker from each place. If that is not available to you at the moment, try and find a humorous video in which people from each place compare and contrast their ways of speaking and even attempt to pronounce words the way the other person normally pronounces them. It might be as challenging for them as it is for you.
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