If you’ve ever heard French spoken in North America—as compared to how a European might speak it—chances are you’ve probably heard a few differences. Beyond a simple difference of accent, there are also various words, phrases, and idioms that distinguish them. Two of the variations in North America are known as Laurentian French (found throughout Québec) and Acadian French (found mostly in the Maritime Provinces). These two dialects (and others) are also found throughout the Franco communities of Maine and New England.
When colonization of New France began in the fourteenth century, there were many dialects of the French language spoken throughout continental France. Most settlers that came to Acadie (Acadia) spoke a particular dialect found in the center-west, regions such as: Poitou-Charentes, Touraine, and Aquitaine (Gascony). The settlers of Québec, on the other hand, came primarily from northern France, specifically: Bretagne (Brittany), Normandie, (Normandy) Picardie, (Picardy) and Île de France (Island of France).
In 1583, the provinces of Brittany and Normandy sponsored a fleet to continue colonization of New France. In the fleet were Les Filles du Roi (The Daughters of the King), a group of women specifically sent to New France to increase the population. Les Filles du Roi influenced the French of North America dramatically; they spoke a more royal dialect. Women in this era were also typically the ones to teach language to children, slowly forming the dialect of French spoken in Québec today.
During the mid-eighteenth century, the seven years war began. Fighting broke out between Britain and France over control of territories in North America. After a series of complex conflicts, France ceded its land to Britain and severed its ties to the French colonies of North America. This made Britain the dominant power and significantly cut France’s cultural influence in the region. The French language became influenced by the new ruling establishment.
Back in France, Emperor Napoléon attempted to unify the country. One of his strategies was to promote a single French dialect. Today this is known as Le Français International (International French), though many in North America call this Parisian French.
This dialect took hold in France but never fully fledged in North America. Over time, International French crossed the Atlantic and can be well understood, but the years of separation and isolation caused a marked differentiation. The old Western French and Northern French dialects of Acadie and Québec, therefore, can sometimes be challenging for International French speakers to follow. These factors are why the differences between the French of North America and Europe can seem so apparent. With a well-trained ear, one can even identify where someone is from by listening to their vocabulary and phrase usage. Below are some interesting examples of words used in North America that are now considered archaic in Europe.
Itou: Possibly an alternation of old French “atout” (with) influenced with “itel” (such) from a Norman dialect of French. Understood in Québec and Acadie.
Frette: From old French, “freit”. A word commonly used in Québec.
Se Haler: A nautical term used by Acadians. Originally meant to move forward or “haul” a boat along the water. It now means to hurry up in slang.
Boucaner: Comes from buccaneer, a word created from the Spanish word “bucanero” and the Caribbean Arawak word “buccan.”
Thanks for Reading!
A special thanks to Professor Jane S. Smith of the University of Maine for her help in the field of linguistics, and to the Bicentennial Grant that made this possible.
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Writer — Dylan Smart-Pelletier.
Editors — Emily Meader and Ben Meader.
—On the history of the Acadians:
Dunn, William and West, Linda. “Early History of the Acadians.” Canada: A Country by Consent. Artistic Productions Limited. 2011. Link. (Written in English).
—On Les Filles du Roi:
Wien, Tom, and Suzanne Gousse. “Filles Du Roi.” Filles Du Roi | The Canadian Encyclopedia, 6 Dec. 2011. Link. (Available in English or French).
—On the History of French in Quebec:
Leclerc, Jacques. “La Nouvelle-France (1534-1760).” Histoire Du Francais Au Qubec: Colonie Du Canada, in Linguistic Planning in the World, Quebec, CEFAN Université Laval, June 23, 2018. Link.