by Martin Fournier
For two centuries until the Brits decided otherwise in 1761, Canada was a French colony called La Nouvelle-France. Lacking military power and the will of its then monarch, Louis XV, France gave up its North American possessions.
So much for French résistance in the 18th century. Since then, Canadian French has evolved.
60,000 French Canadians were abandoned to their fate. Thanks to the Catholic Church that encouraged mingling with indigenous peoples and endless cold winters that favored such mingling, the birth rate increased rapidly. We call it la revanche des berceaux (revenge of the cradle). Et voilà! Les Québécois sont là! Here to stay, with their one-of-a-kind language.
The recent referendum on Scottish independence reminded me of two such referendums on Quebec independence held in 1980 and 1995. In the latter, Quebec nationalists lost by a margin of less than one per cent. It had never come so close. Since then, the nationalist movement has been dwindling inexorably. A recent poll (February 2021) suggested that only 32% of Quebecers now favor independence. Let’s say we’re not holding our breath for a seat at the United Nations anytime soon.
Why in heaven’s name would Quebec want to become a separate nation and carve up beautiful Canada?
The answer has much to do with the French language. Numbers speak for themselves, and in North America, they speak mostly English and Spanish. French speakers amount to only 2% of the North American population.
Canada is officially a bilingual country, and our current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks both languages fluently (better marks in English, though), yet Québec is the only Canadian province where French is the official language.
To put it bluntly, Quebecers have a gut fear of losing their French. So, they fight, if not for their independence, at least to preserve their unique idiom and culture.
Much has been said about the “cultural exemption” pursued by Canada since the 1980s, in its various trade agreements, notably with the United States, requiring quotas for Canadian and French-language content on the airwaves. Without these measures, Canadian culture would be in dire straits. Now, what distinguishes Canadian culture from, say, American culture? Well, there’s this je ne sais quoi, inherited from our French ancestors who discovered Canada in 1534.
Excuse Their French
What’s so special about the French spoken in Québec as opposed to the idiom spoken in France? The key word here is spoken. Well-written French, in literature, journalism, or song writing, for that matter, knows no boundaries. It’s all about grammar, style, and punctuation, whether you’re writing a novel in Paris, an essay in Montreal, or waxing poetic in Port-au-Prince. What fundamentally differentiates Canadian French and Parisian French, is first and foremost, the accent.
The moment a Quebecer opens his mouth in France, especially in Paris (uttering one word is usually enough), he’s spotted. Indexed, categorized, cornered, jinxed. “Je reconnais cet accent.” (“I recognize this accent.”) Of course, you recognize it. Your ancestors spoke that way in the 17th century. Don’t you have any recordings?
After spending 27 years in Paris, I speak from experience, and have pondered the issue many a time. How much of a hindrance, notably as an author-screenwriter, is it that I am perceived as a Quebecer in Paris’ audiovisual milieu? I’m still figuring it out, but in the meantime, I’ve had a few occasions to collate the two French idioms.
From 2009 to 2014, I was hired by SODEC (Quebec’s Film Fund) as translator/adapter for Cinéma du Québec à Paris, an annual event that presented the year’s best Québec films to Parisian audiences and potential distributors. Most films were in Canadian French, meaning that about half of them had to be subtitled, since most Parisians couldn’t decipher the Québécois dialogue.
As might be expected, translating French to French entails a fair amount of redundancy, but also from time to time, real adaptation work, notably with regards to contextualization. Cases in point, teenager lingo and street talk require substantial adaptation, to say nothing of indecipherable mumbling and curse words. (Incidentally, when it comes to cursing, the Québécois hold a definite advantage over the French.) I guess we just have more colorful ways of expressing angst.
Long Term Exposure
Having been exposed to Canadian French and Parisian French since childhood through education, literature, film and television, most Quebecers have a keen ear for French, no matter the accent.
They can decipher any French curve balls thrown at them from any francophone mounds, even in a stadium packed with Anglos.
The French will never admit to it, but they admire what Québec is doing for the advancement of the French language. From our North American vantage point, we’re watching out for any linguistic intruders, especially from south of the border.
In the early 1960s, the Quebec government created the Office québécois de la langue française, a public institution that regulates French language use in Quebec. Since its inception, the OQLF has been a watchdog, making sure every English word finds its proper equivalent in French. Over 250 years of British rule and American proximity, a sizable number of English terms were literally imbedded in the Québécois idiom. In the realm of motor cars, for example, words such as wipers, power steering, clutch, brakes, gaskets, muffler, torque and exhaust, were in common usage in Quebec, until the OQLF gallicized all car parts and components, de pare-chocs à pare-chocs (from bumper to bumper).
Regarding automobile terminology, the OQLF simply “reminded” French Canadian car salesmen, mechanics, and motorists, lest they did not bother looking it up, that the French language already had perfectly suited terminology for all things motorized.
Baseball was a whole new ballgame. In 1969, when the now-defunct Montreal Expos joined Major League Baseball, French terms were created for every word of the game. French-speaking sports commentators and Quebec baseball fans were the only people in the field using terms such as flèche au champ-centre (line drive to center-field), arrêt-court (short-stop), receveur (catcher), moyenne au baton (batting average), lanceur de relève (relief pitcher), and fin de la neuvième (bottom of the ninth). Les Expos balaient les honneurs du programme-double (The Expos sweep the double-header.)
Ever since the Expos left Montreal in 2003 to become the Washington Capitals, French baseball terms were benched and are now seldom heard outside of minor league Quebec ballparks.
French in Quebec: Survival Mode
It has been over 40 years since the independence referendum was narrowly lost by Quebec nationalists. Apart from political considerations, the biggest loss was suffered by the French language. To say it is not thriving would be an understatement. Outside literary circles, high-quality cinema and television programing, serious journalism, and higher education, the French language is slowly, but steadily losing ground in Quebec, and thus in North America. Little can be done to quell the onslaught of English on French culture. That battle’s long been lost, if hardly ever fought.
Just as at the time of the British conquest in the 18th century, Quebec is linguistically besieged from all sides, except perhaps the Far North, where Innu culture poses no immediate threat to the French language. Motherland France is not much help and certainly not an example of resistance to the English language. The French love their English, although a vast majority of them can’t speak it to save their lives.
French-speaking Quebecers are not as fond of English as the French, but most will speak it, some fluently, if required, sometimes even just for the fun of mimicking Americans. Quebecers are fine with American culture, they just try not to be completely overtaken by it.
En somme (all in all), Canadian French can be defined as a linguistic underdog in North America, historically linked to one of the most predominant cultures of the Western world.
Like many cultural minorities, French Canadians find solace in creativity. Given the size of its population, Quebec has a rather considerable number of artists: musicians, composers, playwrights, authors, poets, and actors, all practicing their craft in a French environment, as if Quebec was a culturally self-sufficient entity. The French language may be dwindling in North America, but culture thrives in Quebec. It also happens to be big business. The rest of Canada and the US know it. The big studios know it. Netflix is now investing massively in Canadian-content production.
Despite the formidable hurdles facing its future, Canadian French is not about to be lost in translation. It’s holding strong, and France should take heed, but will it? As Groucho Marx once famously asked: “How many Frenchmen can’t be wrong?