It was a perfect sun-splashed summer afternoon as my mother and I meandered through Quebec City’s old town, stopping at Place Royale, a 400-year-old cobblestone square of historical greystone buildings with dormer windows and pitched roofs in red, copper and slate . My mother was born and raised in this French-speaking city, so I knew that now, at 80, it meant a lot to her to be back for a visit.
As we reminisced, the sound of the local accent floated around us – and I thought about something I’d recently heard: that while the French spoken in Quebec may not ring as romantic or mellifluous to the ear as contemporary Parisian French, now considered the gold standard, the way the Quebecois speak is actually closer in pronunciation to the French used by 17th-Century aristocrats – and even the king.
I grew up in Montreal in the 1960s and ’70s, when anglophones, along with the French from France, mocked the rough-and-tumble pronunciation of Quebec French, comparing it to the quacking of ducks. I myself was always deeply embarrassed in the company of my anglophone classmates at French immersion school. So-called pundits and my teachers, who hailed from France and Morocco, said that the relaxed Quebec pronunciation was disgraceful, that it made a mockery of the language of Molière.
As it turns out, the celebrated 17th-Century playwright likely sounded more like a modern-day Quebecois – rather than a contemporary Parisian – than they knew.
I’d actually baulked when someone told me this a few weeks earlier over lunch at a café in North Hatley, a quaint village in the gently mountainous Eastern Townships, south-east of Montreal. I’d known that Quebecois French had retained many vestiges of “le français du roy” or “the king’s French”, especially in its vocabulary, but I drew the line at pronunciation. “There’s no way that Louis XIV said ‘paw, voilaw’, gold ‘you and me!” I’d said incredulously, as I compared those to the more commonly accepted pronunciations of not, here, and you and me.
But there are logical linguistic and historical reasons why Quebecois French is different from French French (what linguists call “normative” or “neutralized” French).