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Joual, Informal French – an Audio Post with Explanations (#23)

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Joual

A post about “our” style of French

[If you’re looking for the audio recordings which I made, which a number of people are asking me for, you can find them 3/4 of the way down].

This blog post may be of interest to a wider Anglophone Canadian audience, but in particular for those who are learning French.  In my blogs, I’ve been encouraging you to do some web searches and take in some songs, musicians and bits of TV & movies.

A few times I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that there are people who speak “Joual” (such as the previous blog on Fabienne Larouche).  Basically, it’s just a term for very informal speech.  In many ways it could be synonymous with the word “Slang” in English.   Thus, in English we also have informal speech (a Joual if you will), and 90% of the time, we’re not even aware we’re speaking it.

Example:  “I headed down the strip and got me a good cold one at that happenin’ joint I often hit at the tail-end of the week”.   If we were to speak grammatically correct English with words according to the dictionary, the sentence would become “went down the street and boughtbeer at the busy bar I often go to on a Friday“.   Now imagine being someone who is trying to learn English at a basic or basic-intermediate level, and you come face to face with the first sentence;  chances are you would not understand – especially if it is said with a heavy accent.

The same phenomenon occurs in French too, but it can become much more informal in Québec French and other styles of Canadian French.  This informal way of speaking (or slang) is called Joual.   

But don’t let this turn you off from trying to improve your French.  Luckily for those learning French, newscasts, movies, many mainstream movies, much of what is discussed in interviews on television, and the vast majority of literature is in international, standard French, simply with various Québec accents or other regional accents.  The more you learn standard French, the more you’ll be able to pick-up bits and pieces of day-to-day informal speech, or Joual.

Joual is not a separate language, anymore than what casual and informal English is.  Although some people say they are speaking “Québécois” when referring to Joual, it’s not restricted to Québec and it exists in all types of Canadian French (my audio example below is one such example).  Different regions within Québec and in other regions in Canada do have variations of Joual (just as there are different styles of informal speech of English in different parts of the US, or Newfoundland, or the Maritimes, or the Prairies) – but all forms of Joual are still relatively simliar.   Because of Montréwood media and the large number of Joual speakers in Montréal, Montréal Joual is the form most often heard.

Where you may encounter Joual more frequently is in rural regions of Québec and certain areas of larger cities.  But Joual is spoken by all aspects of society (even Denise Bombardier – someone who is known in Québec for being the prime torch bearer for how international French should be spoken — has said she speaks it at home – I didn’t see that one coming when I heard it!).  Joual is also heavily used in comedy.   It’s the colloquial “street talk” that gives the audience a base denominator for many many jokes.  So don’t be surprised to hear it at the Juste Pour Rire! comedy festival, on the radio when jokes are being told, and in conversations about sports.

A Word of caution… sitcoms and drama series on television will often include a certain amount of Joual for added effect.  But don’t become too discouraged.  I once read that many sitcoms and dramas, in English at any rate, are written at level that a six year old can understand (they’re supposed to be family programs after all).  So the Joual used on television shows is often quite basic (in real life it can get much much more hard-core than the bits you hear on TV).  In this sense, sitcoms and dramas are an excellent way to begin to acquaint yourself with basic Joual and to begin to understand it over time.

The explanations I’m giving here are very broad and general.  Linguists have much finer definitions of Joual, and some say Joual is specifically from Montréal, but that it has different names depending on regional differences within Québec and elsewhere in Canada  (Brayon/ Edmonston in NW New Brunswick & La Beauce, Chiac/Acadie, Vallois, Magoua, Chaouin, autre Acadie, Prairies, Rivière Rouge/Manitobain, Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean, Sudburois/Ontario, Cajun/Louisianne, Paw Paw/Missouri, etc.).   For simplicity sake, and for the purposes of this blog, I’ll refer to all of these together as Joual (they’re often grouped together as Joual in the media, anyway).

Linguists are clear in stating Joual is NOT a creole (just as informal English is not Creole).  Nor is it a separate language, and even classifying it as a dialect of French may not be correct since the bar of what constitutes a dialect can be quite loose.  At its most basic level, it’s just very informal speech, often with more informalities than what Canadian English has (but perhaps other forms of English elsewhere in the world can become equally informal).

The only two ways I can think of how two explain Joual, in a more definitive sense, to Canadian Anglophones is (1) through providing comparisons using English, and (2) through actual audio examples.

(1) English Comparisons

There are certain regional accents and regional vocabularies of English in some rural parts of Ireland and Scotland which I have had a very difficult time understanding (perhaps understanding only 20% – 30%).  This is because my ear is not accustomed to hearing the regional accent and words (I recall I had a discussion with a business contact from a very rural region of Ireland, and being Anglophone myself, I was completely embarrassed that I was not able to easily understand when he asked me some basic work-related questions in his variation of rural Irish English).   There are also regions of the Deep South in the US where I’ve had difficulty understanding certain individual’s English accents and vocabulary (we don’t hear it so much in Canada because television networks in the US often do not air more-difficult-to-understand accents, and when they do, they often use sub-titles).

But this does not mean these examples of informal speech are not English.  I am sure that given a couple months living in the environment, I would acclimatize to their way of speaking, and it would no longer be an issue.  If the speech of these regions were to be simultaneously read on paper (or sub-titles), I would be able to follow what’s spoken, and would not have many problems understanding.   That’s precisely why these regional differences are not a different language, and often do not even meet the criteria for being a separate dialect.

Joual works on kind of the same principle.  You’ll often hear others say that people from France cannot understand people from Québec.  But what they really mean is that they can’t understand people form Québec when they are speaking Joual – it’s only a question of not being accustomed to hearing it on a regular basis.  I have known a good number of immigrants who have moved from France to Québec and who, after just a few weeks on the ground, didn’t have many issues understanding Joual.  They simply needed a bit of time to acclimatize.

Something that is interesting about Joual, and a reason why it is so difficult for many Anglophones to understand, is its pervasive use of contractions.  English has contractions (ain’t, can’t, shouldn’t, shan’t, it’ll, you’ve, y’all, nutt’in’, ‘dem’der, ask’em, give’er… , etc, etc,), many of which are very informal.  Joual seems to have so many many more of these types of contractions – often two or three contractions in the same word! – making it difficult for learners of French (as well as French people from France) to isolate and identify the words being spoken.  Throw in a strong local accent, and it becomes all the more difficult to understand – especially when the contractions are not necessarily used in International French.

I’ll give you an example:  Accoutumance in Canada means habitude (or être habitué) in international French (“accustomed to”, “to be used to”, “to be in the habit of”).  Both words (habitude and accoutumance) are used in Québec, but accoutumance is used very informally (similar to Anglo-Canadians saying “Yah, I’m pretty in-tune with it” instead of saying “Yes, I am quite used to it”). Even though accoutumance is not standard International French, someone from France could probably figure out what it means in the context of a sentence, and it would not pose a barrier to communication.  But if it’s contracted in Joual to “ac’t’m’nce” (as if we were to contract “I’d be pretty in tuned to it” to “I’j be p’t’n tun t’it”) then it likely wouln’t be understood by a learner of French or by someone from France (just as the English example wouldn’t be understood in English by someone who has never heard it said that way before).

It doesn’t mean this reflects a dialect or distinct language… it’s just means it’s a regional word that has been… well… contracted (and I mean seriously contracted, my friend!).  Now, put many of those types of words together in a conversation, sometimes one after another (just as I did in the latter English example “I’j be p’t’n tun t’it”), with a very distinct accent, a multitude of regional expressions, followed by even more contractions, and the untrained ear will likely have difficulty understanding Joual.  That’s one of the best explanations I can think of.

I’d say 80% or more of what Anglophones will encounter when going about their lives listening to and participating in Québec French will be internationally understood French, simply with a Québec accent.  From my experience, perhaps 90% of what’s spoken on Montréwood television is also internationally understood French.

But it’s good to be able to recognize the remaining 10% or 20% which may constitute Joual; if for no other reason, than to prevent yourself from becoming discouraged in your own language learning efforts.  It’s a terrible feeling to think you have hit a language learning wall after having put in so much effort to learn a language, when in fact you simply ran into a small bout of informally used French.  But if you recognize Joual for what it is, and you are aware that you encountered Joual instead of standard French, you can forgive yourself for not understanding, and just move on with a smile.

If it’s any consolation, even many Québécois find it difficult to understand different types of Joual.   (A Francophone friend of mine from Gatineau, QC was having supper with someone from Acadia in New Brunswick, and the friend from Québec had a very difficult time understanding the Joual-type language being used by the other person from Acadia.  Likewise, the same situation sometimes arises within Québec as well, such as with aspects of the Joual in the Magdaleine Islands versus that spoken in Trois-Rivières).

Audio Examples

I’ve been racking my brain for some time about how on earth I would find and present to you a good audio sample of Joual.   I spent a fair chunk of time going through YouTube videos, but quite surprisingly (or maybe unsurprisingly), there is very little in the way of good audio examples of Joual online.  The vast majority of French YouTube videos from Québec are standard, run-of-the mill French with a Québec accent, understood by all.  But that is an important point in itself… it reflects the reality that in Québec, standard French remains the lingua franca.   The very few videos which I did manage to find online were, well… quite vulgar – so I wouldn’t link to them, regardless (that’s also a characteristic of Joual, it’s rather liberal its use of profanity, but in no way does that mean it’s always profane or that swear words are always present – so no need to put winter ear muffs on the kiddies when you take a summer holiday to Québec — but during winter, that’s another story!).

I think an audio example is still the best way to help readers recognize Joual.

I’m venturing out on a very long and narrow limb — way waaaay out of my comfort zone here — to do my best to provide you with an audio example of the difference between standard French with a Québec accent, and Joual.   I made two recordings myself, with my own voice… the first one is standard French, the second one is the same story, but told in Joual.  Again, the two versions of the story are essentially the same, paragraph-by-paragraph, and in large part, sentence-for-sentence.   However, I had to change the words, syntax, and accent in each sentence to transform the standard French version into Joual.  I personally have never seen such a comparison done before — so it’s kind of a strange (but quite interesting) experience, even for me — especially while playing it back and listening to the comparison of the two versions (it becomes even more interesting when listening to the Joual version while trying to read along and follow it using the International French transcript at the bottom of this post).

The story in the audio track is based on a true story that happened to me the other night here at home in Toronto.

Plot:  The other night I had to go to bed very early for an important early morning work appointment.  At 3:00am, a car, parked nearby at a convenience store, started to blare its horn relentlessly and would not stop.   It woke up the entire neighbourhood.  My neighbours from all around began shouting at the car to stop honking.   I waited a long long time for the honking to stop, but it didn’t, and the racket outside only intensified.  Just as I was preparing to walk outside and confront the driver, the most unexpected and hilarious thing happened… I won’t spoil the ending for you, but see if you can pick it up from the audio version of the story (the very last paragraph sets it up, and the very last sentence is the punch).

A written transcript is at the very bottom of this post (with translation below it).

NOTE :  The 2nd video has a heavily Alberta French style of Joual, but it’s close enough to numerous styles in Eastern Québec… you’ll get the the drift.  🙂

Like I said… I sure ventured out of my comfort zone by making these audio tracks… so wish me luck !!!

Audio File One – Standard French with Québec / Canada accent

Posted on YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YFcw4XxB81U

Audio File Two – Rural-style Joual

(turn on the “closed captions” mode in YouTube to follow along in Joual).

Posted on YouTube:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srB47x2XWCM

Something to also note is that Joual, when spoken, is often lightly speckled in and out of regular standard French sentences and paragraphs (just as in English), rather than comprising the entirety of a conversation or story (as I presented it here).  But interestingly, sometimes there are a minority of people out there who communicate predominately in Joual (those people are are more rare, and not the majority, but you may run into them — and it’s always interesting when you do).

Bonne écoute!


Transcript in French (For the standard French audio recording).   See if you can follow the standard, International French transcript below when listening to the Joual verson — my Joual version came from my standard French version below.  A translation is at the very bottom.

Je me suis couché l’autre soir assez de bonne heure car il fallait me lever plus tôt que d’habitude le lendemain matin. J’avais un client important à rencontrer. Alors, pour expliquer un peu la scène, pas loin de chez moi se trouve une artère principale avec un dépanneur à 24hrs. Parfois, durant la nuit, on pourrait y voir des voitures qui s’y stationnent illégalement dans la rue en face du dépanneur lorsque les chauffeurs y courent dedans pour chercher du lait ou autre.

Mais cette nuit-là, vers 3hrs le matin, je me suis brusquement levé au son d’un klaxon qui n’arrêtait pas de sonner. Je ne parle pas d’un klaxon court et intermittent, comme on a l’habitude d’entendre. Non, c’était le klaxon des klaxons. C’était clair et certain, que la personne qui appuyait sur le petit bouton rond au volant n’avait guère l’intention d’y relâcher.

Alors, quoi faire… devrais-je attendre encore une minute de plus? Peut-être deux minutes? Voire même trois? Et puis, quoi? Ouvrir la fenêtre lui crier à haute voix? Bon, j’attendrais encore un peu – malgré tout, ça ne pourrait pas durer bien longtemps.

Mais ça durait, et à ma grande surprise, je n’avais rien à faire moi-même car tout le voisinage dans son entier commençait à crier auprès du chauffeur. Les voisins criaient des deux côtés de la rue, des hommes, des femmes, et même des chiens ont commencé japper. En regardant dehors, j’ai vu les lumières s’ouvrant une à une dans toutes les fenêtres du quartier. Combiné avec les coups de klaxon, je n’exagère pas en vous disant que le bruit était assourdissant.

Bon, je n’en pouvais plus! Je m’apprêtais moi-même sortir lui dire ses quatre vérités. Mais, j’avais juste assez de temps d’ouvrir la porte de maison quand j’ai vu une vieille dame, peut-être 85 ans sortir du dépanneur elle-même, bien accroché à son déambulateur, s’approcher de la voiture, ouvrir la porte, et – écoutez-ça… laisser son chien descendre faire pee pee.

TRANSLATION:

I went to bed fairly early last night because I had to wake up earlier than usual the next day.  I had an important client I had to meet.   Thus, to explain the situation, not far from where I live is a major road with a 24 hour convenience store.  Sometimes, during the night, you can hear cars who illegally park in the street in front of the convenience store when the drivers run inside to buy milk or other things.

But this particular night, around 3:00am, I was suddenly woken by the sound of a horn which wouldn’t let up.  I’m not talking about a normal short honking, like you would be used to hearing.  Non… It was the ultimate horn of all horns.  It was very clear that the person laying on the steering wheel button had no intention of letting up.

So, what should I do?  Should I wait for another minute?  Perhaps two?  Maybe even three?  And then what?  Open the window and yell at him?  Well, I though it best to wait a little longer — after all, I was sure it wouldn’t last forever.

But it did last, and to my great surprise, I didn’t have to take any action at all myself because the whole neighbourhood, in its entirety, began yelling at the driver.  The neighbours were yelling from both sides of the street – men, women, and even the dogs began to bark.  When I looked outside, I could see all the windows of the neighbourhood light up one-by-one.  Add to this the honking noise, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it was deafening.

Ok, I couldn’t take it anymore!  I was now getting ready to go outside myself and give the driver a piece of my mind.  But just as I opened the house door, I saw an only lady, perhaps 85 years old, exit the convenience store, hunched over her walker, walking towards the car.  She then opened the car door and — get this — let her dog out to take a whiz.


A bit of additional information regarding my Alberta & Prairie influenced French accent & Joual vocabulary.

I have received a number of emails from people asking questions (particularly from very curious Québécois who say it sounds very familiar to them — like a variation of rural or remote Eastern Québec French – but that they can’t quite place it.  A few people told me they thought it sounds similar to Acadian Chiac French from New Brunswick – bit I do NOT think it sounds anything like Acadian Chiac French):

Regarding the above Joual audio track… my own accent & colloquial vocabulary very much has its roots in rural Western Canada.  Therefore, the style of Joual I grew up with in rural Alberta does has some variations from Montréal Joual (many people I’ve spoken with in the past believe “Prairie French” (or le français prairien) has more in common with Québec North-Coast (Côte-Nord) slang than it does with Montréal slang.

You can read much more about it in the section on Prairie French Accents (click here).
Here is a map with the region from where I grew up and which speaks the above style of Prairie French Joual.

AB-SK7

Any time I have visited the Québec North-Coast, people there had no problems understanding my joual, whereas people in Southern regions of Québec have had a more difficult time understanding my Joual.   I too have relatively few problems understanding Québec North-Coast Joual, whereas I know of people in Montréal and Gatineau who have difficulty understanding Québec North-Coast Joual.  That’s why I think there is more in common between “hardcore” rural “Prairien” French and Québec North-Coast French.

You can contrast Prairie French Joual with Montréal East End Joual in by listening to the Montréal style in the following video:

And again, you can contrast this with very informal speech from the Saguenay region of Québec (the following audio tract from post #329).
I wrote subtitles and added them to the video considering that it may be difficult for some people to understand (turn on the CC button at the bottom of the video)

On the subject of various styles of French, you may be interested in the blog series I did on various accents.  There are explanations, maps, and video examples of French from various regions of Canada (32 general regions).  The last post on French from the Western Province Accents gives more context to the above audio tracts I presented you with.

SERIES:  OUR 32 ACCENTS (7 POSTS)

You might also be interested in this blog post I wrote on European French (the latter half talks about how learning European French comes with its own challenges, and the very last addendum at the bottom contains a very interesting French language “surprise”):  TV5, & European French.


A Fun, Semi-Related Language Challenge:

On the topic of regional slangs & accents, we all have them.  The following can help to put it all into context.

As I stated above, English has quite a number of difficult to-under-stand accents and slang.  We all know that Canadian English in the Maritime Provinces and in Newfoundland & Labrador can be very different, but if you ever doubted that Western Canadian English also has various kinds of “English Joual”, then check out the following video of a style of Canadian English (accent & vocabulary) unique to Saskatchewan.  1000 points to you if you get through it without having to look at the subtitles (but you don’t get any points if you’re from the Prairies – especially from Saskatchewan! – because that wouldn’t be fair).

And then there is the Newfoundland English accent from Canada’s most Eastern province.   It can get quite “hurly!”  I think it’s great!!  (Who said travelling across Canada can’t be a language adventure).   Anyway, here it is…

Just as you think it couldn’t get any worse, you then run into… well… THIS !!!  SAY WHAT !?!?!  (Coming from rural Alberta, I might still have a soft spot for the country… but boy, when I run into this type of rural Ontario talk West of Barrie, even I’m sidewinded!  It sure makes me run back to Toronto, only 90 minutes South, with my tail between my legs!!).

But compared to Scottish accents and slang, Canadian English can often seem tame.  Here’s a video of a heavy Scottish accent and slang:

And here is a heavy rural Irish accent for good measure.  I once had business acquaintance from Ireland who traveled to my side of the ocean to attend a meeting – and he spoke with the type of accent in the video below.   It was the most embarrassing meeting I ever had.  After constantly having to ask him to repeat himself as we discussed our business together, he finally asked me “Don’t you speak English?”  I just answered “I guess not!”

And here is another video of colloquial Scotts English for good measure and to help put it all in perspective.

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