Home » Language and Language related » A brief history of France’s former languages, and how they helped to shape our French in Canada (#217)

A brief history of France’s former languages, and how they helped to shape our French in Canada (#217)

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Not long ago I came across two well-made YouTube videos.  One offers samples of France’s 28 different accents.  The other offers samples of 45 languages which are native to France — from the three major French language groups.

In a nutshell, French(as we know it today) is a relatively young language.  It was based in part on languages / dialects which existed in regions in and around Paris for centuries.  Modern French came about when it took elements from the languages / dialects of the Paris area, as well as a number of other nearby and closely related dialects.  In broad terms, they became mixed together in a big language stew, and voilà! — Modern French was born, primarily in the 1600s & 1700s.   (This is an oversimplified summary of what happened – but that’s basically it in a nutshell).

When I use the word “dialect” or “language”, my choice of words is a question of semantics.  Here I’ll use the word “language” (instead of “dialects”) because speakers of many of the dialects referred to in this post would not have necessarily been able understand one another (which is a characteristic of what constitutes separate languages).

Prior to the birth of Modern French (in the 1600s & 1700s), all the languages which existed in the Northern half of France were descended from a “super-group” of languages called the Languages of Oïl (les langues d’oïl).  These 20+ languages existed for roughly 1,500 years, well into the 1700s — at which point modern French began to supersede and replace them.


Even though the Languages of Oïl were related, if you were to travel across Northern France in the year 600, 1000, 1500 or even 1700, you would have possibly traveled through 20 different language zones.  Likely you would not have been able to understand the locals as you crossed from one language zone to another (at that time in history, French was not the common every-day language of France).   However, when French began to supersede these other languages, French spread beyond Paris to the outlying regions, and the government began to forcefully suppress (basically wipe-out through forced assimilation) all the regional languages.

A very similar phenomenon existed in the Southern half of France.  Whereas the related languages of the North fell under the umbrella of the Languages of Oïl, in Southern France, there was a different group of many related languages called the Occitan Languages.

A region of Eastern France also had a separate grouping of languages called the Franco-Provençal (or Arpitan) Languages. 

Unlike the Oïl Languages, the Occitan and Franco-Provençal languages did not contribute as much to the formation of Modern French (if you listen to recordings of the Occitan & Franco-Provincial languages, they sound very different from French – with sounds and pronunciations much closer to Italian, Latin, Catalan and Spanish — whereas the Oïl Languages have sounds and pronunciations much more related to Modern French).

Also, just like the other Oïl Languages, the Occitan and Franco-Provençal languages were forcefully repressed by the government, starting in the 1700s, and replaced by Modern French.

Although all these languages of France were wiped out over the course of 300+ years, the inhabitants of each language region retained many different accents which can be associated with the original languages.  Thus, as you travel throughout France today, you will hear many different French accents, sometimes very different from one another.

What I find extremely interesting is that there are still some individuals in France who still speak the former regional languages.  Depending on the language, their numbers can be quite small.  Native speakers are often senior citizens, and some languages may have almost no speakers left (with the only remnants existing only in old audio recordings made 40 to 90 years ago).

How this fits into Canada’s style of French:

In the 1600s and 1700s, the original settlers to Ontario and Québec brought with them the languages of the Paris region (at least how it was spoken in Paris at that time – which is different from how it is spoken in Paris today).  The Parisian language was the main language spoken in New France (the French colonies of North America), but there were significant numbers of other Languages from France such as Norman, Saintogeais, and Gallo.  Settlers also came from other areas in the Northwest and North-central parts of France.   Paris’ language became the standard norm in Québec and Ontario in the 1600s and 1700s, but it carried heavy language influences from other regions of Northwestern and North-central France as people mixed and added their own linguistic nuances to the overall pot.  It was this mixing of Northern France medieval languages which gives us our way of speaking French in Canada today.

Consequently, there are two major forms of French in Canada today (each with many varieties of accents and colloquialisms).

  1. One grouping covers Québec, Ontario, the Prairie Provinces (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta) and British Columbia.  This is also the dominant style in the media (owing to the fact that Montréal is the epicentre of Canada’s Francophone media).  It is based on a much broader mix of old languages and accents which came from France.
  2. Conversely, in Canada’s Easternmost provinces we find Acadia (the provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador).  The original French settlers to Acadia in 1605 (and those who continued to come up until the 1700s) came from narrower, more localized regions of France.  In France, they came from regions a bit further South than the settlers who went to Québec and Ontario.  But the Acadian settlers were still from the Northern Half of France and the still spoke languages of Oïl.   Because the settlers spoke different Oïl languages than those who went to Québec and Ontario, Acadia ended up speaking a different style of French — a unique style which is still spoken as the main type of French in our Atlantic provinces today (called Acadian French).

The YouTube recordings:

Someone went to a good deal of work in creating the following YouTube videos, and making them publicly available for our viewing and listening.  They found and put together a collage of sound recordings of 28 accents throughout France, and 45 of the languages of France.

  • France’s 28 accents from all regions of France: 

In this first video, see if you can hear aspects of accents in Northern and Northeast France which share some traits with Canadian French accents.   There are some shared traits – and it is quite intriguing to listen to.

Pay particular attention to the Charentes (Saintonge)”, “Nord-Picardie (Thiérache)”, “Orléanais (Blésois)”, andPoitou (Deux-Sèvres)”, accents.   Sound familiar???  —  I especially find the Charentes (Saintonge) accent to be quite interesting – but all of them are very interesting (I’m thinking out loud here… When I listen to the above accents, I certainly can hear accents which share definite traits with those of Québec’s North-Coast,  Gaspésie, Northern Ontario and older Canadian Prairie-French accents).  Now mix all the above accents together (plus a few more), and guess what overall accent you’re likely to begin to get!  (Wink, wink!!).  And that, my friends, is precisely what happened 300 – 400 years ago here in Canada.

  • France’s 45 languages:

As a speaker of Canadian French, what I find fascinating about the video below is that I (quite surprisingly) find some of the languages relatively easy to understand.   Three of the languages which stick out as relatively easy to understand are PercheronMainiot, and Poitevin (despite that I had never heard them prior to listening to this video).  Even though I can understand them, I am not sure that people in other regions in France would understand them quite as easily.   This is because they seem to share many more traits with our colloquial French in Canada than with standard International French (or even colloquial European French).

Something I find quite shocking (but equally fascinating) is that I can hear vocabulary and expressions in these languages which we regularly say in Canadian French but which are not said in France French and have died out in France.   The following are some prime examples of words / phrases I heard in the languages I pointed out.  They are things we say everyday in Canadian French (many many times every day).  I, like most people in Canada, took it for granted that these were uniquely Canadian words — but apparently they’re not, and we now know their true source! (from some of the old Languages of Oïl).

  • où-ce que t’as..?” or où ce qu’y est…?”
    • instead of “où est-ce que tu as…?” or “où est-ce qu’il est… ?”,
    • which means “Where did you…?” or “Where is…?” in Canada
  • à c’t’heure
    • instead of “maintenant”
    • which means “right now” in Canada,
  • fait-qu’là
    • instead of “alors”
    • which means “so in Canada,
  • M’a faire, aller, etc….”
    • instead of Je vais faire, aller… etc.”
    • which means I’m going to do, go… etc.” in Canada,
  • ben’qu-là
    • instead of “bon!”
    • which means “well…”, or “so then” in Canada, etc.

And then there were the accents and tones… such as the old French Montréal-Windsor-St.Louis corridor aveolar “Rs”, and Acadian vowel flattenings.

Truly fascinating stuff — like a 400 year old time-machine, but with a mirror with our face in it!

I suppose it indicates that the degrees of separation from the original French dialects which came to Canada in the 1600’s & 1700’s, and the style of colloquial French we speak today across Canada and Québec may not have diverged as much as one would think.

Other languages which I surprisingly do not have major difficulties understanding are aspects of Picard (Ch’ti), Orléanais (which appears to share many traits in common with Acadian French in Canada), and Gallo.  

It was actually quite eerie listening to these languages for the first time.  There was an instant sense of “familiarity” with them, despite having never heard them before.

Go figure!  😉

Where all this fits on a language tree:

As with any language, I suppose you could say any given language has “sibling” languages and “cousin” languages.

A cousin language would be when one older language gives rise to a few parallel new languages.   In a broad sense, Latin gave birth to many different language groupings.  Some examples would be the Italo-Dalmatian grouping (which includes Corsican, Italian, Sicilian, etc), the Eastern Grouping (which includes Romanian, Aromanian, etc.), the Langue d’Oïl grouping (which includes French, Norman, Walloon, etc.).

In general, these “groupings” could be said to be positioned like “cousins” with respect to one another on a family tree.   In language terms, sometimes you can understand your cousins, but sometimes you cannot.   Some of French’s cousins would include Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese.  I can understand (especially read) a good deal of these three language cousins.  Conversely, English’s closest cousin is the language of West Frisian which is spoken in the Northern Netherlands.   English speakers cannot understand or read West Frisian (or any other cousin of English) owing to too much separation in terms of time and geography.   So it’s hit and miss when it comes to understanding cousin languages.

Then there are the sibling languages.  Each of the “cousin groupings” gives birth to a number of other languages (“sibling” languages) through closely related circumstances of geography and history.   In the Oïl Language grouping, we find the languages in the above video (for example, Percheron, MainiotPoitevin, Picard (Ch’ti), Orléanais and Gallo).  As a Canadian French speaker, the above-mentioned sibling languages are not difficult for me to understand, despite that I had never heard them before (whereas other “sibling” languages in the Oïl Language grouping are difficult for me to understand).   Conversely, English has two sibling languages… one has gone extinct (Yola), and the other is Scots.  Sometimes Scots can be a bit difficult to understand if you are not used to hearing it (see the video below), but if you were to read it aloud, chances are you would understand 80% of it if your native language is English.

Click below to open the language tree to see where French and English sit with respect to their language “cousins” and “siblings”.    The languages discussed above are in “Blue” on the tree.

Indo-European Tree - blue - jpg

We already heard samples of some of French’s language siblings.  But as an English speaker, if you’re curious about English’s only remaining sibling, Scots, here are some examples:

This is a sample text of Scots from Wikipedia:  Quebec (Québec in the French leid) is a province o Canadae. It is the mucklest province gaun bi aurie o Canadae. Quebec haes a population o 7,651,531 fowk. The offeecial leid o Quebec is French, an aboot 90% o the indwallers o Quebec speaks it (aside French, baith Inglis an Inuktuit are spoken). The caipital ceety o Quebec is Quebec Ceety (Ville de Québec in French), an the mucklest ceety is Montreal (Montréal). Maist o the fowk in Quebec are French Canadians (or Québecois), but Erse-Quebecers, Scots-Quebecers, Inglis-Quebecers, Italian-Quebecers an Jewish-Quebecers bide there an aw.

Just for the fun of it, I’m going to have a go at translating it.  Let’s see how I do (I’ll put my guesses in parenthesis):  Quebec (Québec in the French language) is a province in Canada.  It is the largest (?) province (something something) of Canada.  Quebec has a population of 7,651,531 people (or folk).  The official language of Quebec is French, and about 90% of the inhabitants (dwellers) of Quebec speak it.  Apart from French, (something) English and Inuktitut are spoken.  The capital city of Quebec is Quebec City – Ville de Québec in French.  And the largest city is Montreal.  Most of the population (folk) in Quebec are French Canadians – or Québécois, but (something) Quebeckers, Scottish-Quebeckers, English-Quebeckers, and Jewish-Quebeckers also live (abide) there (but I assume they’re not saying they live there “in awe”… so I don’t know what the last word is).

How did I do?  It looks like I could understand 90%.   If you want to read the full Wikipedia article, you can find it here;  http://sco.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec

But… Let’s ramp this up a notch, and see how well your listening skills are.  I’ve seen the following video, and although I would likely not have many problems “reading” what is being said – I cannot say the same regarding my listening skills.  I have only ever had minimal exposure to listening to Scots, so believe me when I say that 80% of what is being simply flies over my head.   Have a listen and see how you do (if you are an Anglophone Canadian, I’m sure you will do NO better than me in understanding what is being said):


If you want to read more on all these topics, you can check out the following Wikipedia articles:





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