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Learners of French often say the most difficult aspects to grasp are the speed, grammar, strong accent and vocabulary of French spoken on the street.
Here we’ll take a bit closer look at regional vocabulary – words you may hear in one region of Québec, but not necessarily another.
I’m going to start by saying that all regions of Canada have region-specific vocabulary in French (be it various regions of Québec or Acadia, Newfoundland, Ontario, or the Prairies). The same holds true for words in Canadian English which can vary from one region to another. There are not many, but it is an interesting topic nonetheless.
I can give you some parallels in Canadian English to put the concept of regionalisms into context:
- When I was very young and living in Northwest B.C, I recall people used the word “potlatch” in English, which means a group meal – but nobody else in Canada seems to know what it means.
- Likewise, I will never forget the following lesson in “regionalisms” when I was 18 years old when I drove from Edmonton (AB) to Baie Commeau (QC). I stopped at a fast food restaurant in Sault-Ste-Marie, Northern Ontario. I asked for a meal “to stay”. The cashier responded “Excuse me?”. I repeated that I wanted my meal “to stay”. She asked “You mean for here?” That was the first time I realized that people in Western Canada (outside the BC Lower Mainland) say “To stay or to go”, whereas people in Eastern Canada say “For here or to go”. Until that point, I had never heard “For here”.
- When I was in grade three and living in Northwest Alberta, we had a teacher from Newfoundland. The kids were talking about the frogs we caught in the “sloughs” on the edge of town. Our teacher had no idea what we were talking about. He had never heard of a “slough” (pronounced “sloo”). However, if we were to say “swamp” or “muskeg”, I’m sure he would have known what we were talking about.
- When I was young, my parents and my relatives in Saskatchewan used to refer to a “sofa” or “couch” as a “chesterfield”. When I was a child, I never said sofa or couch. For me, it was only known as a chesterfield.
French in Québec and across Canada also has similar-natured regionalisms.
In a prior post on accents, I gave some examples from Prairie French (le français prairien as I call it – from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba) – Click here for those examples. Another example of a regional French word from the Prairies which comes to mind is “soyeu” which means “hump day” (Wednesday); Au moins c’est le “soyeu”, alors il en reste seulement un couple de jours avant la fin semaine. I have never heard this French word anywhere else outside the Prairies. The few times I said it in Québec and Ontario, it only resulted in blank stares (I researched it once, and it seems to have come from old Picard in France and Wallon in Belgium, meaning someone who “saws”. It’s only a guess, but perhaps it came to Western Canada in the 1700s with the voyageurs, and came to be used in the context of “sawing the week in half”).
In the introduction to the prior accent series, I mentioned that regional French accents have been undergoing a major trend of standardization since the 1950s in Québec. The conditions which lead to the rise of regional French accents across Québec and across Canada were also the same conditions which lead to a rise of many regional words, expressions and vocabulary.
But today, these regionalisms are fewer and fewer as people move around and as mass media and the internet “even out the language differences” (the same phenomenon is happening in Canadian English: In the last few years I have noticed people in Alberta are beginning to say “For here or to go” in restaurants, and almost nobody ever says “chesterfield” anymore – even in Saskatchewan, where I recall so many people used to say this word).
Despite the rapid standardization of words in Québec, you still may run into French regionalisms in Québec from time to time — particularly with older generations, but occasionally with younger people.
The next few posts will offer you some examples of regional vocabulary in various regions of Québec (Québec City, Saguenay Lac St-Jean, La Beauce, and Gaspésie)
SERIES: “REGIONAL” VOCABULARY AND EXPRESSIONS (6 POSTS)
- “Regional” Vocabulary and Expressions within Québec – Introduction (#169) – PART 1
- “Regional” Vocabulary and Expressions – Québec City Region – A to E (#170) – PART 2
- “Regional” Vocabulary and Expressions – Québec City Region – F to Z (#171) – PART 3
- “Regional” Vocabulary and Expressions – La Beauce Region (#172) – PART 4
- “Regional” Vocabulary and Expressions – Saguenay Lac St-Jean (#173) – PART 5
- “Regional” Vocabulary and Expressions – Other Regions of Québec (#174) – PART 6