Québecois: maligned accent may have its roots in royal courts

Québec scholar Jean-Denis Gendron traces a 'relaxed, natural' accent to the time of Louis XIV.

By , Correspondent

The French would have two words for it: Très ironique.

Québec's francophones have long been ridiculed by the Parisian French – the scholars, elites, and aesthetes from the ancestral homeland. They have deemed the Québecois accent an "abomination" of what they consider the most beautiful language.

They shouldn't sneer.

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The Québeckers' much-maligned accent can be traced back to the 17th-century court of Louis XIV. At least that's the argument put forth by a prominent Québec scholar, Laval University's Jean-Denis Gendron, a retired linguist. "The Québecois accent is one from the noblesse of the time, it is a relaxed, natural accent,'' Professor Gendron, explains in the most recent issue of the journal, Québec Sciences. "It's only much later that our accent came to be viewed as an abomination."

Certainly, journals kept by explorers and clergymen who visited early Québec throughout the centuries appear to support Gendron's argument.

In 1651, for example, one explorer in New France noted: "The accent is polished. The French language is spoken with elegance."

But somewhere between the founding of New France and 1810, perceptions of the French spoken in what is now Québec shifted dramatically.

"In everyone's eyes our accent suddenly became 'heavy,' 'without grace,' 'corrupt,' " Gendron explains, outlining the central tenets of his new book. Where did the Québecois accent come from? "It's not the Canadians who changed their way of speaking,'' Gendron says. "It was the Parisians."

They missed the revolution

The way Gendron tells the story, historical events conspired against the once-revered Québec accent. First, the English victory on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 cut off links between Québec and France.

A few decades later, the French Revolution not only wiped out the French aristocracy, but ushered in a linguistic revolution unknown to the isolated francophones in the New World.

By the time explorers like Alexis de Tocqueville returned to Canada, the Québecois accent was viewed as ''bizarre," according to Gendron.

His thesis has caused quite a stir in Québec, a province where francophones, at least in the early part of the last century, were stigmatized by Anglo-Canadians and Parisians, if not the rest of the world, for speaking a patois.

"This was a serious challenge to their collective identity," explains Chantal Bouchard, a professor of French language and literature at Montreal's McGill University.

"Nobody likes to be seen as ignorant and a peasant, which is exactly what speaking a patois means," he adds. "So, to demonstrate, in a very convincing manner, that our way of pronouncing French is directly linked to the most elegant period of French culture, the 17th and 18th centuries, is of course quite pleasant."

Respect may still lag

But will it earn the Québecois accent much respect in France? In Paris?

Réjean Tremblay, a ubiquitous media personality in Montreal and a fierce defender of all things Québecois, is doubtful.

"They not only don't like our accent, they don't understand it. We speak French like Texans speak English. We have a singing accent."

Mr. Tremblay doesn't foresee the royal roots of his province's accent changing longstanding perceptions in France.

He speaks from experience.

French dub Québecois into – French

Tremblay created a television series about a hockey team in the late 1980s. The series has had several incarnations over the years, but was simultaneously produced in French and English using bilingual actors. In French, it was "Lance et Compte," in English, "He Shoots, He Scores." When the Parisians purchased the series, they bought it in English and dubbed it into French.

Other scholars believe Gendron's work is significant. But some believe he goes a step too far.

Claude Poirier, a linguist who considers his Laval colleague a mentor, says Gendron puts too much emphasis on the link to French loyalty.

While many early Québeckers did share some speech patterns with 17th-century nobility, they also shared vocabulary and accents from northern and western France – a fact that Gendron fails to acknowledge, Mr. Poirier says.

Still, he says that Gendron's work is important in establishing that Canadian francophones were speaking French, not a patois.

"Mr. Gendron wants to validate the way we speak, because, for some, to say we speak like the French is the only way to say we speak properly," Poirier says.

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