Français and québécois

I recently stumbled upon a very interesting article on the Icelandic language and the threats it faces in a modern, English-speaking digital world. This put me in mind of Québec and France, and of the different approaches they have taken against a similar problem.

Take a guess: how was this film’s title translated in France?

With its Académie française, its strict language rules, the huge backlash every time someone proposes a change, any change, to the standard – see for example, the spelling reform of 2016 or the debate around trying to make the language more inclusive – you would think that France would be the best of the two at defending la francophonie, better than a French-speaking province surrounded by two enormous English-speaking cultures. Well that’s not the case. Although France is very good at resisting any attempt at modernising the language coming from within, it doesn’t worry so much about the enemy outside – the great influence of English or American and how it is affecting French vocabulary.

To understand the impact of English on the French language, you need to have a look at popular culture. France doesn’t bother translating American or English film titles anymore, even if they would not sound particularly bad in French: 12 years a slave stayed that way, even though 12 ans esclave would have worked (and certainly been easier to articulate for a French palate). It gets even more ridiculous when an English title is “translated” into another English title. For example, The Hangover became Very bad trip, because nobody knows what “hangover” means in France but everyone can understand basic monosyllabic words such as “good”, “bad” or “sex” – proof that although the French think English sounds cooler, they actually can’t speak it very well. Here, have a laugh.

Québec is another story. Film titles are always translated, in fact they have to be by law since 1977. This ruling is called “loi 101”: it recognises the right of consumers to be informed and served in French, and it also means that shop signs have to be in French, which is why KFC in Québec are called PFK (“Poulet frit du Kentucky”). Another important chapter of the loi 101 established the Office québécois de la langue française, which amongst many other responsibilities, promotes or creates French neologisms to avoid borrowing from the English every time a new concept arises: the two most famous examples being “courriel” (for e-mail) and “pourriel” (for spam).

Here is how the Office translates “scanner” – and what it has to say about France’s approach.

This is not to say that French-speaking Canadians don’t use anglicisms in every day talk. Indeed they use quite a lot – possibly even more than the French. The real difference, as Pierre Larrivée concludes in Les Français, les Québécois et la langue de l’autre (772.c.200.242), lies in how anglicisms are perceived in both places and how the official approach varies as a consequence. Québec and its Office québécois de la langue française see them as a threat; France and its Académie, perhaps surprisingly, don’t worry so much about them (see this 2013 interview in which Academician Patrick Vanier argues that there is no “invasion” of the French language by English terms).

A sample of our holdings on the subject of French language in Québec (C205.c.9833, 663:3.c.200.117, C212.c.2682)

A search in our catalogue for the subjects “French language” and “Québec” yields 93 results; works such as Français, franglais, québé-quoi (772.c.200.115), Les anglicismes au Québec (2013.8.2962) or Le choc des langues au Québec, 1760-1970 (RCS.C.66j.1) focus specifically on the relationship between French and English in the Canadian province.

Anne-Laure Lacour


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