Do you take out money at a “guichet” and charge your electric car at a “borne”? Grab a six-pack at the “dep” and drink a glass of wine on a “terrasse”? Get “bronzed” after a long day in “Parc La Fontaine”? Shop at the “epicerie” and send your kids to the “garderie”? You might be speaking Quebec English.
The province has been roiled this year by debates about anglicisms studding the speech of young francophones, especially modern words such as chill and sketch – a sign, for some, of French fragility in North America.
But, in a less remarked-on dynamic, the linguistic influence goes both ways. Quebec anglophones have also started using a growing number of French expressions since the imposition of language laws in the 1970s, right down to their syntax. Some scholars now call Quebec English its own dialect.
“It’s totally distinct from Toronto English or Halifax English” – and proudly so, said Charles Boberg, a professor of linguistics at McGill University.
After more than 250 years of mixing – since the British victory on the Plains of Abraham – some French rubbing off on Quebec English would be expected. But for generations, there was almost none. Anglophones lived in relative isolation from francophones, in neighbourhoods where they could be served in their own language. Anglo economic power, meanwhile, meant that speaking French conferred little advantage in the workplace.
English “enjoyed some of the characteristics of a high code,” Dr. Boberg wrote in a 2012 paper, using a term of art for a language that confers status. As a low code, Quebec French was, of course, full of borrowed English words – think of job and boss, but also the automotive lexicon from bumper to tank à gaz.
It was really with the victory of the sovereigntist Parti Québécois in 1976 and the passage of Bill 101 the following year that French started seeping into the speech of anglophones. The landmark piece of legislation required commercial signs to be exclusively in French – later whittled down by the courts to predominantly – while imposing French as the language of work for large companies and requiring immigrants to educate their children in French.
Little wonder that the language of Molière – and Michel Tremblay – started to reverberate in Quebec English.
As French took up a greater place in the public sphere, Quebec English absorbed common, everyday “loanwords,” as they’re known. A corner store became a dépanneur, or dep. The patio was banished in favour of terrasse.
Gradually, the borrowings became more specific and unusual. Many anglo-Montrealers now call a driveway shelter that keeps snow off their car a “tempo,” Dr. Boberg observed, after the French commercial name Abris Tempo.
Even in health care, where anglophones have fought for their right to use English, borrowed French words are everywhere. A technician will unblinkingly call an ultrasound an “echo” (after échographie), while a pregnant patient past her due date might speak of being “provoked” rather than induced.
Naturally, the extent of a person’s Gallicisms depends on their degree of contact with French speakers. Even an American who only moved to Montreal as an adult, but then married and had children with a francophone, will be liable to call daycares “garderies” and speak about living “in proximity” to friends and family.
Linguists call the latter – when a person roughly translates a phrase from another language into their own – a calque. Quebec English is full of calques. You hear them when someone beckons a friend to join the party by saying, “We’re already 10 in the park,” as opposed to the idiomatic Canadian English, “There are already 10 of us.”
When the born-and-raised Montreal anglophone parts ways with someone by saying, “I hope I cross you again” – as in the French, j’espère qu’on se recroisera – it is both a calque and, possibly, a nonce expression, a linguistic one-off. The Montrealer isn’t sure anyone else says that, but he knows it comes from French.
Use of Quebec English is often heaviest among the children of immigrants, Dr. Boberg noted, possibly because they had many languages swirling around the home as kids, making their English more porous to influence.
If national origin may be a factor, age definitely is. Older anglophones still talk about Three Rivers – the city everyone else now calls Trois-Rivières – and pronounce CEGEP as Englishly as possible, as sea-jhep. But those people were usually born before Bill 101, when English Montrealers – anglophone is a neologism dating to the language-law era – still called it La Fontaine Park. The share of anglophones who are bilingual has increased dramatically since then, however, from 37 per cent in 1971 to 64 per cent in 2021. Now, most anglos unself-consciously refer to Parc La Fontaine, using the French word order.
Colourful examples aside, the influence of French on Quebec English is still relatively limited, affecting one-quarter of 1 per cent of the local lexicon, according to a 2006 study. By contrast, anglicisms appear far more frequently in Quebec French, thanks to the global power of English.
Benoît Melançon, a professor of French literature at the University of Montreal, said he began to worry not when his 20-year-old son started saying that he was going to chiller with his friends, but when he stopped conjugating the verb altogether. Now it was simply je vais chill. That’s cultural clout.
It may be some comfort to both solitudes, in their perpetual linguistic anxiety, that they increasingly swear alike. A francophone will curse by putting the expletive at the end of a sentence, almost hyphenating the final word, and modern anglophones will now do the same.
”I’m talking like a francophone-damn!” they might say – if they’re being polite.