Snobs in the French chattering classes have always made great sport out of mocking the unrefined accent of their Québécois cousins. Scholars have gone so far as to suggest that the language spoken by early Quebeckers was a patois scarcely related to French.
But an eminent Quebec linguist now contends that the roots of that relaxed accent, with its loose consonants, many contractions and pervasive "ay" sounds, can be found in the 17th-century court of Louis XIV.
"The Québécois accent is one from the noblesse of the time, it is a relaxed, natural accent," Jean-Denis Gendron, a retired professor from Laval University, argues in the October edition of Quebec Sciences. "It's only much later that our accent came to be viewed as an abomination."
The Quebec accent's voyage from the king's court to linguistic "abomination" can be traced through historical events and the accounts of visitors to the colonies, Mr. Gendron argues.
Early settlers in New France came from western France and were highly influenced by the Parisien aristocracy. Later, in the colonial era, clergy, military officers and local governors carried on with that influence.
Mr. Gendron's research shows that as late as 1757, the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville wrote that "the Canadian accent is as pure as that of the Parisians." Around the same time, a French clergyman said Canadian French was closer to the language spoken in Paris than the French spoken in Bordeaux or Marseilles.
The language link changed dramatically over the next 50 years.
The English victory on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 cut off links with France even as French academics worked on a massive project to standardize grammar and pronunciation.
"They got rid of all the pronunciations they didn't judge perfect for high society, and the cleanup continued through the 18th century," said Claude Poirier, an expert in French-language history at Laval University.
The French revolution of the 1790s eliminated the French aristocracy who still shared Canadian speech patterns, Mr. Gendron said.
The French re-established links with their French-Canadian cousins in the 1800s and found a language they barely understood. In 1810, the Paris-trained Englishman John Lambert was among the first to note the "deplorable" French-Canadian accent, but he was soon backed by French explorers Théodore Pavie and Alexis de Tocqueville.
"These travellers spoke with the new French accent and they found our accent very bizarre," Mr. Gendron said.
Mr. Poirier, who considers Mr. Gendron a mentor, said Mr. Gendron's work, published in his new book Where Does the Québécois Accent Come From?, is important for finally establishing something that may seem evident on the surface: The original French Canadians really did speak French, not a patois.
However, Mr. Poirier thinks Mr. Gendron goes a step too far by putting such emphasis on the link to French royalty. Mr. Poirier says much of northern and western France, where most francophone Quebeckers can trace their roots, did share some speech patterns with the 17th-century aristocracy.
But he said that Mr. Gendron ignores other vocabulary and accents that could have come only from Normandy, Saintonge and other regions of western France, far from King Louis's court.
People from those rural areas "spoke a popular language that was largely shared with Paris, but they had their own habits, words and pronunciations that were not known in Paris," Mr. Poirier said. "Those things are now part of everyday language in Quebec. Gendron doesn't talk about that."
Mr. Poirier said that Mr. Gendron's desire to link Quebec-French to Paris is a throwback to a 100-year era starting in the 1860s where French Canadians looked to France for cultural validation after the crushing failure of the Patriotes rebellion.
During those years, it became fashionable to self-identify as "French from New France." The fleur-de-lis replaced the maple leaf as the predominant French-Canadian symbol. Right up to the 1960s, a proper Parisien accent was favoured on Quebec airwaves, even for calling games on the radio.
"Mr. Gendron wants to prove our language is as good as the French from Paris, 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," Mr. Poirier said.