There was a palpable buzz in Quebec arts circles in June when one of the province’s most bankable movie producers unveiled the star-studded cast for an upcoming film version of Les Belles-Soeurs, the iconic Michel Tremblay play that first put “joual” on the cultural map.
Before Mr. Tremblay’s play debuted in 1968, the popular French dialect spoken by working-class Quebeckers had long been looked down on by the province’s elites and drummed out of students – though not always successfully – by the priests who ran the collèges classiques.
Les Belles-Soeurs (The Sisters-in-Law) changed the conversation. For years after its debut, a debate raged in Quebec over whether joual was an abomination and insult to the French language or a mark of Quebec’s cultural distinctiveness to be embraced and celebrated.
The debate has never really been resolved. But the linguistic inferiority complex that once haunted francophone Quebeckers vis-à-vis their cousins in France is largely a thing of the past, thanks in part to the generation of Quebeckers who, like Mr. Tremblay, made joual cool.
Though the raw joual of Mr. Tremblay’s plays is now rarer in everyday conversation – reflecting the effects of education and mass communications on spoken Quebec French since the 1960s – even the most erudite Québécois will bleat out a sentence in joual in moments of great happiness, exasperation or wonderment.
For me, such moments are a joy to behold. Apparently, not everyone agrees.
Concordia University marketing professor Gad Saad created a minor brouhaha in Quebec last week by calling the Québécois accent “an affront to human dignity” on The Joe Rogan Experience, the top podcast on Spotify in the United States and Canada. Mr. Saad’s comments did not go over well in his adopted province, I’m guessing in part because most francophone Quebeckers had probably never heard of Mr. Rogan before last week.
Anyone familiar with Mr. Rogan’s bombastic anti-woke polemicizing would have sloughed off his guest’s remarks as just more of the same blather that passes for stimulating conversation in a saturated podcast market. But apparently, enough insulted Quebeckers took the bait to express their outrage on social media, allowing Mr. Saad to play the victim.
“Cancel Culture has come for me, in this case disguised as linguistic pride,” he tweeted. “Tribalism is never good … It’s not healthy for a society to be driven to such hysteria because of a passing joke.”
The reaction in Quebec hardly qualified as “hysteria.” It is summer, after all. And most of the nationalist politicians who might have sought to make hay from Mr. Saad’s remarks are, mercifully, at the beach or somewhere else far from the madding crowd of the National Assembly.
In an op-ed in La Presse, Université du Québec à Montréal linguistics professor Richard Compton called Mr. Saad’s comments an example of “glottophobia” or “prejudices or discrimination based on language or dialect.” Despite Mr. Saad’s claim that “the auditory signature of Quebec French … is unattractive, ” Mr. Compton pointed to scientific studies showing there to be no objective basis for deeming one accent nicer than another.
Rather, according to Mr. Compton, such “subjective notions have more to do with our perceptions of the people who speak these languages (their social prestige or their similarities relative to our own language) than with the languages themselves.”
That sounds about right.
Besides, I am not sure just which Québécois accent Mr. Saad was referring to in the first place. As in France, where accents vary widely based on region, Quebeckers in le Saguenay or la Gaspésie do not speak in quite the same way as those in other parts of the province. The difference might not be immediately perceptible to an outsider or non-francophone, but it is easy for fellow Québécois to identify.
On the streets of Montreal, you will these days hear many different French accents, just as you might expect in any francophone metropolis that is a hub for immigrants. Many children of North African immigrants, for instance, develop an accent that might be described as a hybrid accent equally influenced by that of their parents and the one they pick up at school.
One thing is certain, the Québécois accent is not easy to imitate. Countless French actors have tried and failed. The opposite is not true. Dozens of Québécois artists have led successful careers in French theatre and film. One theory for why that is so is that Quebec French uses a wider variety of sounds, and the vocal cords of Quebeckers develop accordingly, enabling them to adapt their accent more easily than their French cousins.
Needless to say, I will probably be among the first in line when the movie version of Les Belles-Soeurs is released in 2024. I suspect Mr. Saad will not.