Quebec English

Quebec City

Quebec City (Wikimedia)

Quebec English is a broad term used for the dialects (both foreign and native) spoken in North America’s great Francophone province. There is a cultural divide between Quebec and English-speaking Canada, making it tricky to suss out what marks a “Quebec accent.” So we’ll start with a specific question: what is Quebecois English’s relationship to “Anglo-Canadian” English?

For clarity, I’m going to focus on one obvious feature of Canadian accents: the Canadian raising of the diphthong in “about” before voiceless consonants (resulting in the notorious “aboot” parody).  Let’s look at this vowel in the speech of three natives of Quebec, each with different relationships to the English language.

First up is this interview with former Canadian PM Jean Chrétien.  (No need to listen to the whole thing.) Chrétien grew up a good 130 km Northeast of Montreal, and as such, was raised away from the Anglophone communities of Western Quebec. As such, his accent is quite “foreign-sounding,” particularly notable in his occasional omission of /s/ at the end of plural words.* Likewise, at 1:48 in the video he says the word “about” in a manner which doesn’t strike me as typical of Canadian raising.  I would deem the marked Canadian English influence on his accent minimal, at best.

Then there is this interview with musician Regine Chassagne, a native of Montreal. Chassagne’s accent is clearly influenced by her native language (note the interesting assortment of /r/ pronunciations), but I find her speech much closer to that of a native English speaker than Chrétien’s. Turning to “about,” however, her pronunciation of the word at 1:12 in the video doesn’t exhibit Canadian raising.

But what about Anglophone natives of Montreal? This interview with music legend Leonard Cohen (who was raised and still resides in Montreal) clearly indicates the presence of Canadian raising — note the various pronunciations of “house” and “about” in the first three minutes of the video.  So it would be inaccurate to say that Montreal is entirely divorced from Anglophone Canadian English.

I have no conclusions to offer, of course, since we’ve only looked at three examples and one phoneme. But my tentative impression is that “native” English speakers in Quebec are likely to have features of Canadian English. “Non-native” Quebec speakers, even if they speak the language with near-native fluency, are likely to adopt an accent that, while recognizably North American, is less markedly Canadian.

Interestingly, after doing this quick comparison, I read something on Rick Aschmann’s dialect map site that is quite similar:

For a while I had thought … I had found an area in Southeastern Quebec where Canadian raising did not apply, Specifically the cities of Montreal and Sherbrooke. However, the samples I had selected were ethnic French speakers, and even though their English showed no trace of a French accent, Chris Harvey says that ethnic French speakers are not the best samples of the native English Montreal accent … It seems my entire idea was wrong that, because the Stanstead area was settled by Americans, they would still speak like Americans rather than Canadians. Apparently the “Badge of Identity” applies here, too!

My knowledge of Quebec French itself, I should mention, is quite shaky.  If anybody knows anything about Quebec French and how it influences the English spoken in the province, let me know!

*An obvious point to many readers, but the French language differentiates between singular and plural nouns. However, as plurality is often indicated through vowels or contextual clues in spoken French, this can result in some curiously s-less plurals when French speakers learn English.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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17 Responses to Quebec English

  1. Laura says:

    My husband is Québecois and a native French speaker; he did not speak English full-time until he came to the U.S. about 8 years ago and retains a very strong accent. Not only does he use a lot of S-less plurals, he sometimes puts an S on the end of a singular noun. My theory is that it’s an elision thing–it feels easier to say “I saw that movies and it was really good” (moviezand) than to make a clear stop between 2 vowel sounds (movie and).

    • trawicks says:

      Interesting. It hadn’t occured to me that the converse might be true, but it makes a lot of sense. If someone tends to drop esses in places they wouldn’t be dropped in native English, it’s hardly surprising that someone might hypercorrect and insert some esses where they don’t belong!

      • Erica Walch says:

        This is something that Spanish speakers do in English, too. And both also do this with past tense markers — I was talking with someone today (a native Spanish speaker) who left off the /t/ on “walked” and later on added a /t/ to the end of “like” (when she was not talking about the past). I can’t recall ever hearing an Italian speaker or Portugese speaker do it.

        I think of it as an incipient awareness that those sounds (the plural marker for nouns and past tense marker for verbs) go somewhere — and they’re put on the right sorts of words (rarely do I hear someone slapping a past tense sound on the end of a noun) — the learners are throwing ‘em out there and seeing what sticks.

        • trawicks says:

          It’s also not dissimilar from people non-rhotic accents rhoticizing their speech with pronunciations like “idear” and “sawr.”

        • dw says:

          @trawicks:

          Actually I think it _is_ dissimilar. Intrusive R is the result of a late phonological rule optionally inserting [r] in certain environments. The phenomenon here appears to be morphological rather than phonological.

        • trawicks says:

          I completely agree with you on that count. Intrusive r is conditioned by rules relating to the environment V_#V, while intrusive ‘s’ among French-Canadian L2 English speakers (for example) appears to primarily impact /s/ after nouns (I’m assuming; otherwise “probably okay” would predictably be “probablies okay” among such speakers!)

          But “intrusive r” is a feature of native English accents; I’m more specifically referring to nominally “artificial” situations such as Brits adopting an American accent (as in the case of some pop music) or Long Islander’s attempts to make their speech rhotic. I think both this type of “mistake” and the L2 “mistakes” we’ve mentioned can be chalked up to misapplied rules (whether phonological or morphological).

        • jonathan says:

          My wife is Mexican and since I speak Spanish I have come to notice that they will use the past tense for like in Spanish instead of present tense, even though in English you would use present tense… E.g. when eating food, Spanish speakers will say “me gustó” WHILE they are eating, which directly translated would be “I liked it” even though they haven’t finished the meal… An English speaker would say “I like it”. Regarding the leaving off of the ‘t’ sound in walked… I have found that Spanish speakers are reluctant to use that sound because they are not sure if it will be an ‘e-d’ sound as in ‘created’ or the the ‘t’ sound you mentioned in ‘walked’. Instead of making a mistake and sounding silly, they just avoid it because they know that in context an English speaker will understand.

    • Margo says:

      They also cannot pronounce the letter “H” too well in English. In French, the letter “H” it is either silent, or paired with a c to become a “sh” sound. You will here “the temperature is very -ot outside today” (pronounced “ought”) or “I like riding -orses”.

    • Margo says:

      They also cannot pronounce the letter “H” too well in English. In French, the letter “H” it is either silent, or paired with a c to become a “sh” sound. You will hear* “the temperature is very -ot outside today” (pronounced “ought”) or “I like riding -orses”.

  2. D S Onosson says:

    Jean Chretien has partial paralysis of the left side of his face from an incident during his childhood, and so may not be a good example of typical Quebecois speech.

  3. ella says:

    The influences of Quebec French on the English of native speakers tends to be one of vocabulary. Even monolingual Anglo Quebeckers go to the ‘dep’ or dépanneur’ rather than to a corner store or convenience store, to give the most famous example. Anglo Quebeckers are also likely to ‘open’ and ‘close’ electrical appliances and ‘broom’ the floor. Another fairly major influence in Montreal English comes from the Italian influenced English typical of the children of Italian immigrants. A significant proportion of the Anglo population here is Jewish and have fairly strong ties to New York city, that and the fact that Yiddish is still a living language amongst some Montreal Jews probably has an influence.

    Many people consider Montreal English to be one of the more ‘neutral’ North American English accents, I don’t know how true that is. Leonard Cohen’s age and extensive travelling might make him a less than ideal example of the contemporary Montreal accent. I would point to Jay Baruchel or Elisha Cuthbert sound pretty typical of the speech of the Anglo Montrealers that I know. Anglo Montrealers do tend to lean fairly heavily on the ‘r’s in their speech.

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    Jacques Parizeau messes everything up……

  5. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words

  6. Margaret S. says:

    As far as I know, there are four different kind of Quebec Englishes; the 4 kinds of Quebec English speakers are: (1) Quebec anglophones. (2) Bilinguals. The English of bilinguals, even though they speak English with no trace of a French accent, is different from the English of anglophones. (3) Francophones; those who speak French natively, and speak English with a non-native accent, and (4) Allophones.

    Some of the examples referred to above, such as Laura’s husband and Jean Cretien are (3), and their English has different features than that of (1) and (2).

    Note that (1) may also speak French, but if so, they are distinguished from (2) because the French of the former has a non-native accent whereas (2) speak French natively.

    Another interesting thing to note is that the accented English of a Francophone Quebecois is quite different and distinguishable from the accented English of a European French speaker.

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