Joual or Patois

By Juliana L’Heureux

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While visiting a bookstore in York County recently, a lady behind the counter expressed a common misperception about the French language spoken by Franco-Americans. "Franco-Americans do not speak real French," she said.

Sometimes, perceptions are difficult to confront, even when they are blatantly wrong. In fact, Franco-Americans speak "real French" but with a special accent peculiar to the North American continent.

Frequently, the local Franco-American dialect (not always recognized as "real French") is called "patois" because it is an accent, like American Southerners speak when talking English to a New Englander. 

Another common difference in the Franco-American dialect is called "joual", which is a slang form of the French language with roots in the La Beauce region of Quebec, says Norman Beaupre, a Biddeford native and University of New England professor.

"Joual is a particular kind of patois," says Beaupre. For example, the French word "joual" actually means, "horse". 

"Joual is just a peculiar way of saying things," says Beaupre.

Perhaps the most famous fan of the Franco-American dialect was writer and novelist Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), who grew up speaking French in Lowell, Mass. Kerouac labeled his family’s particular Lowell "patois" a "languagy-language" because he found it to be more expressive than formal French.

Kerouac’s fans defend the writers love of his native French dialect. "The Regional French spoken by Kerouac in Lowell and his by brethren was not ‘joual’. Instead, he spoke Franco-American French. He spoke the kind of language spoken by the French, who live around New England," writes Mary Sands, a writer who reports on Kerouac for the "Beat Generation News" in Lowell. Furthermore, joual is not a written language, says Sands. Instead, it is a distinct sounding language, an oral form of French-Canadian-French.

"To say the French spoken in Lowell, Mass is, or was, "joual", in my view, takes away something from the status of the unique form of Franco-American expression," says Sands. 

"Although Sands is technically correct, I believe Kerouac’s mother, Gabrielle, may have used some joual in her informal French", responds Beaupre.

French-Canadians who immigrated to New England in the 19th century surely brought along some joual with their patois. Eventually, these Francos added "Americanisms" to their dialect as well. For example, a Franco-Americanism for a Protestant Church is a "meetan" (pronounced "meeet-ain") because the religious liturgies were spoken in English (not in French), like a New England town meeting. 

In rural Northern Maine’s St. John Valley, the French language evolved differently due to the isolation of the communities from one another writes Madawaska newspaper publisher Don Levesque. Consequently, travelers to the St. John Valley who understand French typically hear differences in pronunciations of certain words depending on the town they visit. Additionally, it is common to find an expression in one particular St. John Valley town but never hear it spoken in other towns. 

Understandably, in the four centuries since the first French settlers arrived in North America, the Canadian and the Franco-American French has evolved and developed into a distinctive communication. Canadian-Franco-American-French remains a true language because almost all the important vocabulary is the same regardless of what "patois" is spoken. Yes indeed, even people who speak Canadian patois and Quebec joual are absolutely French speaking people.

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Published on September 14, 2000
Copyright 1994-2000, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux