North American French is an Academic Subject

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Writing about the French language is difficult because nearly every native speaker has a point of view relating to how they learned certain words.  “Les mots que j’emploie, ce sont les mots de tous les jours, et ce ne sont pas les meme!” (The words I use are everyday words and they are not the same!”), writes French essayist Paul Claudel (1868-1955).

North American French is a particular dialect peculiar to French speakers with family ancestral roots in Quebec, Northern Maine or Nova Scotia, Canada. Generations of French speakers inherited this dialect from 17th and 18th century colonial settlers who were isolated from their mother country in Europe. “Canadianisms” are common in Franco-American French, being words that developed with their own meanings.  The word “bilou” is an example of how one word has an unusual identity. Recent e-mail discussions with readers couldn’t come to consensus about how to spell this colorful word when it’s used as a colloquial Canadianism to describe a “ghost”.  In formal French, a ghost is “le spectre”.  Perhaps, some old fashioned words were simply handed down from one generation to the next without much regard to correct spelling. Of course, word variations like “bilou”, or “biloux” or “bilieu”, (however it’s spelled) are common in all languages.

After many years of controversy about its appropriateness, Franco-American French or North American French, inherited from the middle ages, is interesting to linguistic researchers who are finally studying the dialect.

 Jane Smith, associate professor of French at the University of Maine since 1994, and Cynthia Fox, associate professor of French studies at the State University of New York at Albany, obtained a grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a three year study. The two begin next month to collect examples of North American French, as spoken by Franco-Americans in eight New England communities including Biddeford, Waterville and Van Buren, Maine. Although other studies have collected data about dialects specific to North America, like Quebecois, Acadian and Cajun French, this is the first study with a focus on Franco-Americans.  Recorded samples of spoken French will be taped and transcribed during the course of the study. 

This research is timely as North American French is experiencing decreasing utilization because more people learn to speak English as their primary language. Also, first and second generation North American French speakers are aging.

In 1997, Wendy Ryback-Soucy, a linguistic studies student at the University of New Hampshire in Manchester, wrote a thesis about the “Franco-American” French and its influence on English pronunciations. 

For example, Ryback-Soucy writes, “When Franco-Americans try to pronounce a “th” in English words, the sound actually comes out as a “t” or a “d” , like “dem” for “them”, because “th” is not native to the French language.  A similar problem exists with English words beginning with the letter “h”. Since the French language lacks a pronunciation for the letter “h”, a name like “Herb”  is frequently pronounced “Erb”.

 It’s unbelievably ironic, but this interest in language research is vindicating the longstanding, and wrongful belief that North American French is not “real French”. Furthermore, speaking English with a North-American French accent shouldn’t be a label of social inferiority.  Mais, la verite, c’est mieux tard que jamais!  (Turth is better late than never!).

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Copyright 1994-2002, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux