A guide to Québécois: What you need to know
Published on May 17, 2022 / Updated on January 8, 2024
You may already know that Canada has two official languages: English and French. While English is the most widely spoken language of the two, there’s one place where French rules: the eastern province of Québec.
In this post, we’ll discuss what Québécois French is, a brief history of how French came to Canada and how Québécois is quite different from Parisian French. We’ll also go through a bit of Québécois vocabulary (including everyone’s favorite: curse words)!
Québécois is a dialect of French that’s spoken in Québéc, Canada. But thanks to the location and history of the Canadian province—as well as the influence of Canadian culture—the French spoken in Québécois has a lot of unique features that differentiate it from “standard” French.
It’s worth mentioning that there are French speakers in every Canadian province; 21% of the country states that French is their first language. The difference is that in Québec, French speakers are in the majority.
To understand why the eastern Canadian province has a French-speaking population, we’ll need to have a quick history lesson.
In 1535, French explorer Jacques Cartier became the first person to claim Canada on behalf of France. He tried to start a settlement along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in today’s Québec. It didn’t work out for him, though. The harsh winter conditions, natives who didn’t want him there and disease eventually sent Cartier packing. However, the coast of the St. Lawrence River was now considered a French colony (to the French, anyway).
Next up was another French explorer, Samuel de Champlain. In 1608, he established what would become Québec City. He’s also credited with making the region an important fur-trading center, developing it economically.
What happened next is a little surprising. As a result of a war called The French and Indian War that ended in 1763, Britain won control of “New France,” as it had been called, and renamed it the Province of Québec.
Despite having English rulers, Québec didn’t become an English-speaking colony. Instead, the British colonizers decided to protect themselves. They were afraid that Québec’s American allies would help them rebel against Britain. So the British decided to create the Québec Act, which stated that the region would be ruled by French law, the official religion would be Roman Catholic and French would be their official language.
Canada became officially bilingual in 1969 with the Official Languages Act. In 1977, the Charte de la Langue Française solidified French as the official language of Québec.
France French and Québécois French share the same grammar rules, more or less. For instance, in both, nouns are either feminine or masculine, as in le chat, meaning “the cat” (le is the masculine article). Another example is adjectives, which come after the noun they’re describing, as in le chat noir (literally, “the cat black”).
You’ll also find that the spelling of most words is the same (though there are some differences).
But, as we mentioned earlier, Québécois has some features that make it unique—and quite different from the French spoken in France. And while Parisian French and Québécois speakers understand each other for the most part, things like pronunciation and slang can sometimes make it a challenge.
Let’s get into some of the biggest differences between France and Québec French.
While pronunciation and accents vary in different regions, here are some general contrasts between the two types of French.
While the French spoken in France has about 13 vowel sounds, Québécois has 15. So, as explained by John McEvoy of the British Council, moi (“me”) sounds like “mwa” in France and “moé” in Québec.
Generally speaking, vowel sounds in Québécois are also more nasal than in French from France. For instance, the word matin, meaning “morning,” is pronounced “matAHN” in France and “matAYN” in Québec.
When a Québécois French speaker is pronouncing certain consonants before a vowel—such as “t” or “d”—they tend to add an “s” or a “z” sound between the consonant and the vowel. Take the word mardi, meaning “Tuesday.” In Québécois pronunciation, the word would sound like “mardzi.”
Due to its proximity to English-speaking provinces, Québécois vocabulary is influenced by the English language; it also has some elements of the region’s Aboriginal languages. This isn’t the case in France.
Here are some French and Québécois words for you to compare. While the first two Québécois words on the list come from Aboriginal languages, the two under those are quite obviously derived from English (anglicismes).
There’s a really specific set of Catholic-inspired swear words that you’ll only hear from Québécois speakers—these are in no way offensive to people from France.
Saying words like tabarnac (tabernacle), sacrament (sacrament), baptême (baptism) and câlice (chalice) in anger or frustration is considered vulgar. It all stems from the control the Catholic church had over Québécois society in the 19th century. As a form of rebellion, angry citizens began using sacred religious words as profanities.
Now you know what Québécois French is, why it’s spoken and how it contrasts with French from France. Next time you learn a French word or phrase, try learning its Canadian French equivalent as well. Not only will you add a little couleur to your vocabulary, but you’ll also be able to impress locals from Paris all the way to Montréal!