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In Paris a few years ago, a visitor from Quebec met someone who had once travelled to Canada. “We loved our trip!” the Parisian said. “We went to this cozy little restaurant in Old Quebec, and people all around us were speaking in Old French!”

That’s what Canadian French can sound like to European ears.

French goes back centuries in Canada

French has been spoken in Canada ever since the arrival of the first settlers in the St. Lawrence River Valley. At the time, France was a checkerboard of languages and regional patois, only French took hold in the new colony as the lingua franca. It was the language of the governing élite and the clergy, and more than half of the newcomers from France were proficient in it. Historical accounts from the 17th and 18th centuries relate how pure and unaccented it was. History, however, would set Canada and France on separate linguistic courses.

In English hands

The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763 after the Seven Years’ War, made New France a British possession. The colony’s administrators returned to France, leaving 70,000 or so inhabitants behind. How could French ever survive and thrive?

But survive it did. The British Crown first tried to assimilate its conquered subjects, but relented, fearing the people might make common cause with the rebellious American colonies to the south. The Quebec Act of 1774 reinstated the French civil code and provided for freedom of religion and the collection of tithes. The clergy were happy, the Catholic faith was safe, and the people continued to speak French. And with each passing year, the ties with France faded a bit more into memory.

A revolution in France

A few decades later came the French Revolution. Out with the King and in with the Republic! This had linguistic consequences, as there were two competing accents in France—the accent of the Royal Court and the accent of the merchant class. Unsurprisingly, the royal accent fell out of favour.

No such shift occurred in North America, which had virtually no contact with France, and travellers from Europe began to notice the difference. Pronunciations that had once seemed noble and pure suddenly appeared old-fashioned.

Two accents, one language

It’s actually wrong to say that Canadian French is Old French. It’s a very contemporary version of the French that was spoken in Paris in the 1700s. It simply developed in isolation for two centuries, undergoing its own set of influences. Europeans can have trouble at first catching every word, but no more trouble than an American trying to understand someone from Ireland.

Today, 7.8 million Canadians out of a total population of about 39 million speak primarily French. A further 2.9 million can hold a conversation in French. These French speakers reside primarily in Quebec, Canada’s only French-majority province. French speakers also make up a significant minority in New Brunswick and in Ottawa, the nation’s capital.

What it all means

Although the overlap between Canadian French and European French is estimated by some linguists at 95%, the remaining 5% can be problematic if you’re writing or translating for the Canadian market. Some words that are common in France are virtually never used in Canada, and vice versa. Both versions of French borrow substantially from English, but not necessarily the same words.

Cultural references also differ. Quebec has its own star system and TV shows. Media outlets are not the same. Even the climate is different. This has an impact on how you talk to and connect with people.

Adjusting your text for a Canadian or European market is a process we call localization in the industry. It’s one of our great specialities at TRSB. In fact, we’re not just Canada’s translation leader, we’re the world leader in localization into Canadian French. We do more of it than anybody else—and we’re keenly attuned to the nuances you need to capture to make your French communications in Canada a success. Let’s be in touch.