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François Lavallée on Canadian French - history, meals, swearing, language and culture

August 30, 2016



Anne joined ITI French network on 13 August 2016 at Imperial College for


An afternoon with François Lavallée -

“Le français québécois, qu’est-ce que ça mange en hiver”


François Lavallée is a member of OTTIAQ, the Qubec translators’ organisation, and teaches translation and revision at Université Laval, Québec City, as well as regularly speaking and training at translation events such as this summer’s “Translate in Cambridge”.  He gave a most interesting and entertaining talk, given in French Canadian of which he is a native speaker, ranging over the history, culture and linguistic particularities of the language and comparisons with the French of France.


Around 22% of the population of Canada speak French as their mother tongue – about 7.3 million people.  This makes French the second language after English (58%).  Most live in Québec, where French is the majority language, with quite large minorities in New Brunswick, Manitoba and Ontario.  Québec city was founded in the early C17, French being the language of the settlers.  In the late C17 large numbers of French Calvinists emigrated to Canada when freedom of religion was restricted in France under Louis XIV. In 1763 the Treaty of Paris sealed British domination of the territory and removed French control.  However, Anglicisation of the French-speaking population failed, and in 1774 the Quebec Act restored French civil law.  1867 saw the formation of Canada as a federal state and French became the official language of Québec. 


Today a number of different dialects of French are spoken in the different regions of Canada.

We learned that French Canadian is full of picturesque expressions such as the one he chose as title of the talk, which means roughly “what’s that all about?” or “what’s that when it’s at home?”.  Another I liked was “avoir les pieds dans la même bottine” which means to be awkward or clumsy.


François also gave us some information about the origins of some French Canadian words and expressions.


Interestingly, many terms derive from seafaring heritage: for example “virer de bord” (to change direction – originally to tack); “se greyer” (to prepare for something – originally to get the boat’s equipment ready), and “mal greyé”, badly prepared; “enwèye” to hurry up (this looks as though it was originally derived from English – “get under way”).


Archaic terms can still be found in the language: for instance “à cause que” (parce que); “souliers” (chaussures); “menterie” (mensonge) “présentement” (précisément).


Usage in French may differ from that of Europe:  “Déjeuner” in Canada is breakfast, while in Europe it is lunch.  Conversely, “diner” is lunch in Canada, while the evening meal is “le souper”.  Plenty of opportunity to get confused about meals!  Again, some expressions definitely don’t mean the same as they do in France, for example an afternoon get-together in a café, or “happy hour” is a “5 à 7” in Qubec (in France it’s an extramarital affair).  Ironic emphasis is provided by expressions such as “c’est bien de valeur” for “c’est dommage” and “c’est écoeurant” for “c’est fantastique” (more opportunities for misunderstanding!).


An interesting quirk is the use of the “tu interrogative”, in which “tu” is repeated, as in: “tu veux-tu ?”; “tu m’aimes-tu ?”; “tu viens-tu ?” and “ça va-tu ?”.


Anglicisms of course are present, given the history of federal Canada, but are not always the same as those commonly used in France.  Whereas in Canada French and English speakers have lived side by side for hundreds of years, in France English borrowing has tended to be more recent.  Examples of differing use of English words are the use of the word “shopping” in France (faire du shopping), and “faire les magasins” in Canada.  Some expressions are specific to Canada: “c’est cute”; “ploguer” (to plug – both senses); “catcher une joke”; “party de Nöel”.  Some English expressions are hidden “rencontrer des objectifs”; “prendre une chance”; “être sur un comité”; “c’est le fun”.


A very rich linguistic vein that François introduced us to consists of the history, derivation and examples of Canadian French swearing.  Based on historic religious words and expressions, the language has a massive variety of swearing resources.  A much-used example is the verb câlisser, which is a general expression of “je-m'en-foutisme”.  We viewed a film clip in which an English speaker and a French Canadian speaker played a version of “good cop/bad cop” showcasing the French Canadian swearing ability, in which the latter was proved superior!

Finally, we experienced a bit of Canadian French culture as we watched a clip of a popular band and François talked us through the lyrics – full of obscure expressions and very difficult to understand.  French-speaking Canada has a very rich and inventive musical culture and has produced many iconic figures in rock music.


I would like to thank François and the French Network for putting on an unusual and most interesting event.  Any errors or omissions in this report are of course mine alone.


Photo attribution: By Marie-Luce Lavallée (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons



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