Saturday, 21 February 2015

Quebec - In Other Words

The Quiet Revolution 

Time and again, as I've been researching Québécois culture, I've come across the expression The Quiet Revolution or la révolution tranquille. The Quiet Revolution is the Québécois equivalent of the social revolution that happened in the 1960's in the United States. During the 1960's, Quebec, like many parts of the world experienced a great deal of change in societal attitudes to all kinds of things, including politics, religion, art, sexuality. There was no great 'revolt' in Quebec but rather, quietly, a new generation began to abandon the conservative beliefs of their parents, move to the city and transform Québécois urban life.

The period of the Quiet Revolution also stands in contrast to the period before the 60's, known as Le Grand Noirceur or The Great Darkness, when Maurice Dupleissis was in charge. And it contrasts with the not-so-quiet 1970's, which kicked off with the October crisis, an extreme left-wing attempt to challenge the Québécois establishment.

I found this documentary on YouTube (only in French, sorry!) which describes the beginning of this period really well and has lots of great footage.

Tête carrée

This is a term I've come across several times and is slang for 'English-speaking Canadian'. It means 'square-head' and seems quite offensive and racist to me, as it focuses on an assumed physical characteristic, i.e. that non-French Canadians have more angular/square-shaped heads than the rounder heads of people who are of French/Gallic descent.

When it's used, it's not in a nice way and square-head also suggests 'thick' or 'stupid' based on the fact that someone can't speak French. Not surprisingly, there is a big cultural and linguistic divide in Quebec, particularly in Montreal and this leads to some animosity, as people resort to stereo-types and assumptions. 


Whether it was in the movies of Xavier Dolan, the music of Loco Locass or the literature of Michel Tremblay, I came across the word joual (pronounced zhoo-al) quite a few times during my research into Quebec. Joual is the name of the Montreal dialect of French, mostly looked down upon by those who speak 'standard' French and, in more recent times celebrated as the working-class dialect of Montreal, an authentic North American language, as opposed to standard French, a language that is so closely connected to Europe. North American French is a mish-mash of regional dialects, mostly from the north of France (places like Normandy and Picardy), so it was never really the same as the standard spoken in Paris. 

French speakers first came to North America before the French Revolution (1790's) and Québécois French retains some old-fashioned words that hark back to the age of aristocratic France. According to Taras Grescoe in his book Sacré Blues, the Québécois word Dépanneur, which means corner store, sounds more like a pirate's cove in the Caribbean, than a modern shop!

Québécois French also incorporated a lot of English expressions, for example the word enfirouâper which means to seduce or trick someone may come from the English 'to wrap in furs' 

Grescoe gives an interesting example to contrast the English-influenced French of Quebec with standard French. When a shop assistant wrote a note on Grescoe's defective CD player, he wrote:

Quand on presse sur 'open', ça fait un bruit weird
When you press 'open', it makes a weird sound

In standard French this should be:

Quand on appuie sur 'ouverture', ça fait un drole du bruit

Other common joual expressions are:

Astheur: now (a cet heure) 
Tsé?: you know? (tu sais?)
Coudon: listen here (écoute donc)

I found this documentary on YouTube (again, only in French) which explains the history of joual

La bougeotte

A Québécois tradition that I found it really hard to get my head around is the annual bougeotte, which takes place every year on the 1st of July. As incredible as it sounds, the majority of accommodation rentals in Quebec run on annual leases, which all finish on the last day of June so, unbelievably, on the 1st July, everyone who is moving to a new house or apartment moves on the same day! 

It's believed that the tradition might actually be a Scottish one, called 'Flitting day' and this used to the 1st of May until 1974, when the Québécois government decided change la bougeotte to the 1st of July, so it would coincide with Canada day - a time when everyone has a day off. 


In a place obsessed with language, it's not surprising to come across a term like allophone, which is the word that describes anyone in Quebec whose native language isn't French or English. The next biggest language in Quebec is Italian, followed by Arabic, Spanish and Greek.

As Quebec enters the 21st century with a greater emphasis on diversity, I'd imagine that the number of allophones can only increase as a percentage of the whole population. In 1971, allophones made up 6.6% of Quebec's population, by 2001 this was 10%. 

Pure Laine

In his book on Quebec, Taras Grescoe has a lot to say about the myth-making around pure laine or pure wool, a term which is used to describe French Canadians who are directly descended from French immigrants and don't have mixed blood. Apart from its obviously racist overtones, Grescoe argues that there is no such thing as pure laine and that even the most 'French' of Québécois families will have some Native American blood running through their veins, not to mention Irish, Scottish and any number of other European ancestries. 

In the early days of settlement in New France, opportunistic immigrants came from all over Europe, mostly men in the beginning, many of whom took native wives or mistresses. It surprised me to learn that an estimated 40% of French Canadians have some Irish ancestry, as this is not something I ever heard about growing up in Ireland. I guess it's got lost in the mists of time!

I found this little video on YouTube which looks at the Irish connection to Quebec and documents a visit made by an Irish group to the Irish memorial in Grosse Ile


When I was watching Xavier Dolan's movie Mommy, I couldn't help but notice the swearing of the main male character, played by Antoine Olivier Pilon, particularly his repeated use of the word tabarnac (meaning tabarnacle) and how this swear word would scandalise and occasionally infuriate the adults around him. As swear words go, tabarnac seems very innocent and certainly nowhere near as potent as English equivalents like the 'f' word or the 'c' word. 

Like English, modern French swear words tend to refer to forbidden parts of the (generally female) body. Swearing is all about sex, which has become the most offensive way of speaking in the modern age. Québécois swear words, on the other hand, come straight from the religious fanaticism of the 18th century, so words like tabarnac, calisse, ciboire and sacrament were shocking religious profanities and, bizarrely, their shock value has persisted into the modern age. 


One of the most magical terms I've learned during my research is chasse-galerie, a Québécois myth about a flying canoe that transports people across the vast distances of Quebec so they can visit loved ones. Taking the flying canoe means making a contract with the devil, however, and inevitably ends up with the souls of those in the canoe being damned because the canoe hits a church steeple on its return journey. What I loved about this myth is that it combines French lore brought over by the first European settlers and Native American legends about flying canoes.

I'll leave you with this animation of La Legende du canot d'ecorce, aka La Chasse-galerie by L'office national du film du Canada

No comments: