Hugh McGuire and Alex Bowyer
Since I moved here three years ago, I’ve been intrigued to listen to the way Montréalers speak. I’ve previously written about my experiences living in a bilingual city, and the bizarre experience of conversations switching back and forth between languages effortlessly.
As a settled Montrealer, having grown in confidence and ability with my French, I find myself doing it too, especially since I started my current job – where the staff are mostly francophones but the business is mostly in English. Most of my daily conversations involve a hybrid of French and English to some degree.
But what I find quite unique is the experience of being in a linguistic minority. While American entertainment culture has clearly impacted people’s conversations here, Québec’s language laws have – in my view – succeeded in fighting that influence and ensuring that the primary language spoken and written here is French. And given that Québec requires immigrants to send their children to French schools, it is likely to continue. More on English Quebec here.
What this curious mixture of influences has created, is a sort of cross-pollination between English and French. Those “false friends” we were taught to avoid in school are not just tolerated but they are the norm. I’ll regularly hear people use French words in the English way. For example a Quebecer might say “Je vais juste manger quelquechose”, using “just” in the way anglophones would. Yet I remember being taught that “juste” in French French means just as in “fair”, and isn’t used like this. Another example is “eventuellement” which means “possibly” but can pass for “eventually” here.
I am sure there are many more of these, but what I’ve noticed even more is that when they speak English, Quebecers don’t speak British English, US English, or even Canadian English. They speak Quebec English, a unique dialect of English.
Quebec English is of course closest to Canadian English (which itself is closer to British English than US English is), but Quebec English borrows heavily from French. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed another language influencing the English I’m used to, although of course even British English has absorbed most of its words from other languages in the past.
With the exception of native anglophone Quebecers, the English spoken here is often incorrect according to standard English rules, and error-prone in grammar and spelling, being their second language. This has taken me a lot of getting used to, as I am the type to correct such mistakes with zeal, but I remind myself how bad my French must sound and it’s easy to button up! (Don’t believe me about bad English in Quebec? Read this).
Over the last couple of years I’ve been observing and collecting some examples of how English is spoken differently here and how French has influenced it. So here it is, my (entirely subjective) guide to Quebecois English:
e.g. “I’ve been here since five years”
One of the first differences I noticed, was the use of the word since. It directly mimics the usage of the French word depuis. “Since” references a point in time, but “depuis” references an elapsed time period. It’s far more common to hear this strange usage of “since” than it is to hear the word “ago” as in “I moved here five years ago”.
Animation / Animator
e.g. ”After the band played, there was an animation.”
or “I enjoyed the show – the animator was hilarious!”
This is an unusual one, the French word seems to have stepped in to fill a void where there is no exact equivalent word in English. An animation is nothing to do with cartoons, but rather a concept I would explain as “any kind of presenter or entertainer that uses his voice”. “Animator” nicely incorporates storyteller, MC, raconteur, comedian, narrator, showman, even a holiday rep doing one of their best efforts at encouraging audience participation.
By the ways, comics are referred to in French as bandes dessinés, sometimes abbreviated to BD (which confused me when I saw a shop advertising DVD/CD/BD – I thought it meant Bluray Disc!)
e.g. “Go to the next cash please”
or “You can pay your bill at the cash over there”.
What might elsewhere be referred to as the checkout or the till is unanimously referred to as the cash. Not “the cash desk”. Just “the cash”. Which sounded bizarre to my ear. But as you can see from the sign above, it’s simply that the French “caisse” sounds a bit like the word “cash”, and the francophones have adopted this “faux-ami” into common usage.
e.g. “Please pass your card” or
“You’ll need to re-pass your card”
While you’re at the cash, you will most likely be asked to pass your card. No, that doesn’t mean give your card to the clerk (even though in practice, given the variety of payment devices, that’s probably the most practical approach). In this context it means “swipe”, and you’re being asked to swipe your card through the reader. Again this is most likely caused by a similarity between the French verb “passer” and the English word “pass”. In many uses, they can be used interchangeably, but there are subtle differences like this. An anglophone would never describe this action as passing (although they might pass through a security checkpoint).
This can make for some misunderstandings if you discuss “passing an exam” with a Quebecer! A Brit would take this to mean the student succeeded at the test – un Québécois might simply mean the student was sitting the exam (from ”passer un examen”).
Which brings me to…
e.g. “You need to take a decision”
or “I had to make a test”
“Faire” ou “prendre”, “make” or “take”, they are all so loaded with multiple meanings in both languages that it’s no surprise there is confusion here. Suffice to say that if you live here, your ears soon learn to switch these verbs interchangeably in order to make sense of the sentence. “faire” is such a common verb in French that “make” gets used in Quebec English a lot more than I’m used to.
On the subject of tests/exams, you may also often hear of someone “writing a test”.
e.g. “Could you close the lights on your way out?”
or “Can you open the shower for me?”
This is an interesting one you hear from time to time, someone will use “open” or “close” in place of “turn on/off” or “switch on/off”. Perhaps it’s because there are fewer verbs for motion & interaction in French, and so the French “fermer les lumières” has been approximated into English. However I’ve also heard that this one is not unique to Quebec, so maybe it’s more of a shift in language over time (as our relationship with electricity & plumbing has changed) that has not yet caught on in Quebec English.
e.g. “He worked here two years ago, he was doing a stage.”
or “Their team is growing, they have three developers and a stagiare.”
This is another word which seems to be called something different wherever you are in the world – An intern, IT, or trainee, who might be on an internship, apprenticeship, placement or residency. In Quebec it’s called a “stage” (with the “age” rhyming with the “az” in “azure”), and the person who does it is called a “stagiaire” whether you’re speaking French or English.
e.g. “I couldn’t get to work on time because of the student manifestations.”
or “I think there was some kind of manifestation downtown”
While it might sound like something from a horror movie, this is another word directly borrowed from French, meaning “demonstration”, “protest”, or maybe even “riot”. It’s still quite common to hear anglophone Quebecers say this though.
e.g. “The youth centre was just granted a subvention”
This is a similar one, meaning a grant or subsidy. Again it’s directly borrowed from the French. I think there’s probably some other “-tion” words borrowed from French into Quebec English that escape me right now.
e.g. “It’s in the book, here. Watch this.”
This one confused me but I’ve heard it a couple of times. I think it’s because “watch” and “look at” both translate as “regarder” en français. I heard it used meaning “look at this”. Usually “watch” would imply that you are about to see some kind of ongoing action, rather than an unmoving object. It’s quite common to hear quirks of language like this, when two, three or four English verbs map to a single French verb.
e.g. “You need cash? There’s a guichet at the café next door”
It’s kind of odd, given that all the cash machines (as I call them) say “ATM” on them, but Québecers regularly refer to it as a guichet, using the French word. ATM is well understood though and used at least half of the time.
e.g. “There was congestion on the autoroute”
or “Part of the autoroute just collapsed.”
Apparently, the Canadian English for “motorway” (British) or “freeway” (US) is “highway”. While you do hear this, it’s equally common if not more so, to hear “autoroute” (pronounced or-toe-root), from the French “l’autoroute” (pronounced low-toh-root).
A similar phenomenon can be observed with “en ligne” where the English “online” has travelled into French. Apparently this is called a calque, I just learned.
e.g. “Is there a parking near here?”
This one amuses me. Parking was adopted into French as the word for a “car park” (British) or “parking garage” (US). And then, being in common usage in the province, it seems to have been re-adopted into English, thanks to one word being more efficient than two I guess.
e.g. “Steak-frites, two times please”
Speaking of which, sometimes English becomes less efficient than it needs to be, by mimicking phrases from the often-more-wordy French. Sometimes when ordering food you’ll hear people suffix the order with the number of people who want that – rather than just saying “Two steak-frites please”.
The / A / Some
e.g. “I like the cakes”
or “Did you buy some bread?” where “Did you buy bread?” would do
or “Are you doctor?”
or “See you the Monday”
These are not great examples of the phenomenon I am trying to describe, but quite often you’ll hear differences in language due to our differing use of the definite and indefinite article between French and English. If you translate what was said back into French it makes sense according to French grammatical rules – but might sound odd in English. These mistakes are never made by anglophone Québecers, but are not uncommon among francophones. Mind you, I probably make the same mistakes with my French!
e.g. “She works at the Children’s”
or “Aidez-nous a bâtir un nouveau children”
This one is as much Québécois French as Québec English. It seems that the word “children” has been adopted in french to mean “children’s hospital”. And it’s used slightly oddly in Quebec English as per my first example – though it may just be an abbreviation, like you might say “She works at St. Mary’s”.
Actually this brings me to my final category of words, which I will call Quebec cultural phenomena rather than Quebec English
These are words which are either the same in French and English, or very close to. They are more Quebec words than they are French words or English words.
“Le dépanneur” or “the dep”
This is what in Britain we would call a newsagent or corner shop, in the US they might call it a 7-Eleven or gas station. It’s just a small shop. Typically it will sell cigarettes, confectionery, beer & wine, packaged/canned foods and some household items – but not usually newspapers & magazines.
I have no idea how you’d write this in Quebec English – but I know it’s pronounced the French way – teh-rass not teh-riss. And it means an outdoor seating area for a pub, café or restaurant. They’re common here whenever weather permits. It’s what we in Britain might call a “beer garden” and in the US they might call it a “deck”.
5-à-7 (cinq à sept)
This uses the French naming in both languages, and it’s a common cultural phenomenon here. It’s loosely similar to “happy hour” but is much more of a thing here… At 5pm or soon after, office-workers congregate in bars and pubs (and on those terrasses) for a drink or two after work with their co-workers. Cheaper prices are usually available on beer & wine.
Sometimes it is written “5@7″ which is a bit confusing to the anglophone brain as you are inclined to parse it as “5 to 7″ – but think of email addresses and you’ll be fine! Remember “à” in French means both “to” and “at”.
“Tout-garnie” or “All-dressed”
This can apply to pizzas, sandwiches or hotdogs and basically means “with everything” – on a pizza it would probably mean mushrooms, green pepper and pepperoni; on a sandwich or hotdog it would mean lettuce, tomatoes, relish, maybe onions too.
Incidentally, sometimes lettuce (the salad ingredient) is referred to by itself as “salad” in Quebec. Which is confusing.
You might see this on a sushi restaurant or similar, and it means “all you can eat/drink” – in effect, a buffet. Not to be confused with “au volant” which is seen on driving school cars and means something like “at the wheel”.
This is something you’d order at “Timmy’s” (Tim Hortons, the most popular coffee-shop here – think Starbucks meets Dunkin’ Donuts). If I understand correctly it’s a large coffee with two milks and two sugars. I believe it is called the same thing in French (though pronounced the French way)
(Note: I have been advised since posting this that Double Double is known in Ontario not just Quebec)
This seems to be loosely equivalent to “skewer” or “kebab” and is common at Lebanese and Vietnamese restaurants as well as fast food joints.
One of the most uniquely Québec foods, and yet you could be in the north of England. It’s chips and gravy. (Fries not crisps). Technically it’s a bit different because it’s cheese curd not cheese and the gravy here is not like that in Europe… but that’s what it is. If you ever visit Montreal, you must try La Banquise – with over 40 different types of poutines! Be warned though, it’s a heart attack on a plate.
Casse-Croute / Hole in the Wall
These are not exactly the same thing, but closely related. A casse-croute is a snack kiosk which sells burgers, fries, that kind of thing. A hole in the wall is not an ATM (as in the UK) but rather any kind of restaurant that serves food from a small window onto the street. This is not just fast food but can include pancakes, Asian food and all sorts of gourmet delights. There’s a good article about it on Chowhound (though they seem to have misunderstood its other meaning in the UK). Note: Hole in the wall is probably not Quebec-specific, but it’s where I’ve experienced it.
Well, that brings my list to an end. If I missed any, please comment below! I’ll come back and add to this post if/when I notice other Quebec English or Québécois quirks.
UPDATED: I have corrected a few errors people pointed out in the comments.