Acadian French is one of the major varieties of French spoken in Canada (see French Language in Canada). It is associated with the francophone Acadian population and is spoken mainly in all four Atlantic provinces as well as in some parts of Quebec Compared to other forms of French spoken in Canada, many varieties of Acadian French are considered quite traditional in their form and structure. One reason for this is because Acadia was cut off from France in the early 18th century (see History of Acadia). Even during the French colonial period, contact with people from France, including colonial administrators, was limited. As a result, Acadian French has characteristics that were typical of the French spoken in the 16th and 17th centuries, but that have disappeared from the French spoken by other communities across North America, France and beyond.
The Acadian population of Canada is descended from the inhabitants of Acadia who returned from exile after the Deportation (also known as the Great Upheaval) which began in 1755. Much of the land on which they had lived was handed over to British colonists and American Loyalists. As a result, most of today’s Acadian communities are located outside the historical boundaries of what was once Acadia.
Today, there are Acadian communities in all four Atlantic provinces and in some parts of Quebec, notably on the Magdalen Islands, in several villages on the south coast of the Gaspé Peninsula and on the north shore of the St. Lawrence estuary. Most Acadians live in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (see French Language in Canada).
An Acadian flag flying in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Early Acadian French
The earliest audio recordings of Acadians are of speakers born in the mid- to late 19th century. In order to imagine how 17th- or 18th-century Acadian French might have sounded, we must rely on other sources of information.
There are some written sources — personal letters and journals, for example — that give us an idea of how early Acadian French might have been spoken. However, most people in the early Acadian population couldn’t read or write, so these documents are few and far between. In addition to these few Acadian written sources, we can also rely on other sources, such as plays and dialogues, personal letters and traveller’s diaries from 18th-century France to help us to reconstruct how Acadians might have sounded at that time.
Among the more traditional linguistic features in contemporary Acadian French, we find use of the pronoun je (I) instead of nous (we) with first-person plural forms of verbs (we sing: je chantons instead of nous chantons), the use of the ending -ont with third-person plural forms (they sing: ils chantont instead of ils chantent), and the use of the simple past tense (I descended: je descendis). Other examples include the use of bailler instead of donner (to give), and the use of the sound [u] (as in “spoon”) in place of the open o in words such as pomme (apple) and homard (lobster).
Different forms of Acadian French also share many usages with Quebec French, such as the use of je vas instead of je vais (I go), être après + infinitive instead of être en train de + infinitive (to be in the process of doing something), astheure instead of maintenant (now) and à cause que instead of parce que (because), as well as the pronunciation of er as [ar] (for example, parsonne instead of personne). These reflect the fact that Acadian and Quebec French both have roots in the French colonial period.
Acadian French varies from one region to another. For example, within New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, linguist Karin Flikeid found variation in how certain French vowels are pronounced. Linguist Ruth King observed that some of the typical features of spoken 16th- and 17th-century French are preserved in several Acadian communities on Prince Edward Island and in Nova Scotia, but far less so in New Brunswick.
Another well-known feature of Acadian French is the effect of contact with English (see French Language in Canada). This contact is far weaker in regions where francophones are in the majority (for example, in northeastern New Brunswick) than in those where they are in the minority (as in the southeastern New Brunswick city of Moncton and in some areas of Nova Scotia). In these latter communities, francophones regularly borrow terms from English and incorporate them into utterances in traditional Acadian French.
Linguist Marie-Ève Perrot offers up a good example of this from her research in Moncton with youth aged 16 to 19:
pretty much tou/t/ mon argent vient de mes parents / un jour / well soon faudra j’arrête de bummer off zeux à cause comme / je sais qu’ils pouvont pas afforder de me faire vivre pour toute leur vie (Pretty much all my money comes from my parents. Well, soon I’m going to have to stop bumming off of them, because I know they can’t afford to support me for the rest of their lives.)
Here, we see how terms borrowed from English — “pretty much” for presque, “well” for ben, “soon” for bientôt, “bummer off zeux”(bum off them) for “vivre à leurs dépens” (live at their expense), and “afforder” for se permettre —coexist with usages such as the pronunciation of the final t in “tout” and the use of “à cause” for parce que (because) and“ ils pouvont” for ils peuvent (they can). This way of speaking is referred to as chiac.
Although it is looked down on by some, chiac conveys a certain dimension of Acadian identity, mainly for people from the greater Moncton area. Increasingly, many are choosing to celebrate chiac. It is valued by authors such as Dano Leblanc and France Daigle and singers such as Lisa LeBlanc, who use it in their art.
Behind the scenes: Reconstructing 18th century Acadian French for the Acadian Deportation Heritage Minute
No contemporary variety of Acadian French corresponds exactly to Acadian French as it was spoken in the 18th century. However, research suggests that some contemporary forms of Acadian French from southwest Nova Scotia come close.
DID YOU KNOW?
The 18th-century Acadian French spoken by the narrator in the Acadian Deportation Heritage minute is based on two varieties from southwest Nova Scotia, notably from the communities of Argyle and Clare.
Most Acadian communities established after the Deportation were composed of people from different regions who probably spoke different varieties of Acadian French. However, the communities of Argyle and Clare in southwest Nova Scotia differ from this general pattern.
In the case of Argyle, some villages were established before the Great Upheaval and saw the return of Acadians to their former communities. In the case of Clare, historical records suggest that most of the founding families originated in the former habitation of Port-Royal and so represented a fairly homogenous group in terms of the variety of French spoken.
Research shows considerable diversity across different Acadian communities. Several studies point to the varieties spoken in the municipalities of Argyle and Clare as being some of the most conservative varieties of Acadian French, since they retain many linguistic features lost in most other spoken varieties of French. Some of those features include:
- use of point as a marker of negation, as in je veux point ça (I don’t want that), which occurs alongside pas, as in je veux pas ça;
- pronouncing er as [ar], so that terres (lands) sounds like tarres;
- pronunciation of /r/ in the front of the mouth (i.e., apical /r/) rather than in the back (i.e., uvular /r/);
- use of the verbal suffix -ont in third-person plural contexts, so that ils mangent (they are eating) is pronounced ils mangeont;
- use of the simple past tense (vs. the passé composé), as in the example ils se decidirent (they decided);
- and use of the imperfect subjunctive as in fallait qu’ils furent (they had to go), rather than generalized use of the present subjunctive (fallait qu’ils alliont).
Choices related to linguistic features such as pronunciation, verb conjugations, sentence structure and word selection were made so that the narration would resemble 18th-century Acadian French as closely as possible.
“On” and “Je…ons”
In contemporary French, a first-person plural subject can be expressed by two different forms: use of the pronoun on (e.g., we’re eating: on mange) or by the pronoun nous used in conjunction with the verbal suffix -ons (e.g., we’re eating: nous mangeons).
Historically, there is also a third form: use of the pronoun je with the verbal suffix -ons, as in je mangeons (we’re eating). The fact that the southwest Nova Scotia varieties currently preserve the je…ons form suggests that 18th-century Acadian French would have likely also had these forms.
Several sociohistorical sources for French show that the je…ons form existed in the history of the French language more generally. For example, in an in-depth analysis of first-person plural forms, linguists Ruth King, France Martineau and Raymond Mougeon show that the je…ons form was used in urban France until at least the 19th century when it was supplanted by first-person plural use of on. Their analysis relies on many sources, including three centuries of information from plays, grammarians’ commentary and early 20th-century data from linguistic atlases. Taken together, the description of contemporary conservative Acadian French with the historical documentation suggests that an 18th-century Acadian French speaker would have used both the on and the je…ons forms, which were both used in the Acadian Deportation Heritage Minute script.
Another conservative linguistic feature included in the narrator’s speech relates to the pronunciation of the open o vowel as [u] (as in “spoon”) (e.g., man: homme vs. houmme, like: comme vs. coumme, good: bonne vs. bounne), a phenomenon referred to as “ouisme” by linguists. Aside from its presence in contemporary varieties of Acadian French (including in the southwest Nova Scotia region), we find ouisme in the history of French more generally. Acadians originated mainly from the centre-west regions of France, but we also find more widespread use of ouisme in France. In his sociohistorical study of the French spoken in Paris, R. Anthony Lodge reports that it was used even in Parisian French until at least the 18th century. The fact that ouisme is found in contemporary varieties of Acadian French and was also found in European French until the 18th century suggests that an 18th-century Acadian speaker would likely have said “hoummes.”