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From coast to coast: French in Canada

Katharine Snider McNair
Executive Assistant
Canadian Language Museum

2015-10-19

Canada is the country with the largest number of native French speakers after France! From coast to coast, French has played an important role in the linguistic landscape of Canada for over 400 years. Many of us speak or read French, some of us fluently, but how often do we think about the unique and varied nature of this language as it is spoken here in Canada?

Today, there are about ten million French speakers in Canada, and they can be found in every province and territory. There are two main dialects: Laurentian and Acadian French. Acadian French originated in Nova Scotia, but it is widespread today in the Maritime provinces, particularly New Brunswick. Acadian French is also the basis of Cajun French spoken in Louisiana. Laurentian French is spoken primarily in Quebec. It originated in the St. Lawrence River Valley and spread westward across Canada. Western Canada was the birthplace of Michif, a unique language developed by the Métis people that combines features from both the French and Cree languages. Michif French is spoken today in small towns in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Language contact is reflected in many ways in the French language spoken by Canadians today. Many commonly used French words derive from First Nations languages: achigan (bass) is of Algonquin origin and atoca (cranberry) is of Iroquois origin. Many English words have been borrowed into Canadian French. These words were often repurposed or extended: for example, pinotte (peanut) is also used in expressions such as être rien que sur une pinotte (full of energy). More recently, immigrants from Francophone countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Haiti are calling Canada home. They bring with them their own use of the French language, which reflects their histories and cultures.

This history of the French language in Canada can be heard in the way we speak and in the way we govern ourselves. This September, the 7th annual Linguistic Duality Day marked the founding principles of our country as a bilingual nation that reflects its bilingualism through its public service. Being able to be served in both official languages is an important mark of Canadianness. With legislation come standards and a need to organize the ways in which we communicate. It is vital that in our efforts to provide better services for different language speakers, we maintain a respect for the unique dialects that are found within the broader official-language families of “French” and “English.” We hope that by educating Canadians about our languages, we can cultivate a greater interest in the unique French dialects that make up our local communities.

The Canadian Language Museum has produced a travelling exhibit about the French language titled “Le français au Canada: d’un océan à l’autre” to help educate viewers about the history and unique linguistic qualities of French dialects in Canada. You can find out more about our travelling exhibits by visiting the Canadian Language Museum website. You can also learn about the French language through the website of our project partner Le Français à la mesure d’un continent (in French only).