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Varieties of French

Like English, French has travelled around the world through repeated movements of colonization and subsequent emigration and is currently the first or official language of over 200 million people. France still administers a number of overseas territories (the départements d’outre-mer or DOM) where a great many regional varieties of French are spoken, as is also the case in the African countries that were formerly French colonies or protectorates. The spectrum of these linguistic variants is vast and much too complex to be dealt with here, so we will focus on the varieties of French most likely to be encountered by English speakers, namely those of Switzerland, Belgium, and Quebec.

French in Switzerland

Switzerland is a multilingual confederation of cantons where four languages are spoken: French, German, Italian, and Romansh, which is spoken by fewer than 30,000 people in the canton of Grisons. French is spoken by around 18% of the population (around 1.3 million people) and is the official language of the cantons of la Suisse romande: Fribourg, Genève, Jura, Neuchâtel, Valais, and Vaud. The French of Switzerland differs little from the French spoken in France and the two linguistic communities have no trouble in understanding each other, though many words and expressions in Swiss French would be unfamiliar to a French person.

Perhaps the most striking difference is the use of the numbers septante, huitante and nonante instead of soixante-dix, quatre-vingt(s) and quatre-vingt-dix. Interestingly enough, septante and nonante are also used in Belgium. Other terms have been drawn from various local patois, from regional French used in neighbouring départements such as Savoie, and also from the influence of the other linguistic communities, particularly German. Below is a brief selection of everyday Swiss French vocabulary.

Swiss French Standard French Translation
action promotion special offer
ballon petit pain (rond) (round) bread roll
baster céder to give in
bobet benêt simple-minded, stupid
boguet mobylette moped
bonnard sympa, bien nice
bonne-main pourboire tip
cornet sac en plastique plastic bag
déjeuner petit déjeuner breakfast
dent de lion pissenlit dandelion
dîner déjeuner lunch
encoubler : s’encoubler trébucher to trip, stumble
fœhn sèche-cheveux hairdrier
galetas grenier attic
guigner épier to spy on
morse morceau piece, bit
natel (téléphone) portable mobile (phone)
panosse serpillière floorcloth
séré fromage blanc fromage frais
services couverts cutlery
signofile clignotant indicator (on car)
simple course aller simple single (ticket)
souper dîner dinner
tout-ménage publipostage, mailing direct mail advertising


tu as meilleur temps à faire ça tu as intérêt à faire ça you’d better do that
c’est en ordre c’est bon, ça va that's fine
j’ai été déçu en bien j’ai été agréablement surpris I was pleasantly surprised
tout de bon ! bonne continuation ! all the best!
santé ! à tes souhaits ! bless you! (for sneeze)

French in Belgium

Belgian French should not be confused with Walloon, which was formerly thought of as a dialect of French but is now considered to be a language in its own right. Walloon is spoken in southern and eastern Belgium and neighbouring parts of France. Belgian French on the other hand does not differ greatly from French in France and also has a number of words in common with Swiss French, notably the use of septante and nonante, déjeuner for petit déjeuner, dîner for déjeuner, and souper for dîner. Interestingly, these names for meals were also used in older French and are still in use today in many areas of rural France. Belgian French does however boast a variety of words and expressions particular to Belgium. Some of these are borrowed from Dutch or German, some from Walloon, and some are simply local coinages and turns of phrase such as savoir used for pouvoir (Je ne saurai pas venir chez vous ce soir) or the use of the Brussels dialect expression non peut-être for oui sûrement (yes, most probably)! Here are a few common belgicismes.

Belgian French Standard French Translation
amitieux affectueux friendly, affectionate
cacaille objet sans valeur worthless object
carabistouille blague joke
crolle boucle (de cheveux) curl
courreries allées et venues comings and goings
dringuelle pourboire tip
gosette aux pommes chausson aux pommes apple turnover
guindailler participer à une beuverie d’étudiants to take part in a student drinking session
kot chambre (louée à un étudiant) room (let to a student)
maquée fromage blanc fromage frais
muser fredonner to hum
pelant ennuyeux boring
ring périphérique ring road
spitant vif lively, animated
taiseux peu causant taciturn
zwanze plaisanterie joke

French in Canada

Quebec French, le québécois, le français du Québec, or le français canadien is by far the most widespread variety of French in Canada. Like the other regional dialects of French, it retains, with a few exceptions, conventional French spelling and grammar but rejoices in a very wide and often colourful range of lexical variants.

Unlike the European varieties of French which have developed over the centuries in direct contact with France, le québécois traces its origins back to the language of the French court in the 17th and 18th centuries, the period which saw a steady influx of French settlers to Canada. It retains many words that date back to this time and it is also often said that the very distinctive accent of the Québécois owes much to the pronunciation of the French of le siècle des Lumières.

The language has also taken in a great many anglicisms but in a gradual way over a span of two and a half centuries of rubbing shoulders with the English-speaking inhabitants of Canada, as opposed to the much more recent invasion of European French by English.

Possibly due to the influence of English, the use of tu is much more frequent in Canadian French than it is in France, vous generally only being used as a mark of respect when talking to an older person. Unlike in France, it is quite usual to use tu when speaking to an official or a shop assistant. In addition, Quebec French is far more ready to feminize names of professions, an area in which the Académie française has taken a rather conservative approach. Thus one finds docteure, professeure, écrivaine and even la première ministre. English borrowings are sometimes pronounced more or less as in English, sometimes à la française, depending on the speaker. Like Belgian French, Quebec French uses déjeuner, dîner, and souper. Here are some lexical differences between Quebec French and Standard French.

Quebec French Standard French Translation
asteure (from à cette heure) maintenant now
balayeuse aspirateur vacuum cleaner
char voiture car
chauffer conduire drive
débarbouillette gant de toilette (face) flannel
être en amour être amoureux, -se to be in love
être plein (Anglicism) avoir trop mangé/être saoul/être riche to be full (eating) to be drunk/to be rich
foin argent money
foufounes fesses bottom, buttocks
fret, frette très froid, ~e very cold
icitte ici here
jammé (Anglicism) coincé jammed
liqueur soda fizzy drink
magasiner faire des courses to go shopping
parquer (Anglicism) stationner to park
plogue (Anglicism) fiche électrique (electric) plug
signe (Anglicism) évier sink
téléroman feuilleton télé TV soap
toune (Anglicism) chanson song
van (pronounced as in English) fourgon van
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