Like any other language that has travelled as much as French, there are a variety of regional accents and dialects that might confuse anyone learning French outside of Paris. Fortunately, if you immerse yourself in the local life, you will soon acquire the right accent and intonation, ingest the local slang, and very likely confuse anyone speaking High French when you meet them. It is not always simply a question of pronouncing French words differently, but also of the evolution of certain characteristic grammar particularities and even non-French vocabulary.
So whether or not you want to stick to learning French pronunciation in its standard form or want to gain fluency one of the non-standard regional variations depends entirely on why you want to learn French in the first place: do you want to speak conversational French to integrate into wherever you are living, or communicate with French people on an international level?
French Regional Accents in France
France is not quite the hodgepodge of accents that Britain is, but there are regional variations - not just accents, but dialects. Here is a small selection, a little insight into French culture.
You will hear Meridional French spoken in areas where Occitan (also called the Langue d’Oc) used to be spoken, both historically and currently.
Occitan is a Romance language that evolved in the south of France, from the Pyrénées to the Alps (including in Monaco), and in parts of Spain and Italy. In the Middle Ages it was one of several Romance languages spoken in France. In fact, some of the earliest pieces of French literature are in medieval Langue d’Oc.
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Meridional French differs from French in a few grammatical particularities. For example, there is a verb form called the passé sucomposé - j’ai eu été- along with certain other variations in conjugation, a high use of “faire” (to do) as an auxiliary verb, and “que” to replace other conjunctions.
The definite article is often used in place of the possessive pronoun:
Comment va la soeur ? How is the sister?
J’ai mis le petit au lit. I put the little (one) to bed.
In terms of pronunciation, Meridional French has a few quirks:
- It tends to accentuate the second to last syllable in words rather than the last, which is more usual in Metropolitain French.
- A silent “e” in the middle or end of a word is more likely to be pronounced.
- Nasal vowels at the end of words get a subtle “g”: “pain” is pronounced “paing”
- The -en sound is often pronounced like the “in” of standard French.
This is only a selection of what separates Meridional French from Standard Franch. There are other variations of course, and within Meridional French there are further regional variations throughout the south of France. You can listen to the accent from Marseilles here.
The French spoken in Alsace
Because of its proximity to Germany, and the prevalence of Alsatian, a German dialect, the French spoken in Alsace is a little different from the standard French language. In fact, Alsace has changed hands several times in French history, belonging sometimes to France and sometimes to Germany.
The Alsatian accent can be identified by several particularitie:
- Alsatian French tends to stress the first syllables of words instead of the last.
- Nasal vowels are less pronounced.
In terms of daily parlance, the influence of Alsatian is rather pronounced with certain expressions and usage such as:
- “ça donne” (”es gibt”) instead of “il y a” for “there is”
- words borrowed from Alsatian such as “le schluck” for “la gorgée” (the sip, the swallow), “le stück” for “le morceau” (the piece).
Speaking French in Brittany
In Brittany, they still speak Breton, a Celtic language in the same family as Cornish and Welsh. Again, Breton has seeped into the regional dialect spoken there.
A few of the ways in which it will differ from normal French are:
- In asking questions, the main object of the question is brought forward:
Le pain, le manges-tu? The bread, you are eating it? Instead of: Manges-tu le pain?
Le film, tu l’as aimé? The movie, you liked it?
- Using demonstrative pronouns when talking about people:
Celui-là est un peu fou. This one (m.) is a little crazy. Instead of: Il est un peu fou. He’s a bit crazy.
Celle-là veut devenir danseuse. This one (f.) wants to become a dancer. Instead of: Elle veut devinir danseuse.
- Using “avec” instead of other prepositions, sometimes causing rather hilarious misunderstandings with other French-speakers:
J’ai été au lit avec le docteur. I have been to bed with the doctor. This actually means: the doctor prescribed bedrest.
This wonderfully illustrates why, if you are taking online French courses, you should make sure your teacher speaks standard French.
The French spoken on Corsica
Again, with Corsican French we have a regional French that borrows a lot from the local language, Corsican.
The Corsican accent is fairly similar to standard French, though, like Meridional French, it tends to speak otherwise silent “e”s. There are some further subtle differences among the vowels; linguists among our readers with a good grasp of French might be interested in this article.
Some ways to distinguish Corsican French are:
- The contraction of “tu es”, which in standard French is “t’es”, in Corsican French is “t’ies”
- When you have seen someone, you say “il a vu à Valérie”, instead of “il a vu Valérie”
- “Autant” is often used for “peut-être” (maybe) or anything expressing a supposition or desire.
Le parler Lyonnais
There are two regional languages in Lyon and the area surrounding it. One is Lyonnais, a dialect of Arpitan or Franco-Provençal (both it and modern French derive from the Langues d’Oils), and the parler lyonnais, a dialectal version of French influenced by Lyonnais.
The Lyonnais accent is especially noticable on the vowels “o” and “eu” which are pronounced closed. It also makes more of a difference between open and closed vowels, such as between “haut” and “hôte”.
Grammatically, here are some of the differences for this patois:
- The pronoun for an indefinite direct object is often replaced by “y”: “j’y sais” instead of “je le sais” (I know (it) ); "je vais y faire" for "je vais le faire".
- Again, the use of the passé surcomposé is more common in the parler Lyonnais than in standard French.
- The preposition “quand” is used to mean “at the same time as.”
Le parler Savoyard
Another Arpitan language is Savoyard, a patois spoken in the region of Savoie - and yes, it influences the local French. There is also a local argot called the mourmé, developed by masons. Some mourmé expressions have made it into the colloquial French spoken in Savoie.
The parler Savoyard is similar in some aspects to the parler Lyonnais with its use of “y”, for example. Another typical example is the addition of “ou bien?” at the end of questions.
The parler Savoyard has a lot in common with the French spoken in Switzerland.
There are many more regional variations of the French language, such as the accents and dialects of Franche-Comté, Lorraine, etc… Often, these only survive in rural areas and among the elderly. There is even a regional French spoken in the UK - on some of the Jersey islands (a variation of the dialect spoken in Normandy.) But let’s take a look at French accents and dialects elsewhere around the world.
The Québécois Dialect of French
Québec is a province of Canada where they still speak French. In fact, you might say that Québec is the original Canadian colony, once part of New France and ceded to the British after the Seven Year’s War in 1713, and that the rest of the French territory was conquered, colonized or annected by settlers from there - including Acadiana, an area around the Mississippi that later became a part of south Louisiana, and where they speak a Creole French.
There are a few other areas of Canada where French is spoken, such as New Brunswick and part of Nova Scotia, but in Québec, French is an official language and all street signs and official documents will be in French as well as English.
So with Québécois, we have yet another example of French being influenced by another language - this time, it’s the English language, with many English words for things being simply translated into French instead of the usual French expression being used. What does this mean?
Well, the standard French word for traffic light is “feu” (fire), but a Canadian will say “lumière” because in English it’s a traffic light. Also, in Québec, the noun for a portable phone is “cellulaire” (from “cell phone”) rather than a “portable”.
Of course, a lot of the differences between Québec French and standard French are also due to the fact that - until communications became instant - the French language has evolved in relative isolation for centuries and simply took its own path as the descendants of the early immigrants developed their own linguistic quirks.
Pronouncing Canadian French
In fact, the greatest difference between the Québec and French languages is the accent. The Québec accent is so different from standard French that, even though they mostly use the same vocabulary, they often cannot always understand each other (a bit like a Scotsman and a Texan). So if you are considering a French immersion holiday or want to study abroad to become fluent in French, Québec may not be ideal. For example:
- The “oi” sound (as in toi, moi, oiseau), pronounce “wa” in standard French pronunciation, becomes “oé” in Quebec.
- The French “an” more closely resembles an “in” in Québec.
- Québecois pays more attention to lengthened vowels. While in Metropolitan French pâte and pattes, hotte and hôte are often pronounced almost interchangeably (though they theoretically know the difference), Quebec makes a distinction - pâte and hôte have long, open vowels.
- The è and ê sounds are diphtongues in Canadian French pronunciation.
- Before the letters “u” and “i”, “d” and “t” are pronounced more like “dz” and “tz”.
In actual fact, there are several Quebec accents, but they do have certain points in common. You can listen to a man from Québec and young boy from France trying to teach other their accents here.
Some Grammar Particularities
Like any dialect, Canadian French has its little special expressions and particularities:
- They often don’t pronounce the final L of the pronoun “il”, leaving it sounding like “y”: Y fais sa vaisselle (he is doing his dishes), y va pas bien (he’s not feeling well).
- On the other hand, where Standard French tends to slur “je suis” into “chuis”, in Quebec they don’t waste their times and just say “chu” (sh-u) : Chu allé à l’école. (I went to school).
- In questions, you add the addressee as a pronoun at the beginning and again at the end, just to make sure everyone knows who you are asking:
Tu m’écoutes-tu? T’en vas-tu?
- They use some prepositions and conjunctions differently, and tend to contract pronoun + prepostion groups: “s’a” instead of “sur la”, “dins” instead of “dans un” or “dans les”, and “s’es” instead of “sur les”.
French Créole Languages: A Result of Colonialism
Finally, all of the French pidgins and patois from former French colonies have their own pronunciations and grammar rules. The French Creoles, usually considered languages in their own rights, are heavily influenced by local accents and languages. Some might have certain similarities in grammar, but they are so varied it isn't quite right to group them together, with:
- Caribbean Creoles, spoken for example on Haiti (the old slave colony of Saint Domingue) and in French Guiana are interesting in that they not only combine French and the native languages, but African dialects as well, brought there in slavery to work on the plantation growing tobacco and sugarcane.
- African French Creoles, spoken in African countries. Many, such as Senegal, Benin, Mauritius and Comoros have French as an official language; the French spoken on the streets is often different from that taught in school. In fact, few African countries are monolingual, with various African languages and dialects being spoken in one country.
- Various Oceanic Creoles (in French Polynesia, for example and other French-speaking islands, some of them still in some way dependant on the French government - the COMs).
- Even a Louisiana Creole that survived the Louisiana Purchase. French Louisiana is best known for the city of New Orleans, crawfish that is an integral part of Creole cuisine, tourism and a form of French dialect Frenchmen sometimes find hard to understand.
So many, in fact, that they really would need their own article. Suffice it to say that there are many francophone countries on Earth, but taking French classes and learning standard French vocabulary and French grammar doesn’t guarantee that you will understand them.
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