June 04, 2006

French in Maine: Louis XIV lives?

After decades of stigmatization, French language use is experiencing a revival in the state of Maine, according to the New York Times. For the sizable French-American population in the state, there are "reacquisition classes" for adults wanting to brush up on their linguistic skills and immersion programs to put the young ones in touch with their roots. French also receives a modicum of official recognition from the state legislature, which observes French-American Day every year with "legislative business and the Pledge of Allegiance done in French and 'The Star-Spangled Banner' sung with French and English verses." Uh-oh! A non-English version of the anthem? Don't let Dubya know, or Mainers might find themselves disenfranchised! (He'd probably spare Kennebunkport.)

One passage in the Times article should set off warning bells for regular Language Log readers:

French-American French, derived from people who left France for Canada centuries ago, resembles the French of Louis XIV more than the modern Parisian variety, said Yvon Labbé, director of the French-American Center at the University of Southern Maine.
French-Americans may say "chassis" instead of "fenêtre" for window, "char" instead of "voiture" for car. Mr. Labbé said many French-Americans pronounced "moi" as Molière did: "moé."

Sounds like a Gallicized version of the old "Elizabethan English in Appalachia" canard.

I believe that what Sally Thomason wrote last year about the Appalachian English myth holds true here, mutatis mutandis:

There are said to be features of Shakespeare's English that are preserved in Appalachian English but not in Standard English; but they would be noticeable only because they have vanished from Standard English. The many features of Shakespeare's English that remain in Standard English are not noticeable: they're just ordinary — though they are of course what makes it possible for American high-schoolers to read Shakespeare today. I bet Appalachian English has lost some Shakespearean linguistic traits that Standard English has retained, too. Differential retention of inherited linguistic features is one thing that characterizes divergent dialects of the same language. It's not a surprise, and it's not evidence of super-archaicness in any dialect.

Similarly, just because French as it is spoken in Maine has retained some older features that are no longer present in Standard French, this does not imply that the Maine dialect "resembles the French of Louis XIV more than the modern Parisian variety." Note the slight ambiguity of that sentence: does it mean "...more than the modern Parisian variety does" or "...more than it does the modern Parisian variety"? Either way, it suggests a kinship between American dialects of French and the language of a bygone classical era, as if those Franco-Mainers are living linguistic fossils who could chat amiably with Molière. But as with the Appalachian case, retentions from le français classique specific to the Maine dialect are only noticeable because they have dropped out of Standard French usage, while retentions in the standard dialect pass by unnoticed precisely because they are still standard.

A final point about the Times article: I was surprised to learn that "census figures show Maine has a greater proportion of people speaking French at home than any other state — about 5.3 percent." I would have guessed Louisiana holds that distinction. But a check of 2000 census data, both via the MLA Language Data Center and the U.S. Census Bureau's own website, verifies that Maine is significantly ahead of Louisiana in terms of percentage of the population, though Louisiana holds the lead in terms of the raw number of French speakers. (The Census Bureau specifically includes the Cajun dialect in its definition of French.) Unfortunately, when I check the MLA site against the official numbers from the Census Bureau site, I find a bit of a discrepancy:


Population (5+)
Population (5+) 1,203,442
French speakers
French speakers 63,610
Percentage 5.28%
Percentage 5.29%


Population (5+) 4,153,367
Population (5+) 4,152,122
French speakers 194,314
French speakers 179,750
Percentage 4.68%
Percentage 4.33%

The figures for Maine are close enough to suggest that the MLA is simply using slightly outdated numbers (the Census Bureau posts updated and corrected statistics on its site). But the Louisiana figures are a bit disturbing. How could the MLA site be missing only 1,245 Louisianans over the age of 5 while omitting a whopping 14,564 French speakers in the state? I may need to temper my praise for the MLA's presentation of census data if the site turns out to contain significant errors.

[Update #1: Cory Lubliner writes:

There is another ambiguity in the New Yotk Times article you cited: does "the French of Louis XIV" mean French as spoken in the 17th-18th century, or French as spoken by the Sun King?  This is a significant difference: there has always been a discrepancy between French as spoken by the upper class and le français populaire.  I am not familiar with Maine French, but I have a little familiarity with Cajun French, and I find that it has numerous features in common with older forms of colloquial French, features that have been eradicated by schooling in France.  Examples: je vas in place of je vais; à c'te heure (usually spelled asteur in Louisiana) in place of maintenant; and être aprés (note the acute accent!) + infinitive to denote the progressive form of a verb. Other features are still present in the vernacular of France, such as representing the first person plural of verbs with on rather than nous, but I doubt that Louis XIV ever spoke that way.

And Jim Gordon adds some insight about Maine French:

The bushies will probably be even more alarmed than you suggest: the French spreading into Maine is not only a foreign tongue, it's Canadian (or Quebecois) imperial colonialism. And it's not just French, it's /Joual/, the dialect named for the antique pronunciation of /cheval/, for horse.
Those of us who have had occasion to live in or visit Quebec found that (a) our metropolitan-accented and -constructed Français differs from the Quebecois /joual/ dialect, and (b) the Quebecois whom we meet automatically peg us as foreigners (or Anglo snobs) and switch to English. I commend to you a useful resumé of the life and times of /joual/ at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joual>, and the wiki-lexicon at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_French_lexicon>.

The Wikipedia entry for "Joual" notes the "moé" pronunciation of moi mentioned in the Times article and provides the following historical explanation:

Although moé and toé are today considered substandard slang pronunciations, these were the pronunciations of Old French used by the kings of France, the aristocracy and the common people in many provinces of France. After the 1789 French Revolution, the standard pronunciation in France changed to that of the bourgeois class in Paris, but Quebec retained many old pronunciations and expressions, having been isolated from the Revolution by the 1760 British Conquest of New France.

And Bill Poser emails to say:

Canadian French (of which Maine French is an offshoot) is derived to a considerable extent from the dialect of Normandy. That accounts for many of its differences with standard French.

See also the more detailed history given in The Canadian Encyclopedia:

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the different varieties of French and dialects spoken by the settlers gradually fused together into a common Canadian French tongue, which retained features that were common to all the varieties of French spoken during the colonial period as well as features that were typical of the varieties of French or dialects spoken in the provinces which exported many immigrants to New France, eg, Normandy/Perche, Poitou, Aunis and Saintonge. ]

[Update #2: Over on Languagehat a commenter takes issue with Jim Gordon's comment about "Joual," claiming:

The french spoken in Maine has nothing to do with either Quebecois or Joual. It's Acadian.

From what I've read, "joual" is not terribly well-defined, but some do identify it with various Franco-American dialects including those spoken in Maine. (The Encarta definition of "joual" specifically mentions Maine.) This article delves deeper into the problematic usage of "joual" as applied to Franco-American French. The writer argues that "French-Canadians who immigrated to New England in the 19th century surely brought along some joual with their patois."

As for the Acadian influence on Maine French, I recommend this page from the University of Maine at Fort Kent. A 1962 study by Genevieve Massignon is cited:

Massignon concluded that the French of the Upper St. John Valley (Maine and New Brunswick) was a mixed, relatively Canadianized speech in comparison to that of surrounding Acadian settlement areas. Massignon found most Maritimes Acadian communities to be 'purely Acadian' in their origins and their present-day speechways. The St. John Valley, by contrast, she found to be a mixed zone (half Acadian, half French-Canadian), where speechways reflected a blend of Acadian and French-Canadian vocabulary and phonetics, and a predominantly French-Canadian morphology."

So the situation with Maine French seems a lot more complicated than simple labels like "Joual" or "Acadian." ]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at June 4, 2006 01:19 AM