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I am currently reading a book on traditional accent and new accent in French between 1841-1960. This book is the work of Jean-Denis Gendron who is a Professor and Doctor of Phonetics from the Sorbonne and Strasbourg University, he is also a Professor at l’Université Laval in Quebec City. The work is easy to read but academic in nature and nonetheless fascinating. Dr Gendron has written many books on the evolution of the French language, phonetics and pronunciation since the French revolution in 1789.

In large part this is an historic essay on pronunciation and how it changed the French language with the victory of the grande Bourgeoisie over the Royalists in France after 1789.

Prior to the Revolution the French King spoke French and used a traditional pronunciation similar to the lowly peasant. Unlike other countries where Royalty spoke and used an effete pronunciation very different from the common person, think of Japan, China, Poland, Spain, Latin America etc. in France the aristocracy spoke and pronounced words like the little people they ruled over.

However with the French Revolution in 1789 suddenly everything changed including the way to speak French and how words would be pronounced, every syllable had to be distinct and clear and even exaggerated in order to make the sense of the word clear. However such a drastic change does not happen over night and took decades to be implemented through the education system and the training of teachers in phonetics in France and as of 1841 in Canada.

The Bourbon who fell in 1789 and returned to power in France in 1814 only to fall again in 1830 had not learned the lesson of the revolution and King Louis XVIII and his brother Charles X still pronounced and spoke French like their unlucky older brother Louis XVI, despite being advised by their ministers to change their ways and speak like the Bourgeoisie.


King Louis XVIII of France 


King Charles X of France

It was the Bourgeoisie who imposed on French Society this new pronunciation in a show of fervour to change France from the old ways to the new mercantile, consumer values but also snobbism to differentiate themselves from the common people and the peasants.

In Canada after the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and the end of the Seven Year War in Europe, French Canadians were unable to travel to France and then with the Revolution and the ascension of Napoleon Emperor and the 12 years of war he unleashed on Europe the connection to France was cut.

Prior to 1789 many French luminaries still travelled from France to the new country of the United States of America, people like De Tocqueville and Bougainville wrote that the French Canadians spoke as well as the Parisian despite their isolation. However all that changed and in 1841 when the first French Canadians like Louis-Joseph Papineau and others travelled to France for the first time since the sea blocus was lifted, they noticed that their French-Canadian pronunciation was markedly different from the French Parisian Salon Society.


Louis-Joseph Papineau

They pronounced words in the old style no longer fashionable in Paris, though despite the Revolution most Frenchmen living en Province had a mixed pronunciation of old and new accent. So this was the beginning of a change in Canada mostly first in Quebec City and later in Montreal where the French speaking Elite lived. The rest of French Canada such as Acadia in the Maritimes and elsewhere in Canada, French was already different in its pronunciation.

So the Bourgeoisie in the Province of Quebec had to be convinced that their accent and pronunciation had to change, many linguists, grammarians and other language specialists wrote books and developed teaching methods to bring forward this new French pronunciation. However it was not easy and the great schools and Universities had to change their curriculum and enlist leaders of society who often themselves did not have the new way of pronouncing words and speaking.

It is a fascinating book and certainly lifts the veil on a very old polemic on the origins of accents in Canada and in France. The book does not touch upon French pronunciation in Belgium or Switzerland or other regions of France where regional accents are still present and have an impact on pronunciation.

If it is true that this pursuit of clear pronunciation and speaking was en vogue until 1960 in Quebec schools, today it is a different matter and I often think, if I listen to children today and adults under 40, that we are going backwards in terms of vocabulary and pronunciation and the use of anglicism. 

La Reine Mere.jpg

Mom reading the newspaper in our living room in Saska Kempa in Warsaw.

My Mom who had been trained to become a teacher was big on new correct pronunciation and I remember her correcting our French and listening to our reading out loud and correcting any mistakes in the pronunciation. She was a stickler for that, to her it was a sign of a good education. My paternal grandmother on the other hand would use to old accent and pronunciation when she wanted to mock my mother’s efforts, she made Mom mad. We never spoke with the old accent and pronunciation and to this day my French speaking is more on the neutral international accent which often baffles our acquaintances in France, but then again they too have fallen to the snobbish attitude nowadays of using English words when you have a perfectly good French word you can use. Who knew that the new accent and pronunciation from the French Revolution of 1789 was more a matter of snobbish fashion amongst the Bourgeoisie than anything else.