French and English Collide

This week’s post concerns a variety of French (actually a variety inside a variety of French) that represents our two national languages very well. Chiac is a fascinating meld of French and English, and although it was not studied for many years, it has recently become the subject of linguistic research.

One of the people stepping up to study Chiac is Emilie LeBlanc, who is herself a native speaker. She was kind enough to explain to me what Chiac is, and why studying it is more than just about research: it is about changing public perceptions.

Emilie LeBlanc of York University

Emilie LeBlanc of York University

Michael Iannozzi : So I suppose, to start, what is Chiac?

Emilie LeBlanc : Chiac is a variety of Acadian French. For those who don’t know, Acadian French is a dialect of French that is spoken in Atlantic Canada, which is distinct from Quebec French and its offshoots, such as Ontario French. The difference is mainly due to the isolation of Acadians from other speakers over the course of several centuries: Acadian has retained a lot of the older features which have been lost in other French dialects. Chiac is a variety of Acadian which has been spoken in the Moncton, New Brunswick area for several decades. It is characterized by use of traditional Acadian dialectal forms in combination with code-switching (switching between French and English) and borrowings from English.

MI : Where is Chiac spoken?

EL : It is spoken in the Moncton area. However, it is important to note that not all Francophones in Moncton speak Chiac. Moncton has a diverse francophone population including people originally from the northeast and from all over la Francophonie, in part because the Université de Moncton is located there. It is also important to note that Chiac is not that different from varieties of Acadian French spoken in other parts of Atlantic Canada where there has been long-term contact with English.

MI : What caused it to develop separately from French and English?

EL : The Moncton area has been about 40% francophone and 60% Anglophone for several decades so almost all speakers are bilingual. Code-switching and borrowing are common in situations of intense language contact worldwide so the development of Chiac is not that surprising. By the way, many linguists today regard Chiac as a variety of French which has been influence by English, not as a separate language.

MI : How many speakers are there?

EL : This is a very difficult question to answer because census data asks for whether you speak English and/or French, not what dialect you speak. We know that there are approximately 54,000 French speakers in Moncton; however, not all of these speakers are Acadians, and not all of them speak Chiac.

MI : What makes it unique?

EL : Acadian French in itself is very interesting as it preserves older forms not found in many other varieties. For instance, in Nova Scotia you can hear young people using the older forms of the past tense, which many scholars have claimed hasn’t been part of spoken French for centuries. In all of the Acadian areas you can hear present tense verbal morphology, such as third person plural –ont (e.g. ils dansont “they are dancing”) which likewise disappeared from most spoken varieties centuries ago. The most striking aspect of Chiac for outsiders is the code-switching between French and English. You have to be a really good bilingual to shift effortlessly from one language to another within utterances.

MI : What does it looks like, and what does it sound like?

EL : To the untrained ear, Chiac sounds like a French person using a huge amount of English. This is because English is unexpected and stands out. Lexically, certain borrowings from English have replaced the French forms: for example, the discourse markers ‘but’ and ‘so’ have almost completely replaced their French counterparts mais and alors.

Chiac has also borrowed many English verbs but conjugates them in French. For example, ‘to walk’ becomes walk-er, ‘walked’ becomes walk-ait, and so on.

To more clearly show this distinction, here is an utterance by a Chiac speaker who I recorded as part of my MA research.

Apparently y’a un guy dans la band qui garde exactly comme lui. Yeah comme mes friends watchait les Brit Awards pis i étiont juste comme ‘what the wow quoi?’ Comme I’étions super confused. Cause i pensaient actually que c’était lui yeah

As you see in this utterance, the discourse marker ‘yeah’ appears frequently [A discourse marker is just a word that is used during a pause, or to connect phrases, but doesn’t have much meaning on its own. A common English one is, “you know”]. Chiac speakers also use ‘well’ as a discourse marker. Chiac speakers also employ calques (translated expressions borrowed from English): for example garde in the example above is a shortened version of regarde which means “to look at” in Standard French. A Chiac speaker will use regarder in a general way [meaning “to look like” in this case] instead of using the Standard French verb ressembler.

However, Chiac has a much subtle variation which makes it quite interesting to linguists. I could do research on Chiac for my entire life and still not have uncovered everything.

MI : If someone speaks English or French, can they understand Chiac?

EL : Partly. English speakers can get the gist of simple utterances as the main borrowings are verbs and nouns. If a Chiac speaker says “J’vas aller parker mon car dans la driveway”, the English listener will hear ‘park’, ‘car’ and ‘driveway’, which can give him or her the sense of the utterance. French speakers who don’t know any English might have a harder time. French speakers who know English will understand most of the utterance but will probably miss some parts as Chiac is spoken quite fast. However, if a Chiac speaker says something like “Il avont back conté des menteries” an Anglophone is not going to understand but another Acadian will [“They used to tell lies”]. And Francophones from other areas will get the gist.

MI : Now turning to you, what first got you interested in the study of Chiac?

EL : I am a native speaker of Chiac and grew up thinking that the way I spoke was ‘wrong’ and ‘bad’. After studying linguistics, I realised that Chiac was actually incredibly interesting. To be a Chiac speaker you need to be fluent in both English and French, which actually tells us something about the linguistic competence of these speakers. Studying Chiac is very important to me, as speakers still believe that their speech is ‘bad French’. It is important that they realise how special it actually is.

MI : And your research on Chiac, how has it been conducted?

EL : I have interviewed students from the two French high schools in the area. As a native speaker myself, it is easy enough to do this. I am also planning on doing more interviews in 2015. In the future, I would also like to interview university students and adults since Chiac is clearly spoken by post-adolescents.

MI : What is the main goal of your research?

EL : I want Chiac to get more exposure. I also want to be able to understand the way it functions and its grammar. As it hasn’t been studied for very long by professional linguists, there is still a lot to learn about it.

MI : Do you find gender, age, or other factors that contribute to how much English or French a speaker uses?

EL : Since I have only looked at adolescent speech so far I haven’t found age or education differences. I also haven’t found gender differences. What I am really interested in is age-related differences: most of the work on Chiac has been with adolescents. We need to look across a wider age range.

MI : What is the public perception of Chiac?

EL : Chiac is a stigmatised variety in the community. The speakers are very aware of this, and they discuss it freely. In my interviews, the students often mention how they speak “bad French” and how they just aren’t good at French. They often compare their speech to other varieties that are “better”. Especially in the schools, these ideas are reinforced and students are chastised for ‘using English’ in their speech. Only recently has there been a surge of media that is created with Chiac, for example the tv show Acadieman, about Acadie’s first superhero, and with new bands like Les Jeunes d’Asteure.

MI : What do you think is the most important thing for the survival of Chiac in the future?

EL : If the stigmatization of Chiac ends, it would be great for the dialect. It would allow speakers to freely use the speech in any media and allow others to learn it.

MI : What has been your favourite part of your research? What do you love most about Chiac?

EL : My favorite part is discovering something new about Chiac that I didn’t know previously. Because I am a native speaker, a lot of aspects of Chiac come naturally to me, so when I begin thinking about the language linguistically, I find out really interesting things. Chiac is a part of who I am, and sadly I don’t get to speak it as much as I used to. I love listening to my participants, it brings me back to being a kid.

The very popular Acadieman, a comicbook character who speaks Chiac (Source: YouTube)

The very popular Acadieman, a comic book character who speaks Chiac (Source: YouTube)

A sincere thank you to Emilie LeBlanc for shedding some light on a variety of French/Acadian that I don’t think most people are aware of.

As she mentioned, it is important that, in every community nationwide, people feel validated for their dialect, accent, or speech variety. To feel that you speak “improperly”, or “the wrong way”, will affect everything you do. It is important that we emphasize that people speak in many different ways, but this should be celebrated rather than stigmatized.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi