When Joshua A. Fishman, in a short summary of socio-linguistics, states that “[o]vert behavior toward language and toward language users is a concern shared by political and educational leaders in many parts of the world and is an aspect of the sociology of language that frequently makes headlines in the newspapers,” he is sinning by euphemism (268). Behaviours toward language and language users are not only headline material but also the spark from which originates many a political fire. One infamous example is the event that led UNESCO to declare February 21st as International Mother Language Day. On that very date in 1952 students in Dhaka—then the administrative capital of the eastern portion of Pakistan, now the capital of Bangladesh—were killed by police while protesting for their language, Bangla, to be recognized as an official language.

            I bring this terrible event up to drive home the point that, for many, language is more than simply a way to communicate with other human beings. It is a matter of cultural survival, of life and death. In North America, the Canadian province of Quebec is one of the clearest examples of this phenomenon. In Quebec language is the cornerstone of a national and individual identity that is in perpetual construction against two linguistic hegemonies, English-speaking North America and France. This has been the case for almost half a millennium, even before the Conquest of 1760 [1]:

Though identification with France was still strong [in New-France], the distance, the hardships of the land and the call of adventure made it so that the first colonists and the following generation emancipated themselves little by little from their condition as loyal subject of the King of France. (…) Soon, the Canadian identity became ambivalent, more independent than submissive. Even the cultural center that was Quebec City, with her parties and social gatherings, was keen to show a difference from France. (Dargnat 12)

            If this trend towards self-differentiation had continued unabated, it is possible that it would have eventually led to a movement favouring “Canadian French” over a “France French” perceived as archaic and flawed, similar to the “American English” movement in the United States, a movement that

…retained and appropriated their mother country’s language by magnifying their (sometimes minor) lexical and syntactic differences in such a way that they could anchor and reinforce their national identity. In the United States, this was achieved through a drawn-out process initiated in 1783 by Noah Webster, who published in 1838 the first edition of his celebrated dictionary (touted as the “founding” act of American English). Originally, every cultural feature coming from Great Britain was deemed corrupt but it was thought that the English language would be purified by the New World environment and by the noble uses to which it was put. (Bouchard 57-8)

            As Bouchard goes on to point out, since a similar phenomenon happened in Mexico, Australia, and Brazil, it is reasonable to assume that if New France had continued on as it was, the same thing might have at least been attempted. But the Conquest created a relatively abrupt rupture between what had been New France and France, a rupture which stopped this process of differentiation in its tracks. The French intellectual and political elite retreated into the safety of the European bosom, leaving only a religious elite to mediate between a French-speaking population and foreign speakers that became the de facto ruling class. This elite, feeling threatened culturally, religiously, and linguistically, protected the French language like, in the words of Dargnat, “a relic against profaners” (18). But as the Conquest faded into history and as the French Revolution transformed the “motherland” into something the religious elite of French Canada abhorred, the desire to create a truly Canadian French came back to life. The 1838 Durham report and its infamous statement that French-Canadians were “a people with no literature and no history” acted for many in the literary and social milieu of the province as a proof that, in the words of renowned poet Octave Crémazie, “Canada is missing is its own language,” a language that would be both francophone and distinct from French literature (qtd. in Siemerling 116). Over the years, this quest for a distinct ‘Canadian French’ became the backdrop against which various literary currents and counter-currents were created, especially during the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960’s.

            Quiet implies silence, which is the absence of language. But language was not evinced from the political stage in the 1960’s. On the contrary, with the creation of a Ministry of Culture, the start of fundamental educational reforms and sometime violent protests in defense of the French language, the heated debate on “Canadian French” started anew. A debate that led, for the first time, to a real discussion of popular speech, of oral slang—of joual.

            Joual—a phonetic translation of a rural dialectal pronunciation of the word cheval—was a common and often derogatory name for the slang of poor and uneducated French-Canadians. In the heated political climate of the sixties, this ostracized variety of French became conceptualized as a dual linguistic entity that was both the symptom of a cultural oppression and a potential tool to destroy that very oppression. The conflict between enemies and supporters of the joual contributed to a larger discourse and praxis of cultural change that affected, supposedly quietly, Quebecois society as a whole. By analyzing the mentioned conflict, I hope to shed light not only on this specific local and historical debate, but also on the mechanisms by which behaviours toward language and its speakers can be recuperated extra-linguistically in order to support a larger social discourse.

            It would be logical to begin this analysis by defining joual. The problem is that joual is not something concrete but rather a linguistic perception that changes depending on one’s position in time, space, and class hierarchy. As a proof of this subjectivity, I point to Mathilde Dargnat’s collection of more than fifteen definitions of joual written between 1870 and 1996. They are all subtly or radically different, but most of them agree that to speak joual is to speak badly. Indeed, the enumeration of a number of phonetic or lexical variations from “standard” French is more often than not considered sufficient to define joual. Phonetically, one such variation is the transformation of the phoneme /wa/ into a /wé/ or /wè/ or even /è/, such as in moi:moé, soif:soèf and croire:crère (Dargnat 48). Syntactically, one could note the use of “tu” or “ti” as an interrogative particle, such as in “ta mère est-ti là?” and “tu-viens-tu?” (62). Lexically, popular borrowings from English such as fun, cheap, job, boss or cute could be listed (Dargnat 45-64). And these are just a few examples, since not only is the number of small variations from an arbitrarily chosen (often Parisian) standard enormous, but getting a consensus on what variations should be listed is nearly impossible. Not only is joual different from region to region, but there is also the issue of how to differentiate between joual and Québec French (that is to say, between joual and the ensemble of variations from a European norm considered neutral or correct by the majority of Québec population—a more concrete version of the mythical “Canadian French”). An example of such accepted variations is the use of urgentologue rather than urgentiste to designate an emergency physician.

            In the face of this impossibility to define joual concisely and objectively in purely structural terms, it is no surprise that joual became defined mostly in social and cultural terms, with its precise linguistic composition remaining quite vague. In the sixties, therefore, appeared two discourses that defined joual as a socio-cultural, and thus extra-linguistic, phenomenon. The first discourse, the one most commonly accepted in popular Québec culture, saw joual as a slippery slope toward an abandon of French by French-Canadians in favor of an English creole. The most prominent promoter of this view was Brother Jean-Paul Desbiens, better known as Frère Un Tel, Brother Anonymous. Desbiens was a priest, as his title indicates, and a teacher who anonymously responded to a 1959 editorial by André Laurendeau in the newspaper Le Devoir on the weakness of young French-Canadian language. This letter, and many others, lead to a book published in 1960, Les Insolences du Frère Untel [The Impertinences of Brother Anonymous], which was a huge success throughout the province. Afterwards, joual was presented as a major socio-cultural problem:

Joual is a boneless language. The consonants are all slurred, a little like the speech of Hawaiian dancers, according to the records I have heard. Oula-oula-oula-alao-alao-alao. They say chu pas capable for je ne suis pas capable. [I am not able.] I can’t write joual down phonetically. It can’t be fixed in writing for it is a decomposition, and only Edgar Poe could fix a decomposition…Joual, this absence of language, is a symptom of our non-existence as French-Canadians. No one can ever study language enough, for it is the home of all meanings. Our inability to assert ourselves, our refusal to accept the future, our obsession with the past, are all reflected in joual, our real language. (26)

            More than marking grammatical or orthographical mistakes, joual for Desbiens was an “absence of language,” a “boneless language,” a “decomposition.” In other terms, joual was a state in which the French language was reduced into a substratum by the pressure of the dominant language. Desbiens even considered joual its own language. In his own words: “We speak two different languages, my class and I, and I am the only one who speaks both” (30). This linguistic phenomenon wherein a community uses two or more languages, one of which is reserved for writing and formal conversation, is called a diglossia. Diglossia is a normal, routine linguistic state for a substantial part of the world’s population, but in Québec it resulted in linguistic anxiety and even panic. Desbiens and Laurendeau were the loudest voices viewing diglossia as a problem, but not the only ones, as evidenced by the publication in 1962 of a Petit dictionnaire du “joual” au Français (Dargnat 35).

          Desbiens’ argument, however, is not based on any rigorous linguistic methodology. Rather, he takes position against simply adopting the Parisian standard, and for the creation of a ‘good’ French that would nevertheless keep its ‘Canadian flavour.’ This view is echoed in Roland Lorrain’s essay La mort de mon joual [The Death of my Joual], published in 1966:

We must not speak “the French way” but admirably “the Canadian way,” which means that there can be differences that can go against the “French genius” but for the “Canadian genius,” against the proper usage in France but for the proper usage in Canada, as long as the basic genius of the universal French language is preserved. (116)

            What this genius of the French language is exactly is left vague. Both Lorrain and Desbiens lists a handful of acceptable “Canadianisms,” but their lists are entirely a matter of subjective personal taste rather than being based on a consistent set of linguistic guidelines. For example, both flag the removal of all English borrowing as a very important step to take, yet Lorrain accepts fournaise, in the sense of the English furnace (121). This does not make their criticism invalid, since language itself is to an extent arbitrary, but it does deprive it of a certain authoritative quality that a consistent and clear linguistic methodology, as opposed to subjective preferences, would provide, as demonstrated by more recent scholarship on the subject.

           All of these discursive elements—metaphors of decomposition and death, diglossia, and a vague utopian yearning for a true “Canadian French” that would be both unique and aesthetically pleasing—combined to create a social narrative of joual as a symptom, a mirror, of an extra-linguistic moral decay. Les insolences du Frère Un Tel describes this alleged situation perfectly: “Our pupils speak joual because they think joual, and they think joual because they live joual. Living joual means rock’n roll, hot dogs, parties, running around in cars. All our civilization is joual” (26). In this social narrative which Desbiens and Lorrain helped create, joual is a social rather than linguistic phenomenon, a cause and a consequence of the abandonment of traditional values and traditional language in favour of the rising youth culture imported from the United States. For these men, and many of their contemporaries at the dawn of the Quiet Revolution, joual was simply a symptom of a culture war raging between American modernity and French-Canadian traditions, a war the latter were losing.

         The views contained in Les Insolences du Frère Un Tel were the most socially accepted views on joual when a group of young intellectuals and writers gathered under the banner of a newly created sovereigntist and Marxist journal called Parti Pris in 1964. The Partipristes took upon themselves to revive, or rather re-energize, the debate on joual. At first glance, their view of joual is very similar to the then-dominant one of Desbiens, including the way in which it defines joual extra-linguistically: “Joual is ugly, a rotting language, the faithful reflection of Quebec society” (R. Major 83). For Desbiens, joual was a manifestation of a “pauvreté d’âme” [poverty of soul] caused by modern Anglo-American culture. Similarly, the Partipristes saw joual as a product of Anglo-Saxon institutions, economy and language.

            But the similarities end there. The Partipristes, unlike their predecessors in this debate, inscribed joual into a larger ideology colored by Marxism and decolonization theory. Inspired by writers such as Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi, Partipristes writers considered themselves a colonized people, the victims of the same European colonialists as the native populations of Africa or the Caribbean and thus felt that Fanon’s discourse of négritude applied to them as well. Consequently, the Partipristes started referring to French-Canadians as “nègres blancs d’Amérique” (translated by Joan Pinkham as White Niggers of America). For them, to speak French was to speak “black” and, consequently, to speak English was to “speak white,” as in Michèle Lalonde’s famous 1968 poem:

speak white
de Westminster à Washington relayez-vous
speak white comme à Wall Street
white comme à Watts
be civilised (Lalonde, qtd. in S. Mills 82)

As such, instead of repudiating joual, the linguistic symbol of their oppression, Partipristes embraced it as part of their identity and made it a political and literary tool.

            The main goal of using joual in literature was to create a new kind of literary realism that would show the reality of French-Canadian life—or what the Partipristes considered this reality to be, in any case—but in the same breadth critique and contest it. The literary praxis of Parti Pris followed the Sartrean idea that “to name is to show, and to show is to change” (81). Sartre had enormous influence on the Partipristes and they took their ideas on literature from him:

If society sees itself and, in particular, sees itself as seen, there is, by virtue of this very fact, a contesting of the established values of the régime. The writer presents it with its image; he calls upon it to assume it or to change itself. At any rate, it changes; it loses the equilibrium which its ignorance had given it; it wavers between shame and cynicism; it practises dishonesty; thus, the writer gives society a guilty conscience; he is thereby in a state of perpetual antagonism towards the conservative forces which are maintaining the balance he tends to upset. (81)

Partipristes took upon themselves to fulfill these two important Sartrean roles of observers and critics of the current social hegemony. Joual allowed them to do so. It also allowed them to overcome one major problem in their project of establishing an independent socialist or Marxist republic of Québec. That problem was the fact that while the Partipristes saw themselves as fighting for the proletariat, most of them came from a bourgeois background. Joual was therefore a way for them to connect, to merge with the masses, and it became a crucial tool to mobilize said masses behind their revolutionary project.

            Accordingly, Partis Pris, which was also a publishing house in addition to a journal, put out books in joual. Their first was a short story collection called Le Cassé [The Broke], centered around the novella of the same name and published in 1995. In Le Cassé, Jacques Renaud uses irregular spelling to represent visually the spoken word of his character. This is apparent from de first line of the novel: “Cette chambre lui a couté cinq piasses” (13). “Piasses” is, of course, a phonetic spelling of piastres, an archaic but widely utilized word for dollar. This phonetic spelling is also used to remove the English character of many borrowed English words. Trench coat becomes “trennche” (16), marshmallow becomes “mâchemallo” (19), job is spelled “djobbe” (20), chesterfield is spelled “tchesteurfilde” (35), and finally “ouéteurs” is used to signify waiters (38). Through this process the assimilating English language is neutralized and assimilated back into French. The phonetic transcription of joual is also used to represent elisions and variations in vowel sounds: “Ch’peux pas crouère qui sont assez caves pour pas savouèr que l’quatre piasses m’as l’garder pour moé” (31). Finally, Renaud peppers the text with the stream of consciousness of his characters. This is an opportunity for him to use a staggering amount of swear words and other vulgarities, depicting the aforementioned ugliness of joual at its extreme:

Bouboule c’est un hostie d’chien… Pour moé Yves a raison…Bouboule y couche avec Mémène…Pis elle, a s’laisse faire, la crisse! Boubouble c’est un bomme… C’est lui qui vend d’la dôpe…C’est un écoeurant…Mémène est bonne à licher… Pis est cochonne… Bouboule doit aimer ça… C’est un maquereau [a womanizer] Bouboule…Moé aussi chus t’in maquereau… Mais c’est lui ou ben donc c’est moé…C’est comme ça qu’ça marche dans vie… Elle, m’as t’la casser en dix! En dix, tabarnac!… Mas les tuer tous é deux!… (41, ellipses in the text)

This passage is left untranslated, because it would lose all of its impact upon translation. In summary, the protagonist Ti-Jean is expressing his anger at the thought that a man named Bouboule is having intercourse with Philomène, whom he calls Mémène. She is the mother of Ti-Jean’s child, but while Ti-Jean considers her to be his girlfriend, she for her part is scared of him and wants nothing to do with him. His speech is generously peppered with swear words and death threats. This ‘ugliness’ of language is purposely orchestrated by Renaud as a way to represent the ‘ugliness’ of the main characters. Ti-Jean and Philomène are not some perfect exemplars of a virtuous French-Canadians, as was the case of protagonists in many earlier Church-sponsored French-Canadian novels (such as the extremely popular Maria-Chapdelaine). These are characters that are lost and marginalized in their daily lives, and that lash out in various ways at a world that they feel is hostile to them. Renaud creates in Ti-Jean and Philomène characters who are, in their language and in their actions, violent—physically or emotionally—toward  themselves or toward others. This violence, however, is not random or an individual flaw, but is representative of and/or caused by the society in which French-Canadians live, a society that is, according to Renaud’s novel, itself violent and ‘ugly’.

            Another example of a work in joual from the same period is the short story collection La Chair de Poule by André Major. Like Renaud, he makes use of phonetic spelling: “cenne” for cent (102), “quioute” for cute (108), “foremanes” for foremen (113), or the “djobbe” for job (115), seen previously in Le Cassé. Also in evidence are the contractions like “J’parle pas anglais” (113) and variations in pronunciations like the common “moé” or “ousque” for “où est-ce-que” (102). But while it uses the same graphical representation, the joual in Major is a lot less violent and ‘ugly’ than in Renaud. It is used for a similar purpose of critical realism, but  a different approach is taken. Le Cassé is saturated with joual words and sentences. By contrast, in La Chair de Poule joual is inserted into the text only at strategic points and with surgical precision, the goal being to destabilize the reader rather than overwhelm them. Despite this difference of execution, the reason for the presence of joual stays the same in both texts. Renaud and Major both use joual because it is the only language that can properly communicate this violence, this alienation from oneself and from others:

But personally, I am not able to revolt in the language of Camus. Nor am I able to suffer in it. (However, maybe I would be able to submit in it, as in English). My revolt is a French-Canadian one, its words and its sentences are French-Canadian, more specifically Montréalais, “jouaux.” (Renaud 151)

This notion of joual being more conductive to a French-Canadian revolt than French from France would be is a sign of the larger ideological work of Parti Pris—the creation of a Québécois identity and Québécois literature. Indeed, as some readers may be aware of, the term Canadiens français has been abandoned in modern-day Québec in favour of Québécois(e). Canadiens français is now considered archaic and dated, and is used only for historical or humorous purpose. This terminology switch started with Parti Pris. They were the first to militate for the creation of a unique Québec literature. This concept may seem mundane today, but when Parti Pris released an issue titled “Pour une littérature québécoise” [For a Québec Literature] in January 1965, it was a radical proposition, since most contemporary critical and scholarly works still talked about a French-Canadian literature. As Michel Biron, François Dumont, and Élisabeth Nardout-Lafarge explains, the adjective québécoise,

which will soon become common place, is here polemical and relates to a political claim. Most of the critical works published during the decade still refer to French-Canadian literature, or to French literature from Québec, but not the Québec literature. The phrase has therefore a clearly political meaning and signifies a double rupture: with France on one hand, with Canada on the other. Québec literature is thus presented as the expression of the Queébec identity. (417)

The title of the issue was therefore a political statement in favour of a new, doubly distinct Québec identity. The abandonment of one term and the adoption of the other would be done slowly (thus why even Renaud himself uses canadien français in the preceding quote) but continuously over the following decade—by the time the sovereigntist Parti Québécois took power in 1976, the label Québécois had been fully accepted culturally. However, they were not as successful with their other revolutionary goals, including the independence of Quebec. The journal ceased publication only four years later, and joual as a literary language never caught on, even inside Partis Pris itself. Indeed, hindsight allows one to realize that the Partipristes wrote more about joual than they wrote in joual:

When we examine the entire collection of fictional works published by Parti Pris, we see that the joual has very little quantitative presence. Major, Renaud, Jasmin and Godin are, truth be told, the only ones to use it. And even then, in very different and selective ways. How, then, can we explain the enormous attention given to Parti Pris’s work on joual? If joual has ended up defining the Parti Pris movement as a whole to such a degree, it is in great part because of Québec’s lexical complex, a true psychosis of the “speaking well.” (R. Major 285)

The psychosis of “speaking well” is a primal conflict between daring to speak incorrectly and keeping quiet, which can end up being even more socially revealing. This conflict was never definitely solved, and as such it flares up from time to time.

            Joual is still not yet redeemed in Quebec culture and may never be. But that is not to say that the Partipristes’ work was in vain. With their novel use of the term Québécois, the Partipristes helped redefine Quebec’s cultural, literary, and linguistic identity away from the traditional French-Canadian nationalism of the 1940s and 50s, to which Brother Anonymous still mostly adhered. Thanks to the path they cleared, in 1968, the same year their journal folded, a young playwright dared to present a play about lower-class French-Canadian women entirely in joual. The playwright’s name was Michel Tremblay and the play was Les Belles-Soeurs. The rest is history. Or should I say: L’reste, sé pâssé à l’istouère?

Alexandre Desbiens-Brassard
Western University

1. Unless noted, all quotations were originally in French. With the exception of The Impertinence of Brother Anonymous by Jean-Paul Desbiens and “What is Literature?” and Other Essays by Jean-Paul Sartre, all quotations were translated by me.


Biron, Michel, François Dumont, and Élisabeth Nardout-Lafarge. Histoire de la littérature québécoise. 2007. Montreal: Boréal, 2010. Print.

Bouchard, Gérard. “Collective destigmatization and Emancipation Through Language 1960s Québec” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 9:1( 2012): 51-66. Print.

Dargnat, Mathilde. Michel Tremblay Le “joual” dans Les Belles-Soeurs. N.p.: L’Harmattan, 2002. Print.

Desbiens, Jean-Paul. The Impertinences of Brother Anonymous. Trans. Miriam Chapin. Montreal: Harvest House. 1962. Trans. of Les Insolences du Frère Un Tel. Montreal: Éditions de l’Homme, 1960. Print.

Fishman, Joshua A. “The Sociology of Language.” Communication, Language, and Meaning. Ed. George A. Miller. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Print.

Lorrain, Roland. La mort de mon joual. Ottawa: Éditions du Jour, 1966. Print.

Major, André. La chair de poule. Montréal: Parti Pris, 1965. Print.

Major, Robert. Parti Pris: idéologies et littérature. Montreal: Hurtubise HMH, 1979. Print.

Mills, David. “Durham Report.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada, Feb. 8 2006. Web. 2 Jan. 2015.

Mills, Sean. The Empire Within: Postcolonial Thought and Political Activism in Sixties. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2010. Print.

“Mother Language Day.” United Nations.org. UN Web Service Section, Department of Public Information. n.d. Web. 02 Jan. 2015.

Pinkham, Joan, trans. White Niggers of America: The Precocious Autobiography of a Quebec “Terrorist.” By Pierre Vallières. New York: Monthly Review, 1971. Print.

Renaud, Jacques. Le Cassé. 3rd ed. Montréal: Parti Pris, 1977. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What is Literature? and Other Essays. 1948. Trans. Bernard Fretchman. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988. Print.

Siemerling, Winfried. The New North American Studies. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.

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