Friday November 01, 2013 | 08:26 AM

           C’est le temps pour les pichous!  “Pichous” is a Canadianism or a French-Canadian word meaning “slippers”. In this sentence, pichous is used to describe the fall weather turning chilly.

            Colloquial phrases fall out of the ordinary use in formal languages but are common in familiar conversations. Often, these expressions are colorful and sometimes even risqué. Some French colloquialisms are included in American English, like “bon vivant”, meaning “having fun” or a fun loving person.

Other colloquialisms are specific to places. For example, vernacular words spoken by French speakers in Quebec might be the same, or different than phrases heard in northern Maine’s St. John Valley or in Berlin, New Hampshire.

“Pichous” is likely a word adopted by the French-Canadians from the Micmac Indians. It’s not a word familiar to French speakers outside of Canada or New England

Several dictionaries have been written by authors who collected words and phrases commonly used in French Canada, in Berlin, NH and in Maine’s St. John Valley.

In other words, each dictionary is like a French Colloquial Rosetta Stone. The authors translated familiar phrases into English, to help others who speak French to understand local colloquialisms. They're also fun to read.

Rachelle Beaudoin wrote and illustrated “The Berlin Dictionary”, describing vernacular familiar to her home, which happens to be the largest city in northern New Hampshire. Beaudoin says she wrote the dictionary because there are times when she’s speaking in French, when she asks herself if the words she uses to explain her Franco-American heritage are real or are they “Berlin” words? 

Rachelle Beaudoin of Berlin New Hampshire author of The Berlin Dictionary

Rachelle Beaudoin author of The Berlin Dictionary

“Why do people stop and stare at me when I use the word ‘piton’,” she asks? (Piton is a useful Canadianism meaning “button” to turns lights on and off, or a function key or toggle.)

Franco-Americans who learned French at home understand words like “bibite” (a bug) or “le bonhomme sept-heures” (a scary specter like the bogeyman).

Don Levesque was with the editorial management at the St. John Valley Times weekly newspaper in Madawaska when he began writing two dictionaries. He now lives in New Brunswick, Canada where French is the primary language.  He wrote two entertaining and educational dictionaries. “C’est de meme qu’ont parle par che’ nous” (Like we’re speaking at home) is a 2007 sequel to another published in 1999, titled “Le Parler de Chez Nous” (To Talk Like Us).  Levesque collected expressions over several years through his writings as a bilingual (French and English) columnist.

“What began almost as a nostalgic review of expressions took on a life of its own with contributions from readers all over the United States,” he says.  "St. John Valley French can be very funny," he adds.

Like Beaudoin, he thought he was collecting phrases with special meanings specific to people in the St. John Valley.  “I assumed that many of the phrases I was compiling were unique. I soon discovered that most of the sayings are fairly common to eastern Quebec and Acadia, where our Northern Maine French ancestors came from. Sometimes, there are slight variants, probably an evolution or adaptation evolving from local usage. Nevertheless, this leads me to believe that most of the sayings I collected are probably very old,” he says.

Steve Timmins explains in “French Fun: The Real Spoken Language of Quebec”, how the Canadian French spoken in Quebec, and the mother tongue of many Franco-Americans, can be traced to the descendents of the first French settlers who arrived in New France between 1608 and 1700.

Colloquial French dictionaries

Colonial French settlers carried their particular accents with them into New France. Those who followed Jacques Cartier, the man who discovered the St. Lawrence River in 1535, and those who came with the explorer Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec City in 1608, came from regions in France where some communities often found it difficult to understand one another due to language variations. 

French-Canadian patois evolved from these colonial settlers. Timmins says it wasn’t until the 1950s, when standard French became the official language of Canada’s (CBC) French radio network.

Acadian French evolved from an even earlier wave of colonial settlements established in 17th century in Acadia (present day Nova Scotia). Marie Gauvin wrote in a 1965, academic thesis titled “Linguistic and Cultural Heritage of the Acadians in Maine and New Brunswick”, about the linguistic variations she observed between her parents.  “My father was a native of the St. John River Valley while my mother was from the province of Quebec. Each used French pronunciations, idioms and vocabulary that differed one from another,” she wrote. 

French colloquialisms and the use of Canadianisms can entertain linguists for hours in animated conversations. More information about French-Canadian patois, colloquialisms, linguistic heritage, Canadianisms and vocabulary are available in these sources:

Beaudoin, Rachelle, editor and illustrator, The Berlin Dictionary; 2009, Boom Pier Press, Peterborough NH. Contact berlindictionary@gmail.com.

Gauvin, Marie A., Linguistic and Cultural Heritage of the Acadians in Maine and New Brunswick; a thesis submitted at Central Connecticut State College New Britain, Connecticut, 1965.  https://www.zotero.org/francopublic/items/itemKey/6XD28V3Q

Levesque, Don, Le Parlez Chez Nous (1999) and C’est de meme qu’ont parle par che’nous (2007), St. John Valley Times, Madawaska, ME. Contact publisher@sjvalley-times.com or donleve@gmail.com

Timmons, Steve; French Fun: The Real Spoken Language of Quebec, John Wiley & Sons, Toronto, 1995.

 

About this Blog

Juliana L’Heureux is a freelance writer whose articles about Maine’s Franco-American history and culture have appeared in Portland newspapers for 25 years. She serves on the Maine Franco-American Leadership Council.

Juliana and her husband Richard live in Topsham ME. Feel free to contact her at Juliana@mainewriter.com.

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