Mommy’s vernacular: A larval language, informal, akin to rumblings?

Samuel Marticotte :

Today, I would like to discuss the status of standard French in Quebec. I have always been aware that there was a standard spoken French that had more status than the one I spoke on the north-shore of Quebec. This is notably the case for all speakers of regions as Quebecers usually put emphasis on the difference between what they call regions (Gaspésie, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, and other regions) and “les grands centres” metropolitan areas/big cities, referring to Quebec or Montreal.

Current standard French is closely associated with the language of French literature (not Quebec Literature), the variety taught in schools, and the variety used by broadcasters, also called “Radio Canada dialect”, a variety close to the language spoken in Quebec City. As in other societies, standard Quebec French is the language of  people with high-status and has overt prestige, as we are more likely to hear judges, lawyers, officials, politicians, business men and other people with high-status use it than working-class people in regions or the city.

It is important to note though, that local language features are well alive in Montreal, and working-class speakers of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, for example, use a language that is considered to have low-status. Moreover, most learners of French I meet, comment on the fact that the spoken language in Quebec and Montreal differs radically from the standard thought in ESL classes.

The high-status language in Quebec has changed over the last 50 years. When I watch news from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the variety spoken sounds closer to the current vernacular of older generations living in Montreal, with its notable features such as the rolled “r”s. There seems to have been a change. The current standard seems to have moved from the Montreal dialect, to the Quebec dialect, which may have been a purposeful detachment from Montreal’s evolving cultural diversity and its resulting dialectal change among the new generations of speakers, a situation resembling the one reported by Herk (2012) in the United-States (New-York versus the Mid-West). This is a theory, I may be wrong, I don’t know if there has been work on this question.

I am often appalled at how much denial there is concerning the existence of low-status vernacular in Quebec.  I want to bring awareness to the denial and shame of the elite concerning the existence of low-status French in Quebec. An example of this is when Xavier Dolan’s 2014 movie Mommy came out and several journalists from Le devoir sparked a debate claiming that the language used in the movie was an invention and denied its very existence. They claimed it was not Joual French, not Quebecois French, not French French or any other variety of French.

Here is an excerpt from one of the articles in French (English following):

“La langue parlée dans le dernier film de Xavier Dolan n’est ni de l’anglais, ni du français, ni une variété de français qu’on appelle le québécois […] C’est au contraire un parler larvaire, informe, proche des borborygmes, d’une effarante indigence de vocabulaire et dont l’armature syntaxique est bancale […] Xavier Dolan s’y révèle un maître du langage cinématographique. Par contre, sa pseudo-langue populaire est fausse et est un agacement constant. L’image des Québécois que le film de Dolan projette sur la scène internationale est celle d’un groupe d’illettrés souffrant d’une grave carence de vocabulaire. […] Le franglais qui sévit dans certains films produits au Québec ne mène nulle part et nous tribalise. La culture québécoise peut très bien s’exprimer et rayonner sans être ni franco-française ni « joualisante ». (La pseudo-langue de “Mommy”, 2014).

“The language in Dolan’s last movie is not English, nor French, nor any variety of Quebec French. […] On the contrary, it is a larval language, informal, akin to rumblings, with a baffling paucity and which syntactic structure is flawed. […] Xavier Dolan may be a master of the language of film-making, on the other hand, his pseudo-vernacular language is forged and a constant annoyance. The image that he projects of Quebeckers on the international scene is one of illiterate people suffering from having a very deficient vocabulary. […] The Frenglish that appears in some movies produced in Québec is leading us nowhere and tribalizes us. Quebec culture could very well be promoted without being French-French nor “joual” French (a controversial vernacular used by the Montreal working class). (My translation, La pseudo-langue de “Mommy”, 2014)

Dolan, when interviewed, responded to this criticism by saying that he did not intend to be controversial and wrote the script trying to depict his childhood in the suburbs of Laval.  I would argue that the language used by the journalist is publicly stigmatizing the vernacular represented in the movie. This is perhaps, an example of how, the low-status of the vernacular is reaffirmed in order to reinforce the prestige of standard French. It is also reaffirming the author’s, perhaps unconscious, political agenda of purging the vernacular (especially of its uses English words) from movies aiming at an international audience.

Do you think that is the case?  Are there other perspectives or theoretical frameworks that could be helpful to further analyse this situation ? I’m looking forward to hear what you think!


La pseudo-langue de «Mommy». (2014, October). Retrieved October 6, 2016, from

Van Herk, G. (2012). What is sociolinguistics. Chichester, West Sussex, UK; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.



7 thoughts on “Mommy’s vernacular: A larval language, informal, akin to rumblings?”

  1. Melissa- Wow, I am a little appalled that as humans, we can still speak so harshly about particular ways of talking, or being, just because they’re not “standard.” I agree that the journalist’s response stigmatizes and devaluates the dialect you mentioned, Samuel. It also suggests to me that in speaking harshly against a group’s use of language, there is a corresponding devaluation of these groups’ capacities, thoughts, and ways of life. Within every group, there are many beautiful people who have valid, valuable thoughts and contributions– I don’t think that someone who truly believed this would speak out against their particular way of expressing those thoughts and ideas.


  2. I second Melissa’s thoughts here. It’s downright absurd to me that ‘La Presse’ would deny the reality of localized Frenches, as if there was only one accepted French in Quebec. You would think a spirit of camaraderie would build around regional variations within Quebec in the spirit of nationalism, but they prove that elitism and the denial of ‘lesser identities’ is alive and well.


  3. Simon Desmarais – Comment 3

    The ‘Mommy’ example is very interesting because the language spoken is so non-standard that the movie had to be subtitled when it was shown in Cannes, because no one would understand it otherwise.

    However, it’s actually kind of confusing because the French subtitles are not simply a transcription of what is said in the movie; they are actually translating what the characters say into standard French, as if the movie was in another language.

    This is a YouTube video of the trailer with French subtitles, clearly intended for a French audience; interestingly, there are only subtitles when the characters speak highly non-standard French.

    When I learned about this, it prompted many questions: first, would it even be possible to simply transcribe what is said in the movie? There are so many words in Quebec French that don’t even have an official spelling, and so only transcribing it would have been not only difficult but also would have looked extremely weird on screen. This is, of course, because highly non-standard Quebec French is a colloquial language, never allowed to be used in writing.

    Also, I remember that when I watched it, I understood everything, and it also sounded very natural to me (although very working-class, but when I’m with friends I sometimes speak a variety that approximates what they speak in the movie). When I looked at the French subtitles, I realized that they did not convey the same information or feeling at all.

    Both of those features are characteristic of foreign language movies: subtitles that translate the meaning and lose some of that meaning by doing so. So it looks like Mommy, for everyone who can’t understand Quebec French, is basically a foreign language movie, and it has been treated as such.

    I think it really puts into sharper focus the difference between written and spoken French; as speakers of Quebec French, we always feel that we speak French, just a dialect of it, but when you realize that no French speaker is able to understand Mommy, then what is Québec French? Is it still just a dialect, but unintelligible? Or a different language?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Undoubtedly, the journalist’s comments went overboard and sound irritatingly harsh and stigmatizing; however, I don’t think he intended to be so. As far as I am concerned, I suppose that he was stirred by a nationalistic-patriotic intent, meaning to say that the variety of French that is spoken in Quebec is proper and standard and does not sound in any way like this. He may be right in overreacting to the language used in the movies given that movies are deemed, by many people, as a good representation of language, culture and society.

    If I understood you correctly, Samuel, there exists many dialects of French of within Quebec, one is prestigious, while the others may be looked at as improper, and hence, “stigmatized”. I wonder why Bill 101 has had any considerable impact on the linguistic landscape in Quebec. For linguistic change to come to pass, it takes time which has to be accompanied by effective language planning and policy. Besides, people are to be well-informed and made aware of the more prestigious local language variety through media and education so that moving away from the traditional non-standard language features (Van Herk, 2012).


  5. I have not seen the movie, but it I assume it portrays a variation of Quebecois in that particular community in time. Gatineau seems to be a bit of a linguistic snob, not to mention ill-informed about linguistic variation in this province. I assume he’s cultivated a certain journalist identity for his role at Le Devoir that targets a particular audience, which he feels reflects the ideal French speaker, especially considering the language he used. I did not think the article targeted the average Quebecois. Had he written about “Broue,” I supposed he would have been even more critical. However, “Mommy” and “Broue” would have lost a great part of their culture and identity had they been in standard French.

    Bonnie Reimer


  6. Samuel Marticotte:

    Hi Ahmed, I agree that the journalist’s comment was nationalistic and patriotic. But don’t you think it is not a good approach to say that the variety of French that is spoken in Quebec is « proper » or « standard », as it is a value judgement ? Some people with power may have a more « standard » language, but that doesn’t reflect the reality of the province, which is diverse. I personally do not think he is right in overreacting to the language used in movies. Dolan’s depiction was intended to be a good representation of one variety of Quebec’s language, culture and society, just not the one the journalist wanted to see depicted. This is a form of elitism I do not agree with. As for Quebeckers’ perception of the standard, I think they are well aware that there is a prestigious standard, but they counsciously and uncounsciouly move away or closer to it to reinforce their position in society. I do not see why any authority should dictate what language should be spoken in the media or movies. However, I do not mind a media adopting a variety that is more standard, as a choice for allowing mutual intelligibility. But I think movie makers should have the choice of depicting the reality or fiction they want, and not confine themselves to the only reality that reinforce the power structure in a given society.

    Hi Bonnie, I believe he does portray a real variation. I mean, I understand all the language in the movie, so it surely is not invented. I think you’re right that his identity at Le Devoir has to do with the role he thinks he has in society. Indeed, his language is very formal, and so he must be having a specific target audience in mind. I also think it would have lost a great part of the culture and identity had it been in standard French, just as we can see in the version with “French” French subtitles.

    Thank you both for your comments !


  7. Maxime – Comment 2

    The “controversy” that the critic created around the language used in the movie, to me, speaks to a kind of shame. Shame in that they seemingly don’t want Quebec to be associated with such a vernacular. I find this very interesting as when I moved back to Quebec several years ago, it took me a while to acclimate to the Quebecois accent again. The accent I acclimated to, living on the north shore of Montreal, sounded very similar to this. Listening to the clip that Simon posted, I understood everything that was said very clearly. I spoke this vernacular with university students, with store managers, with elderly people, with kids. Why is it then that a writer from Quebec is so ashamed of a widely spoken vernacular? It is just reality.


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