French: One Language Divided by Two Lingos

Christelle backed her taxi into Bellevue’s courtyard the other morning and popped out with a bright smile and breezy bonjour. She is, quite blatantly, anything but the typical French taxi driver who lashed out across the international headlines last month.

Equally striking is Christelle’s dress sense: It is unfailingly incredible (in the truest sense of that word) – especially given that she’s shoved behind a steering wheel for a good part of her waking hours. That morning our redheaded taxi driver-friend glowed in a fitted, canary yellow sheath dress. Fashionable round sunglasses rested on her nose, while a cluster of bracelets dazzled in the sunlight. The pièce de résistance was her signature high-heels. They always come in around 5” – but that day’s selection was the dressiest yet. Crisscrossing her feet were dainty straps encrusted with glittering rhinestones.

These sandals don’t belong to your typical taxi driver.  Photo:  Google Images
These sandals don’t belong to your typical taxi driver. Photo: Google Images

Vous vous mettez sur votre trente-six! Philippe said, brandishing one of his best Quebecois phrases with a grin. You get into your 36!

Christelle, of course, had no idea what my husband was talking about.

Nor did I. No one ever knows what Philippe is saying when he plays the French-Canadian game. Never do I hear him speak so many unintelligible French (or French-like) words as when we’re situated here in France and he has the ear of a native speaker. Somehow the locals find his dialect endearing. At least Christelle seemed to understand she was part of his fun.

That’s what we say when people are all dressed up, Philippe said to the lovely taxi lady in the canary yellow dress and rhinestone, strappy spikes. “We,” by implication, meant “We, the French-Canadians.”

Our friend’s face glimmered like her rhinestones. But here in France, she said, we say Vous vous mettez sur votre trente et un! You dress up to your 31!

Thirty-six. Thirty-one. I couldn’t help but chime in. In the Anglo world it’s neuf! You dress to the nines!

Several hours after the stunning and cheerful Christelle left for Nice Airport with our houseguests, Philippe and I were still chuckling over the strange and wonderful variations that exist between what’s supposed to be the same language, French, as it’s spoken within two countries separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes it seems as though the French and the French-Canadians have created their linguistic distinctions simply for the sake of being different from each another.

Later that afternoon Véronique and Laurent stopped by. Why do you guys say 31? Philippe asked out local friends – as if Quebec’s 36 was the established norm.

Neither had any idea. But in the following days Véro’s online research prompted a flurry of emails.

The French 31, she explained, recalls a richly textured fabric from the Middle Ages called le trentain (a word which also means “thirty or so” in the modern day). This cloth was made of 30 times 100 threads, so that could explain why a well-dressed French person se met sur son 31.

Véro then offered another rationale that invoked the memories of Prussian soldiers who scrubbed their barracks and dressed in their finest on the 31st of the month, whenever that date came about, for a visit by their military superiors.

In other words, no one knows exactly why any Frenchman dresses to his 31.

Mais pourquoi cette surenchère au Québec? Véro wondered. Why did Quebec feel the need to make its number bigger?

Linguists – not just my husband, but the proper kind – have no idea on that side of the equation either. The most intriguing explanation I found is a play on words: Thirty-six is four times nine (neuf), and in French that word also means “new”. So dressing to your 36 in Quebec is basically new, quadrupled. You’re putting on your spanking new stuff.

Perhaps, by some transitive property, that brings the discussion back to us Anglophones, who dress only a quarter as smartly as the Quebeckers. But I digress.

Véro, meanwhile, continued to surf the web. Why, she wondered, do the French-Canadians say haut comme deux pommes (high like two apples) – and not haut comme trois pommes (three apples) as in France?

This is how I’m used to seeing French apples.  Photo:  Google Images
This is how I’m used to seeing French apples. Photo: Google Images

I wondered why anyone said that phrase at all.

Perhaps, she quipped, Canada’s fruits are bigger than the French ones?

Then I discovered we English speakers say “knee-high to a grasshopper.” That phrase is surely disturbing Frenchmen and Quebeckers alike.

So here’s a warning: You can tumble down a real, wonderland rabbit hole as soon as you start to googliser, as the French put it, the differences between the two French forms. There are a lot of people like Véro, Christelle, Philippe and me who find them fascinating.

The Canadians deserve more precision in their snow.
The Canadians deserve more precision in their snow.

Sometimes culture seems to dictate the creation of new words. Inhabitants of Quebec, for example, deserve a special word for colder-than-the-usual-cold. The French only have très froid. Very cold. The Quebeckers get frette.

In the same vein, on certain snowy days the French may say they have neige fine soufflée par le vent. Fine snow blown by the wind. The hearty Quebeckers deserve something stronger. They have la poudrerie. The French call that a gunpowder factory.

Quebec is, by many accounts, a big, strong place. Geography and climate probably make it that way. At night a local person would barre la porte. Rather than “block” his door, a Frenchman would choose the gentler ferme la porte à cle. He’d close it with a key.

Even larger French vehicles aren’t so scary.
Even larger French vehicles aren’t so scary.

The Quebecker drives a char. Many North American cars are gargantuan compared to their French equivalents, but the Quebecker’s char must be particularly worrying in the mother country. A Frenchman translates that word as a military assault vehicle.

And can those French-Canadians hold their liqueur! To them, the beverage is simply a carbonated drink.

There’s no need to barre the door when it’s as gorgeous as this one.
There’s no need to barre the door when it’s as gorgeous as this one.

What’s more, some differences in this language divided by two vocabularies have no seeming rhyme nor reason. The nuances even confuse native speakers. The French take their croissants and doll-sized cafés during petit déjeuner, following it with a noontime déjeuner and dîner at night. The Quebeckers launch directly into déjeuner – perhaps a lumberjacks’ breakfast – followed by dîner and souper. Philippe still stumbles over this trilogy.

As many a Quebecker would say, Ça n’a pas d’allure.

A Frenchman, on hearing this comeback, would never dream of putting together such a concoction of his native tongue. What is that French-Canadian trying to say? he’ll wonder. What “has no speed”?

But as that same Frenchman drives his streamlined voiture (as correctly labeled) out into the evening, dressed sur son 31 for an elegant dîner with friends he has known since they all were haut comme trois pommes, he knows he can soon raise a perfectly chilled liqueur in his right hand and say that, yes, he does have a sense of what that Quebecker was actually trying to say: It makes no sense.

10 thoughts on “French: One Language Divided by Two Lingos

  1. Very interesting, indeed. It seems such nuances are present in all languages. For example, Americans usually get in line while British would queue up at the box office. Great reading!


  2. I always remember ‘con comme un balai’ from my franco-French family – how do they say that in Quebec?!

    1. Good question! I sometimes say “not the sharpest tack in the box” – but then I got that phrase from a friend in Johannesburg. Curious to hear comments from Quebec…

  3. “Ça prends pas la tête à Papineau!” This is good Quebecois for, ” ‘Yé pas fûté, fûté! ” Which is good Quebecois for, “Not the sharpest tack between two thick short planks!” Papineau was a brilliant politician here, led the Rebellion of 1837.

  4. I’m pretty sure that’s a tarte aux poires in the photo….not a tarte aux pommes. Or maybe French and Canadian apples are different?! Lol!

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