1908: The most detailed description of North American French?

A scholar observed once, in a review of someone else’s publication, that most academic studies of North American French are plagued by a certain anecdotal quality…

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Acadieman getting too detailed! (Image credit: PRI)

…Even the most gifted researchers have tended to be limited to listing perceived peculiarities of this or that dialect spoken on this continent. 

We do have some deeply useful small lexicographic documents, lists of words such as McDermott’s 1941 “Glossary of Mississippi Valley French” or the St Laurent, Manitoba community dictionary, and some really spectacular ones such as Valdman’s dictionary of Louisiana French, and Laverdure & Allard’s 1983 Turtle Mountain, North Dakota dictionary of (Southern) Michif (a French-Cree mixed language).

I believe there’s been some good folklore documentation as well, although I confess I haven’t delved into such works much in support of my research on Chinuk Wawa history. 

But in comparison, there’s been so little serious effort at rigorous & complete grammatical documentation of North American French. How I long for a thorough “reference grammar” of Southern Michif! (Will I have to branch out, and cobble one together?) Likewise, it’s a blast of refreshing oxygen to have found this rare document:

A Study of an Acadian-French Dialect Spoken on the North Shore of the Baie-des-Chaleursby James Geddes, Jr. (Halle, Germany: Max Niemeyer,1908).

Remarkable for his time, Geddes contributes what a present-day linguist would typically consider the essentials of a conscientious language description: a well-rounded description of the phonology (essentially in IPA phonetics!), morphology, and “phraseology” (including syntax) — plus a very nice “word index” (lexicon) at the end, and a ton of scholarship citations.

As I look at the available materials (including Wikipedia articles on “Joual” and “Magoua”), I can see a strong common inheritance among all North American French varieties. So I’m interested to read through Geddes’ book on a New Brunswick dialect, and reflect on some things that relate to the Métis/Canadian contribution to Chinook Jargon.


— Geddes’s short list (pages 7-8) of the biggest differences between standard French and Acadian lays out most of the vowel and consonant qualities I’ve heard and read about throughout regular folks’ Canadian French, and those in the French component of Southern Michif. A few, such as the affrication of /t, d/ to /ts, dz/ or /tš dž/, are mentioned elsewhere, only as footnotes, because they’re more typical of Québec-origin French. (Geddes at the outset emphasizes the largely separate historical development of Acadian and Québécois; the latter has a more direct ancestral relationship to PNW varieties.)


A general observation by Geddes: adjectives (by analogy with the nouns) tend to be reduced to a single form, regardless of gender.


Page 129 — Geddes notes that in this Acadian dialect, the reciprocal verbal object l’un l’autre of standard French “has no exact equivalent, the dialect expression being…tous les deux.” Meaning literally ‘all the two’, this is parallel to Chinuk Wawa’s reciprocal, kʰánumákwst (literally ‘together’, etymologically in Chinookan ‘all two’). If Québécois works similarly, we may have here a source of this grammatical usage in Jargon.



Pages 134ff, 161: the postclitic “ti” (understood to come from an earlier -t-il) is a generic Yes/No interrogative marker! Also seen in Québec-derived French varieties, including St Lauren Michif French and in Southern Michif. Therefore it was perhaps present in Oregon French, & thus may have been another force behind Chinuk Wawa’s adopting =na (etymologically Salish and Chinookan) in the same function. (This clitic, pronounced či (‘tchi’) in many varieties, also appears in some Algonquian languages in identical function. It’s been suggested to be indigenous to those languages, but all of them have been historically in contact with French…)



Page 197 notes the word [igwɩn] ‘small hand saw’, the source of a southern Chinuk Wawa word ligwin. I mention this because at one time this word was called “obscure” by scholar Barbara P. Harris, in her thought-provoking paper “Handsaw or Harlot?: Some Problem Etymologies in the Lexicon of Chinook Jargon” (1983). (But the 2012 dictionary of the Grand Ronde Tribes already points out numerous solid references for its North American French origin.) 

Page 198: the presence of [kapo] for ‘overcoat’ in Acadian as well as in CW’s Québec ancestor suggests that this pronunciation & meaning combination goes back to dialects within France. 

Page 203 (also p. 240) : marier [marje] ‘to marry (someone)’ likewise matches Québec usage, so this divergence from the standard French se marier (avec) would seem to also trace back to French regional usage. Thus we have a deeper etymology for early southern CW malyi, which happens to have gotten replaced at Grand Ronde by the English-sourced meri, having identical syntax. 

Page 206: moulin à X, literally a ‘mill for X’, is noted as the generic term for ‘X machine’, again matching Québec and the descendants thereof, so again suggesting an origin within dialects in France. 

Page 208’s nanan ‘bonbon(s)’, bebel ‘toy’, p. 210 pépère ‘grandpa’ (cf. mémère ‘grandma’ in St Laurent etc.): such 2-syllable words of reduplicative form are common in the dialect, as in Québec…this has implications for our CW huyhuy ‘trade, exchange’, bibi ‘kiss’, etc., which we believe are of North American French origin even though we haven’t yet found them documented in such dialects.

plus une affaire

Page 212 [py] for plus ‘more’, perhaps an additional minor influence leading to CW’s pi ‘and; but’. However, the CW term primarily traces to Québec [pi] from puis ‘and’ (literally ‘(and) then’), a usage also normal in Acadian, and thus likely to trace back to regional dialects in France.

On pages 219ff, it’s excellent that Geddes is careful to include personal names (both Christian and surnames), along with notes on their frequency, geographic predominance, and pronunciation. He doesn’t quite seem to consciously recognize that many of these appear to be hypocoristics, I mean nicknames; instead he attributes their divergences from the standard language to a tendency toward brevity in Acadian. Many of these can provide us with clues about names that we know only in spoken or Chinook Peipa form in southern interior BC, e.g. alɛk ‘Alexandre’, edwɛrd ‘Édouard’, ojys ‘Auguste’, matɩl ‘Mathilde’, mɛli ‘Émilie’,and tazi ‘Anastasie’. 


Page 226ff: This section is a great illustration of how the actually spoken versions of languages influence each other strongly, just as occurred between CW and, at various eras, English, French, etc. Because the data were collected in the 1890s, many of the expressions are ones that Kamloops CW took in as well: ti:m ‘(horse/ox) team’, stimbot ‘steamboat’, barle ‘barley, etc. 

What do you think?