Father Potier’s Glossary of Spoken Canadian French

par Bénéteau, Marcel

Map of Detroit, 1764

The French language is without a doubt the key heritage element shared by New World French speakers.  Over a period of four centuries, North American French has survived and evolved, its various dialects and accents multiplying as a result of the diverse natural and cultural surroundings in which it has taken root. Furthermore, the various cultural encounters and conflicts, as well as the occupations, vocations, and areas of expertise of its speakers have their mark on the vocabulary, the expressions and the structure of each variety of the language.  One of the most important documents for the study of the history of North American French is the manuscript entitled Façons de Parler Proverbiales, Triviales, Figurées, etc., des Canadiens au XVIIIe Siècle [Proverbial, Everyday and Figurative Expressions, etc. of 18th Century Canadians]. It is a little notebook compiled between 1743 and 1758 by Father Pierre Philippe Potier, a Jesuit missionary to the Hurons of the Detroit River region.  This glossary of spoken Canadian French was the first - and in fact the only - work of its kind to document the French spoken in New France.  Potier jotted down most of the words of his glossary while serving in the Detroit River area, where he was a missionary from 1744 until his death in 1781.  The document is therefore of great importance to the French speakers of this region.

Article disponible en français : Lexique du parler canadien-français du père Potier

Father Potier:  missionary, parish priest, linguist

Reproduction of Father Potier's grammar notes

Born on April 21, 1708, in Blandain, Belgium, Pierre Philippe Potier entered the Tournai Jesuit novitiate in 1729.  During his studies, he showed a special gift for languages, a talent that his superiors would see as an indication of his calling to missionary work.  And so, after taking his final vows in 1743, he set off for New France, reaching Quebec City on the 1st of October of that same year.  He spent six months at the Lorette Mission in order to learn some Huron, and then he left Quebec City on June 26, 1744, in order to join Father Armand de la Richardie at the Île aux Bois-Blancs Huron Mission located at the mouth of the Detroit River.  Two years later he became the head of the mission.  In 1747, the institution was destroyed during the revolt lead by Nicolas Orontony's band of Hurons.  The following year, a decision was made to re-establish the mission closer to Fort Detroit, at Pointe de Montréal located on the south shore of the Detroit River (present-day Windsor, Ontario).  The first farming plots on the south banks of the Detroit River were granted in 1749, at which point French Canadians started settling at Petite Côte, an area adjoining the mission.

Following the British conquest of 1760, Potier extended his ministry to the British settlers, who until that time had gone to the Sainte-Anne de Détroit church on the north shore to worship.  In 1767, the mission officially became Assumption Parish, the first parish in what is now Ontario.  Potier would remain parish priest until his death in 1781.  In spite of the settlement's isolation, he continued his academic pursuits, devoting much of his time to reading and correspondence. 

Facsimilé du lexique du père Potier

In addition to parish records and account ledgers, he left five manuscripts concerning the Huron language, along with personal notes, travel itineraries, 22 notebooks containing a variety of writings and - what is of particular concern in this article - a little notebook entitled Façons de Parler Proverbiales, Triviales, Figurées, etc. des Canadiens au XVIIIe Siècle [Proverbial, Everyday and Figurative Expressions, etc. of 18th Century Canadians].  Nicknamed the "Bouche Belgique" [approx. Belgian Philologist ] by his fellow Jesuits, Father Potier noted with interest Canadian vocabulary and idioms, recording in his notebook all the words and expressions that he had never heard before.  He began this practice at the time of his crossing over to the New World and he continued to record words and expressions once in North America, gathering over 2,000 expressions and idioms between 1743 and 1758.  Approximately one third of the words were recorded during his stay in Lorette and the remainder came from the Fort Detroit area.  The importance of this unique document cannot be overestimated.  The linguist André Lapierre has put it this way:  "This notebook is the only evidence we have to date concerning the language spoken by the early settlers who came from France during the 17th and 18th centuries to lay the foundations of the French North American colonial empire that stretched along the shores of the St. Lawrence River." (NOTE 1) 


The Glossary

Kept on reserve in the Montreal Municipal Library (NOTE 2), the notebook measures 18.3 cm [7.2 in]   by 11.8 cm [4.6 in] and has 59 pages, most of which are divided into two columns by a vertical line.  The handwriting is tiny and compact, but clearly legible. According to Peter Halford, who published the first integral edition of the glossary, it includes about up to 40 characters per square centimetre (NOTE 3). Potier was a language specialist who entered his data objectively and with great precision.  As opposed to other dictionaries of the period, Potier's glossary "does not depreciate [belittle] the language used by any given member of society. It records the vocabulary of peasants along with soldiers and of the ruling class; the sayings of ladies of the night are featured as much as those of housewives; and the Latin of a learned fellow Jesuit appears alongside the French of bricklayers and labourers" (NOTE 4). As Halford points out, Potier's Detroit compilations are particularly interesting, for "the town of Detroit of at that time was a military outpost, a colonization settlement and a way station on the route to the North American interior, and so it attracted soldiers, missionaries, settlers and merchants" (NOTE 5). Thus, the vocabulary Potier heard in the Fort Detroit area and recorded in his notebook is quite rich and varied, having been altered by typically North American cultural influences.

 The [New France Ox] or Boeuf Illinois [Illinois Ox]. In Father Potier's time, the terms were used to refer to a European ox that had been raised in the Illinois Country.  Later the terms also came to refer to the American Bison.

Potier himself often accompanied Canadians and Hurons wintering in the Fort Detroit area, and so he was able to compile some of the specialized vocabulary used in New France. In the following list are some examples of the vocabulary he noted:

Bœuf illinois [Illinois ox]: a "bovine of European origins raised in the Illinois Country"; Brasse [pinch] (of tobacco): a "quantity of tobacco";

Coulée [gully]: a " dead-end valley";

Écaleur de chevreux [kid skinner]: a "hunter";

Faon [fawn]: a "deer skin filled with oil";

Îlet [islet]: a "small wooded island";

Paille-en-cul [straw-tail]: a "wild duck or pintail duck";

Praline: "corn grilled in a pan with fat";

Racros [inlets]: "small coves (in a lake or river)";

Tête de femmes [woman's head]: "lumps of earth on the prairies." 


Potier also recorded words that were already considered as antiquated or as regionalisms by the era's lexicographers: 

De bisque en coin [from bisque to corner]: "from corner to corner";

Choque [shaker]: "tiller";

Drès [as soon as]: "as soon as, from (written and oral variant of the Fr. dès)";

Ébraillé [popped out]: "unbuttoned";

Fêtard [reveller]: "lazybones";

Firou [butt]: "anus, backside, seat";

Trouver le stèque [find the steak]: "find a way." 


His glossary also includes a number of words and expressions from Amerindian languages borrowed by French Canadians: 

Akokoine:  "tilted stick for hanging a pot";

Aouapou:  "provisions";

Coutaganer: "to work with a crooked knife";

Micoine: "spoon used by the Savages [sic]";

Okantican: "big float (at the end of a fishing net)";

Ouararon: "bull frog";

Sagamité: "corn stew."

Potier's glossary also offers considerable evidence of the lexical creativity of French Canadians, including the following innovative neologisms:

Barricotier: "barrel maker";

Crépissage: "to roughcast a wall or a house";

Débiscarié: "dilapidated";

Diabolicités: "mischief, juggling";

Jouailler: "to play often";

Rafaleux: "blowing in gusts." 


Several of the words noted by Potier have now become an integral part of North American French:

Abrier: "to shelter";

Batterie: "barn space";

Bredasser:  "to do a thousand little jobs";

Goret:  "pig"; mouiller,

Mouillasser:  "to rain, drizzle, spit";

Secousse:  "a period of time"; 

Trâlée:  "crowd." 

Included among Potier's jottings are, last but not least, a number of words now belonging to standard French. No fewer than 130 intial attestations (e.g. words or meanings recorded for the first time in writing) are to be found in this group, of which 50 or so were recorded in the Fort Detroit area.  For instance, the word soue [pig sty] was noted by Potier in 1744, whereas the Petit Robert dictionary indicates that, elsewhere, the word would only be attested as early as 1823.  According to the same source, the verb tapager [to make a racket], which was recorded by Potier in 1745, would not officially appear before 1844.  Potier also noted the verb débiter [to cut meat into pieces] in 1745, whereas the Grand Larousse French-language dictionary would not record its initial entry into the language until 1863.  The same  applies for couette [lock of hair held by a barrette or a tie], recorded in the Fort Detroit area in 1746, but not attested by the dictionary Le Trésor de la Langue Française until 1856.  Lastly, tapé [crazy, or a bit nutty], a word Potier recorded in 1748, did not appear in any French dictionary for another 150 years (in 1912, according to the Grand Larousse).


The Significance and the Ramifications of the Glossary

Cover of Robert Toupin's book, 1996
Cover of Peter Hlford and Marcel Bénéteau's book, 2008

With its vast array of initial attestations, archaisms and regionalisms, backwoods terms and borrowings from the Amerindians, Potier's glossary constitutes a precious contribution to French North American linguistic heritage.  French speakers of all regions will find the earliest meaningful expressions of their cultural heritage in the glossary, as it contains linguistic evidence of experiences and realities unique to life in North America.  For residents of the Detroit area, the document is also indicative of the important contributions that this former outpost of New France has made to French-language studies.  It should be noted that the first French Canadian dictionary representative of the language spoken in Quebec, the Viger dictionary, would not appear until 1810 (NOTE 6) .

Although partial editions of Potier's glossary had long been circulating among linguists (NOTE 7), Peter W. Halford's 1994 publication of Le Français des Canadiens à la Veille de la Conquête [The French Spoken by Canadians on the Eve of the Conquest] and Robert Toupin's 1996 publication of Les Écrits de Pierre Potier [The Writings of Pierre Potier] (NOTE 8) triggered a wave of interest in "Detroit French", as well as in the settlement's unique position as the hub connecting New France with the Pays d'en Haut [the ‘Up' or ‘Upper' Country refers to the Amerindian territories surrounding the Great Lakes].  In turn, these publications resulted in a series of articles published in academic journals and the popular press. The French vocabulary of the Detroit region was the specific focus of a weekly series on Windsor's local Radio-Canada station.  Potier's glossary was also featured in an exhibit (presented at the Windsor Community Museum, which is located in the François Baby Residence) focusing on the cultural survival of the Detroit region's French speaking population.  Finally, the glossary, otherwise known as the "Ontario's French Language Birth Certificate" was given due recognition during the 2001 Detroit/ Windsor Tricentennial celebrations.

Memorial plaque honouring Father Potier erected on the south bank of the Detroit River (present-day Windsor, Ontario)

Potier's glossary testifies to the longstanding presence of French speakers in the Detroit region, an enclave that was long-isolated from Canada's main French-speaking communities. The fact that the community succeeded in surviving 300 years of isolation submerged in a densely populated English-speaking region in the heart of North America, continues to draw the attention of various interest groups. The Detroit region is prominently featured in Modéliser le Changement : les Voies du Français, une Étude Internationale [Modelling Change:  An International Study on the Evolutionary Journey of the French Language], a research project overseen by France Martineau of the University of Ottawa that traces the evolution of French from medieval Europe up until the time of New France.  Mots Choisis [A Selection of Words], a 300-year glossary of Detroit French published in 2008, also has Potier's pioneering work as its starting point. It documents over 3,000 words and expressions that were recorded on both sides of the Detroit River between 1701 and 2001, in order to demonstrate that the region's valuable linguistic finds are not limited to the precious collection compiled by the "Belgian Mouthpiece" (NOTE 9). The vocabulary of the Detroit region, enriched by three centuries of exchanges and encounters in the very heart of North America, constitutes one of the most important assets of the intangible heritage of French speakers from the region nicknamed the "Cradle of Ontario's French Language Culture."

Marcel Bénéteau
Department of Folklore and Ethnology of French-speaking North America
University of Sudbury, Ontario




Note 1: André Lapierre, "Préface", in Peter W. Halford, Le Français des Canadiens à la veille de la Conquête. Témoignage du père Pierre Philippe Potier, s.j., Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, Collection Amérique française, 994, p. ix. [Original citation translated into English]

Note 2: Collection Gagnon, classification mark 447.9714 P863fa

Note 3: Peter Halford, op.cit., p.6.

Note 4: Ibid., pp. 5-6

Note 5: Ibid., pp. 5.

Note 6: Jacques Viger, "Néologie canadienne, ou Dictionnaire des mots créés en Canada & maintenant en vogue..." (manuscrits de 1810); published in the Bulletin du parler français au Canada, T. VIII (1909-1910). Also see Suzelle Blais, Néologie canadienne, Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, 1998) (edition critique avec analyse linguistic).

Note 7: See the partial edition of the Bulletin du parler français au Canada, tomes III, 1904-1905 (pp. 213-20, 252-55, 291-93) and IV, 1905-06 (pp. 29-30, 63-65, 103-104, 146-149, 224-26, 264-67). Also see Vincent Almazan, "Pierre Potier, premier lexicographe du français au Canada: son glossaire, " Revue de linguistique romane. t.44, 1980, p.304-40. 

Note 8: Robert Toupin, Les écrits de Pierre Potier, vol1, La Culture savante en Nouvelle-France au XVIIIe siècle; vol 2, Registres et Bibliothèque, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, collection Amérique française, 1996.

Note 9: Marcel Bénéteau, Mots choisis: trois cents ans de francophonie au Détroit du lac Érié, Ottawa, University of Ottawa Press, collection Amérique française, 2008.

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