Chiac (also spelled
chiak or chiaque) is a specific type of discursive switching between French and English among individuals who are highly bilingual and have Acadian French as their mother tongue but Canadian English as their first or second language. Although the discursive code of chiac is precisely constrained and ethnoculturally recognizable, it cannot properly be considered a language or dialect as such. Chiac is spoken mainly in the southeastern part of the Canadian province of New Brunswick, in particular in the areas of Moncton, Shediac, Dieppe and Memramcook. The word chiac in fact comes from Shediac.

How Chiac Is Perceived

Chiac is fairly hard to define. When first asked about it, people who speak it will spontaneously recognize its existence as a linguistic cross between French and English. But if they are then asked to speak it, they back off; they have singular difficulty in switching to chiac the way they would to French or English. The reason seems to have something to do with the specific problems posed by linguistic proximity. Just as Yiddish is close to German, chiac is a sort of “franglais” that is so close to French (rather than to English) that it is hard to neatly differentiate it from French and supply examples. This problem has a dimension that is more discursive than linguistic. When francophones elsewhere in the world are asked to express themselves in “franglais,” they all clearly understand what is being asked of them, though their responses will differ considerably from one French-speaking country or area to another. A Québécois, especially one who speaks joual, would unhesitatingly come back with something like La strappe de fan de mon truck est slaque (The fan belt on my truck is slack). Someone in France would come up with something more like Notre playmec n'est plus sponsorisé par cette top-modèle because copyright (Our playmate is no longer sponsored by this top model, because of copyright issues). An Acadian might choose a line from Acadian songwriter Lisa Leblanc: J'ai du global warming dans la brain (I have global warming on the brain). As these three examples show, franglais is not a uniform language, idiom or dialect, but rather a specific set of variable, unstabilized discursive behaviours. The same is true of Acadian chiac: it undeniably exists, but it is not a language in the usual sense of the word.

A Linguistic and Discursive Phenomenon

To describe chiac adequately, one must start with the French spoken in New Brunswick. The French spoken around Moncton, Shediac, Dieppe and Memramcook, New Brunswick, like that spoken everywhere else in Atlantic Canada, is a variety of North American French, with many features — some archaic, some innovative — that are attributable to its isolation from the French spoken elsewhere. To complicate matters, almost all people in southeastern New Brunswick who speak French also speak Canadian English. Speakers of chiac are thus native speakers of a regional form of French that has minority status and that is defined, like the patois and dialects of Europe, in relation to a national language. In addition, this interlect (mixture of languages) is omnipresent and very strongly coded among Acadian francophones.

Chiac employs English and French simultaneously, side by side (contrary to joual, for example, which incorporates francisized anglicisms without activating the English language in the minds of its speakers, most of whom are unilingual francophones). So the question is whether chiac is intrinsically a finalized idiom, a fixed mixed language, or a mixed finished product. Close observation reveals that the conflict between chiac and French, like that between patois and French, in fact seems to play out in a francophone space. The first major argument against the idea that chiac is a perfectly balanced interlect is that all speakers of chiac necessarily have French as their mother tongue. And the youngest speakers of chiac do not necessarily end up speaking English as their first language as their lives go on. They often come back to French. Hence chiac is an idiom, a practice, a behaviour (and a problem) peculiar to francophones. And the more that its French dimension is recognized, the more chiac is seen to be a discursive interlect, a system of discourse.

Also worth noting is that chiac is not experienced in the same way by the source cultures of the two languages of which it is supposedly a hybrid. New Brunswick anglophones (who are not bilingual) do not speak chiac, they do not understand it passively and they do not have any specific name for it — they simply refer to it as Frenglish, which is just as vague as the terms used to ostracize mixed languages such as Spanglish, franglais and Italiese. In chiac, French and English alternate dynamically in the user’s speech. When native speakers of chiac have been away from New Brunswick for a while, they begin to lose their ability to speak it. They have to come home and steep themselves actively in its milieu to recover it, just as with a regional accent or a technical or professional jargon.

Chiac exemplifies two major types of linguistic proximity. The first is sociolinguistic proximity: both of the two languages involved have international stature, but locally, their prestige is unequal, and they have been coexisting in the same region since the second half of the 18th century, if not longer. The only bilinguals involved — Acadian francophones — push this interlect to the point of mingling the grammatical markers of the two languages, although switching between French and English words and sentences is the predominant pattern. The second form of linguistic proximity involved in chiac can be described as follows. Because the largest part of the chiac idiom consists of French dialect, chiac may be considered a collateral of French — a vernacular isolate (a language that is isolated within a given family of languages and cannot be associated with any other languages to form a sub-family). It dates from the early 17th century and has been perpetuated, advanced but also marginalized among speakers who have lived through the experience of standardization in English, which may be their first or their second language but is not their mother tongue. To speak chiac, it is absolutely not enough simply to mix French and English randomly (Franco-Ontarians and Franco-Saskatchewaners mix these two languages, but the result is not chiac). That said, though chiac is an entirely specific, coded, socially demarcated type of discourse, the fact remains that when chiac speakers provide examples of what they consider typical lexical or phonetic features of chiac, the vast majority of these examples either consist of Acadian French (mon houme, une ligne de hard, faudrait qu’j’irions) or incorporate English into Acadian French (vas sorter car, step mon houme, j’te bet que t’es pas game), but none is ever strictly English.

Thus the way that speakers of chiac perceive it is the reverse of what it actually is. Their view of chiac emphasizes its sociolingustic proximity with English — they see it as a form of franglais. But in fact, a closer analysis reveals its linguistic proximity to French. Chiac is an old collateral of French that is spoken in code-switching situations by bilinguals in whom both languages are then discursively activated. This phenomenon is denoted by a specific glossonym, chiac (comparable to joual or Yiddish) rather than by a logonym used as a portmanteau word (such as franglais, Frenglish, Spanglish or Italiese), but there should be no illusions on this score. Chiac represents a general propensity for discursive code switching among highly bilingual, initially francophone individuals; the only way to identify any of its “hard” specific features is to trace them back to their roots in Acadian French, from which the basic configuration of chiac is derived.

Ethnocultural Legitimacy

Chiac is thus explicitly understood by its speakers as a group idiom, a code spoken by “us.” Hence it is associated with some sensitive issues of linguistic prestige in New Brunswick. One direct impact of the sociolinguistic proximity of English is to make speakers of chiac feel linguistically insecure. They also display a cautious, populist mistrust of standard French. The conflict between chiac and French is conceptualized as a social and generational marker, and chiac is the subject of explicit demarcative attention within the local culture. To speak pure French is perceived as a form of elitism, an outmoded way of showing disdain for the local popular culture, with its unquestionably anglophone dimension. Thus, in Moncton, Shediac, Dieppe and Memramcook, chiac is everywhere in the streets, and to speak French is to openly violate local norms. The familiar local culture wants to be able to mix the two languages freely, to display its dual heritage as it sees fit, without any standards being imposed. “Pure” English is what people speak unavoidably. “Pure” French is what some people think everyone should speak. Chiac, for its part, is “impure” but free. It is a source of pride and a product of collective complicity. Because speakers of chiac are fundamentally francophones, this conflict of prestige often results in emotional conflicts, especially when, over time, chiac speakers opt for a more standard form of French. Underlying all the symbolism of chiac is the issue of linguistic assimilation. Interestingly, the growing debate over the impact of chiac on French in contemporary Acadia is of concern mainly for non-speakers and former speakers of chiac. In contrast, active speakers of chiac have a perfect sense of its discursive, fugitive, evanescent dimension, its localization in time and space, and the illusory nature of the threat that it supposedly represents to “their” French.

Artistic and Cultural Influence

In recent years, the question of the prestige and cultural legitimacy of chiac has taken on new dimensions as many Acadian artists have begun to use it more and more freely in their works. The TV cartoon show and comic book Acadieman, by Dano LeBlanc, stars the first chiac-speaking Acadian superhero. Acadian writers exemplify chiac or deal with it in their works — for example, France Daigle in Pour sûr (2011) and Gérard LeBlanc in Éloge du Chiac (1995). Popular Acadian musical groups and singers, such as Zéro Degré Celsius, Radio Radio, Les Hay Babies, Marie-Jo Thério and Lisa LeBlanc, sing ballads, blues, soul, country and rap songs that incorporate chiac (see Acadian Music). Acadian “folk trash” banjo and guitar player and singer-songwriter Lisa LeBlanc has had such a strong cultural impact that she can almost be regarded as the Michel Tremblay of chiac, even though most of her lyrics are actually written in solid, traditional Acadian French, largely free of anglicisms.

All of this artistic ferment has unequivocally established chiac as a full-fledged cultural phenomenon, greatly alleviating the linguistic insecurity of many of its speakers as well as outside observers. It has also helped lead to calmer discussions about the dialectal, rhetorical and discursive specificity of this highly original ethnocultural phenomenon, which is being recognized and studied more and more throughout the French-speaking world.