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The Language Encounter in the French Americas, 16th-18th Centuries

The Language Encounter in the French Americas, 16th-18th Centuries
various locations
Time: Nov 1st, 9:00 am End: Nov 2nd, 5:00 pm
Interest Categories: United States Studies, Linguistics (FAS), Language Studies (UTM), Indigenous, History (FAS), Historical Studies (UTM), Historical and Cultural Studies (UTSC), French and Linguistics (UTSC), French (FAS), Diaspora/Transnational, Critical Theory, Comparative Literature (FAS), Communications, Communication, Culture, Information and Technology (UTM), Caribbean, Canada, Book History/Print Culture, 1500-1800
Interdisciplinary Conference

The Jackman Humanities Institute Program for the Arts on Translation and the Multiplicity of Languages is pleased to present:

The Language Encounter in the French Americas, 16th-18th Centuries

November 1 -- 150 Charles Street West, Goldring Centre, Regents Room (Victoria College)

November 2 -- 170 St. George Street, Jackman Humanities Building, Room 100a

From the very beginning of the French presence in the Americas in the sixteenth century, the question of linguistic encounter represented a central feature of the history of the French Americas. French colonies in Brazil, Florida, the Caribbean, Acadia, Québec and the Great Lakes, and Louisiana and
the Mississippi River Valley were themselves multilingual societies from the very start: French settlers brought the varied linguistic cultures of a linguistically patchwork Old France with them when they crossed the Atlantic; in many cases, European settlers from outside the French kingdom settled in France’s colonies; African slaves sustained distinctive linguistic cultures in France’s slave plantation complex in the Caribbean and Louisiana; France’s reliance on foreign mercenary troops within the royal army insured a constant influx of German-, English-, and Flemish-speaking soldiers into New France; and everywhere in the Americas, French colonial societies interacted with a rich array of Amerindian cultural groups. French and Francophone communities also established themselves in the colonies of other European powers, making French a minority language within Dutch, English, Spanish and Portuguese zones of influence.

The complex multilingual character of the colonial Americas raises a host of important linguistic, historical and cultural questions, crucial for a fuller understanding of the history of language, early modern empire, Amerindian communities, and intercultural communication more broadly. How did the French who traveled to the Americas confront, conceive, reconceptualize and negotiate the linguistic plurality they encountered in their new environment? What strategies did they deploy to communicate across language barriers? Who, and how, did Europeans learn Amerindian languages? How did they make sense of these processes of cultural and linguistic appropriation? How in turn did Amerindian peoples make sense of these language encounters? How did the distinct linguistic ecology of the slave plantation complex take shape and evolve? In what ways did the linguistic contexts of Louisiana or the French Antilles differ from that of New France?

These complex linguistic ecologies made the mediation of linguistic difference a crucial cultural practice. In New France, Jacques Cartier and Samuel Champlain kidnaped Amerindian children in order to raise them as bilingual interpreters; in the St Lawrence and the Great Lakes, French Jesuit missionaries threw themselves into the study of Amerindian tongues in order to engage in the Christian missionary enterprise; fur traders situated themselves at the interface between France’s Canadian colonies and Amerindian populations; the French colonial administration recruited a vast network of official interpreters in order to help broker a constellation of political and military alliances with Amerindians. In the Caribbean and Louisiana, French officials and plantation owners put in place a range of complex strategies to manage their captive labor force’s linguistic plurality – attempting in some instances to prohibit slaves from communicating in African languages or creoles.

The conference will bring together leading scholars from France, Canada, the United States, and Brazil, and working within a broad range of disciplinary frameworks, including sociolinguistics, literature, history, and aboriginal studies. Privileging interdisciplinary perspectives which make it possible to situate and make sense of these linguistic encounters within their historical, social, cultural and political contexts, the conference will foster a dynamic scholarly conversation articulated around the following thematic axes:

  • linguistic plurality within France’s colonies in the Americas
  • the French-Amerindian encounter
  • the presence of French-speakers in the Pays d’en Haut (Upper Canada)
  • the linguistic situation within the French Caribbean slave plantation complex
  • the linguistic history of France’s colonial experiments in Brazil, Florida, and Guyana
  • relations between the colonies of France, Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal
  • linguistic mediation and the world of commerce
  • French Catholic missions, evangelization and the language question
  • Francophone communities in minority situations (for example: Boston, Philadelphia)
  • empires and languages
  • comparative perspectives (for example: French Pondicherry in India; Île Bourbon [i.e. Réunion]; French colonies in Africa like the Île de Gorée in Senegal)
  • early modern francophonie in modern memory (for example: in Anglophone Canada, the United
    States, the Antilles, and Brazil)


  • John Bishop, Canadian history, McGill University
  • Heidi Bohaker, Aboriginal history of Canada, University of Toronto
  • Céline Bonnotte, French Studies, University of Toronto
  • Leslie Choquette, History of New France, Assumption College (MA)
  • Paul Cohen, French history, University of Toronto
  • Andrea Daher, History of colonial Brazil, University of São Paolo
  • Dominique Deslandres. Department of History, Université de Montréal
  • Sylvie Dubois, French Studies, Louisiana State University
  • Evan Haefeli, Colonial American history, Columbia University
  • Ian Martin, Linguistics and Aboriginal studies, Glendon College, York University
  • Sean Mills, Canadian history, University of Toronto
  • Andreas Motsch, French studies, University of Toronto
  • Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, Colonial American history, University of Southern California
  • Keren Rice, Linguistics, Aboriginal languages, University of Toronto
  • Dominique Scheffel-Dunand, Linguistics of French, Glendon College, York University
  • John Steckley, Linguistics, Aboriginal languages, Humber College
  • Céline Carayon, Department of History, Westminster University


  • Primary sponsors: CEFMF / SSHRC MCRI "Le français à la mesure d'un continent : un patrimoine en partage"
  • Department of Linguistics
  • Department of French Studies
  • Department of History
  • Jackman Humanities Institute
  • Victoria University in the University of Toronto


This conference is free and open to the public. Registration is not required.

Download conference poster [pdf]

Download conference program [pdf]


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