LINGUIST List 2.176

Sunday, 28 Apr 1991

Disc: Language in Quebec

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. bert peeters, Canadian French
  2. Mark Seidenberg, Je me souviens
  3. Ellen Prince, mea culpa

Message 1: Canadian French

Date: Sat, 27 Apr 91 10:09:22 +1000
From: bert peeters <>
Subject: Canadian French
Charles Hoequist is more than right in pointing out that the difference between
British and American English is of another nature than the difference between
European (i.e. "French") and Canadian French. The written standards of both
varieties of French are surely closely related; the spoken varieties are miles
apart. A native speaker of Dutch, I graduated as a "licencie en philologie 
romane" (French/Italian) in 1982 and started a career in linguistics (French 
and general) which brought me to Quebec in 1983. Let me tell you that it took
me a couple of days before I could even begin to understand what Canadian 
speakers of French talking in their own standard (i.e. not making an effort
to adopt a European French accent) were trying to tell me. I've never had such
problems in France. Within the university campus I had far less problems than
outside (I'm talking about the Laval campus here). Dining out and shopping
became far easier after a while: you just have to get used to the way Canadian
French is pronounced.

Bert Peeters (Department of Modern Languages, French section, University of
Tasmania, Hobart, Australia)
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Message 2: Je me souviens

Date: Fri, 26 Apr 91 17:43:26 PDT
From: Mark Seidenberg <>
Subject: Je me souviens
I wanted to provide a little more information about the 
language situation in Quebec since there seems to be 
so much interest in it among readers of the list. I speak 
as someone who was a professor at McGill for 10 
years (recently moved to Southern California).

Every Anglo who has lived in Quebec has a few 
favorite stories about the absurdities created by the 
language laws. There was the woman who died and 
her family sued because she was not allowed to die in 
French (the doctors and nurses spoke English). There 
is a street traditionally called "Mountain," which has 
been changed to Rue de la Montagne, which would be 
OK except that the street was named for a guy named 
Mountain. "Ben's Delicatessen" wasn't OK as a sign 
on a big downtown restaurant, but "Ben's Deli 
Restaurant" is. Etc. These (mildly?) humorous 
examples should not mask the substantive fact that the 
language is definitely being surpressed. It is obvious 
that the intent of the laws is to reduce the use of 
English in the province, and that the decrease in the 
size of the Anglophone population indicates that the 
policy is succeeding. 

Lionel Moser's picture of the state of English in Quebec 
is distorted in my view (and experience). He says that 
government services are available in English, but that 
is not exactly correct. Canadian government services 
(e.g., postal services) are available in both official 
languages, but Quebec government (and social) 
services definitely are not. The only exception is tax 
forms, which are indeed widely available in English. 
You can ask for other types of forms in English but they 
are rarely available; whether a bureaucrat will speak to 
you in English or not is entirely a matter of personal 
whim. French is the official language of the province 
and it is considered the height of Anglo chutzpah to 
expect services in English. As an aside, the province 
may indeed be 85% Francophone (I haven't seen the 
figures recently but I think that is approximately 
correct), but the percentage of non-Francophones in 
Montreal is much higher. This includes many people 
whose native languages are other than French or 
English. Unlike American cities, Montreal has large 
populations of relatively unassimilated Greek, 
Portuguese, and Italian speakers (I may be leaving 
others out of the list here). A large proportion of my 
students at McGill were trilingual (French, English, 
language spoken in the home), something that most 
linguists would see as a positive aspect of the culture.

Someone expressed concern over the fate of McGill 
University. Like many universities in North America, 
McGill has been facing budgetary cutbacks related to 
the poor state of the economy, demographic factors, 
and the like. Unlike other universities, however, McGill 
also faces discrimination from the province. It is a 
provincial university (like a state university in the US; 
all Canadian universities are funded by the provinces), 
and the formula that the province uses to fund the 
universities discriminates against the two main 
Anglophone institutions, McGill and Concordia. 
Specifically, the formula is largely based on student 
enrollments, and assigns smaller weights to graduate 
students than to undergraduates. This penalizes the 
universities that have large graduate programs relative 
to their undergraduate programs, which happen to be 
the Anglophone schools. This chronic underfunding of 
Anglophone universities has been acknowledged at 
various times by the province but little has been done 
about it. The decline in the Anglo population directly 
caused by the language laws will surely have an effect 
on McGill enrolments. Traditionally the university has 
drawn a large percentage of its student body from 
within the province (most students are commuters), 
and it is safe to predict that the size of the native 
Anglophone population from which they have drawn 
most students in the past will continue to decline. In 
recent years this has been offset by an increase in the 
number of Francophone students (and also by the fact 
that McGill has been the "hot" school for out-of-
province students for the past few years). Without 
meaning to offend my former McGill colleagues, I 
would say that long-term prospects for the university 
are not very encouraging (at least as an Anglophone 
institution). Anglophone lower schools are already 
closing or converting to Francophone programs as the 
size of the native Anglo population declines, and this 
doesn't bode too well for McGill. 

All of this has to be taken against the background of the 
current political situation in Quebec and in Canada, 
about which Americans tend to know very little. The 
continuing conflict between Quebec and the rest of 
Canada has entered the end-game phase; the 
province will be independent from the rest of the 
country sooner rather than later. This may take the 
form of independent statehood or, more likely, 
continued association with Canada but with all 
essential policy decisions controlled by the province 
independent of Ottawa. 

The language laws seem oppressive to Americans 
brought up on the First Amendment, but there are vast 
political and cultural differences between Canada and 
America and between Quebec and American that 
shouldn't be underestimated. In Quebec there is a 
very explicit distinction between individual rights and 
collective rights. The language laws are seen as 
serving the greater good of the society as a whole (by 
preserving French language and culture, which are 
seen as being chronically at risk of being overwhelmed 
by the Anglophone majority on the continent), and that 
greater good may necessarily involve some 
infringements on individual rights. At the risk of 
oversimplifying what is obviously a complex set of 
attitudes and circumstances, I think it is fair to say that 
this greater emphasis on collective needs is widely 
seen as a virtue of Canadian/Quebecois political 
culture, compared with America's extreme emphasis 
on the rights of the individual. People from north of the 
border usually start talking about the lack of gun laws in 
the US at this point in the conversation. 

I myself am not very sympathetic about what is going 
on there with regard to English language and culture. 
However, the Quebecois have a very different set of 
attitudes and priorities, and I don't share their history. I 
would think that most readers of this list, as people who 
study other languages in other cultures, would be 
sensitive to the fact that not everybody shares 
American attitudes about life, liberty and the pursuit of 
happiness. Many of the comments that have been 
posted to the list would be seen by the Quebecois as 
grossly insensitive to their attitudes, history, and 
culture, and hopelessly America-centric (gee, I'm 
blocking on the word for that). I am not defending the 
current policities, obviously, but think it is essential for 
people who want to understand the situation to learn a 
little more about the broader context. These aren't just 
questions about language.
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Message 3: mea culpa

Date: Fri, 26 Apr 91 22:58:10 -0400
From: Ellen Prince <>
Subject: mea culpa
it has been brought to my attention that, in my last note re linguists'
(non-)response to the situation in canada, i was overlooking geoff pullum's
topic...comment column in nllt entitled 'here come the linguistic fascists'.
i salute him for writing it and apologize for not having mentioned it. in
recompense i shall buy not one but two copies of his forthcoming 'the great
eskimo vocabulary hoax' (u. of chicago press), where it will be reprinted.

[End Linguist List, Vol. 2, No. 176]
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