LINGUIST List 2.182

Wednesday, 1 May 1991

Disc: Language in Quebec

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  1. , Language in Quebec

Message 1: Language in Quebec

Date: Tue, 30 Apr 91 00:04:43 -0400
From: <>
Subject: Language in Quebec
Here are a few notes about points raised by different subscribers
concerning the so-called "banning" of English in Quebec:

To Ellen Prince: Quebec and Canada are different from the United
States in more respects than are superficially evident. While
the U.S. long acted as if it were truly a "melting pot" and has
only recently begun to realize that it may in fact be a "tossed
salad", the very biculturalism of Canada has from the very begin-
ning always had the practical effect of discouraging Canadians
(as opposed to British colonial officials) from trying to sup-
press immigrant cultures into a single "Canadian" one. In this
respect, Quebec in particular is no different from Canada as a
whole. The flourishing Vietnamese and Haitian communities in
Montreal attest to this cultural diversity and prove that a group
can retain its cultural identity even when it adopts French as
the language of education and business. The particular goal of
the linguistic policy of Quebec is not to force immigrants to
lose the rich culture they bring with them but to add it to the
tapestry of cultures in Quebec, of which the numerically-dominant
one happens to be the culture which has evolved from that of the
first French settlers starting in 1608. The sense in which
Quebec is protecting its own culture is that, by encouraging the
official use of French, immigrants come to be aligned linguisti-
cally with the group already numerically-dominant in the prov-
ince, rather than reversing the demographic balance by joining
the economically attractive English-speaking group which is
dominant in North America as a whole.

Concerning "charcuterie": it is true that, in Standard French,
this word has come to designate (a shop for) the making and
selling of pork dishes, but this meaning does not seem to be the
predominant one in Quebec French. Etymologically, the word is
related to "chair" and does not specify the type of meat being
used. Before looking at the Petit Robert, I would have sworn
that the word does NOT imply pork; the definition I would have
proposed and would still propose for Quebec French is: (i) a
place where processed meat is sold (as opposed to unprocessed
meat, as sold in butcher shops) or (ii) the processed meat
itself. Any kind of meat can be used: beef, pork, turkey, etc. 

Since nobody forced the Charcuterie Hebraique to choose that
name, I suspect that they did so because they have the same
definition of "charcuterie" as I do and therefore did not see any
contradiction in the terms. This hypothesis is reinforced by the
fact that there is not a single pork item on their menu (I was
there at Christmas, so I could check this in person); it's all
beef and chicken. The owners may also have consulted the bilin-
gual "Dictionnaire canadien/Canadian Dictionary" (1962ff.), which
gives "charcuterie" as the sole translation for "delicatessen". 


To Margaret Fleck: Your comment on the different varieties of
English is compatible with my reasons for saying that Quebec and
France French are no more different than American and British
English. I did not want to write too much in the first message
and thus did not elaborate on the reasons why I made that state-
ment, but, given your comment and that of Bert Peeters, I would
like to make my position clear.

It is true that, for someone who is not used to hearing Quebec
French, it first seems to be drastically different from France
French. This difficulty is to be attributed to a number of
phonological characteristics that differentiate Quebec French
from most geographical and social varieties of French spoken in
France. There are also a number of lexical and idiosyncratic
differences, some of them impeding communication (like the use of
"magane'" for "abime'", among other meanings), others only
requiring a fraction of a second's reflection in order to guess
what their meaning is (e.g., "engraissant" for "qui fait grossir"
or "ca a pas d'allure" for "ca a pas de sens"). Syntactically,
however, all the social varieties of Quebec French which I know
of basically do not differ from the corresponding varieties of
European French (one has to make sure that the varieties compared
are compatible; that is, one must not compare academic European
French with informal working-class Quebec French!).

Another reason why Quebec French is usually considered as being
difficult to understand is other people's relative lack of
exposure to this dialect, which perhaps makes it seem quite
exotic. No matter whether one is a student of French like Bert
Peeters or a native speaker of French who grew up in Europe, the
almost total unavailability of Quebec French in the non-Canadian
media makes it almost impossible for a non-Quebecois to become
familiar with it outside of Canada. The same thing happens to me
with certain dialects of European French which are not very well
represented in French films. I would wager that many non-Pari-
sians have considerable difficulty with recent argot from Paris
when it appears in French films. E.g., Pierre Merle's 1986
"Dictionnaire du francais branche'" lists "zonga" as a slang term
for `marijuana'--it's the Verlan-deformed version of "gazon"
`lawn, grass'.

It might be difficult for Bert Peeters to imagine how hard it is
to understand British English, and even academic British English,
for a French learner of English who has been exposed mostly to
American English: every single time I listen to a British
speaker, it takes me a few minutes to remember the most important
features of their phonological system in order to understand
them. Can you imagine, now, what kind of problems I experience
with Australian English, even in its academic form? I once was
unable to understand a young Australian man enough to carry on a
conversation with him even though he valiantly kept on talking to
me for several minutes. Once again, the important phonological
differences between American and Canadian English on the one hand
and British and Australian English on the other, combined with a
relative lack of exposure to those varieties, account for the
comprehension problems I keep experiencing. The same reasons are
very likely to apply to Bert Peeters' problems with Quebec
French, even in its academic form.

Finally, the tremendous prestige of Parisian French vis-a-vis
non-standard dialects (like regional patois) is so great that
many native and foreign speakers of the standard must be totally
unprepared for the fact that an entire province with millions of
speakers has its own everyday standard which is consistently
different from what they believe to be the only correct French. 
In this regard, it's known that social differences can affect
speakers' perception of their mutual comprehensibility; e.g., all
linguists and most speakers regard the Laguna and Acoma languages
of two neighboring New Mexico pueblos as mutually intelligible,
but some Lagunas who don't like Acomas have been heard to say
that they "cannot understand" Acomas.

I agree with Margaret Fleck that, at some point, we might have to
concede that differences between two varieties of what we now
consider to be a single language become so great that we may be
tempted to speak of two different languages. In the case of
French, however, it seems that the two varieties that are drift-
ing apart are spoken French vs. so-called standard French, the
latter either in its newscaster version or in its written form. 
Different geographical varieties of spoken French, on the other
hand, show surprisingly few syntactic differences. In any case,
though, the question of deciding when two varieties are different
enough to be called two languages raises such difficult political
issues (which I am not planning to address further here) that
most linguists treat it as at least partly a non-linguistic
question. E.g., someone once said that a language is a dialect
with an army and a navy. At the very least, one would have to
consider the issue of which aspect(s) of grammar have to change
in the differentiation of dialects into languages: how would we,
for example, evaluate two varieties whose syntax was identical
but whose phonologies were so different as to prevent intercom-
prehension (if such a situation is possible)?


To Charles Hoequist: The French language has survived in Quebec,
in spite of the British rulers' efforts to eliminate it, mostly
because of the strong influence of the Catholic priests who
dominated the life of the French-speaking population until 1960. 
Many modern Quebecois characterize the regime of the priests in
the following way: they told French-speaking Quebecois to remain
in the countryside, grow wheat and raise cows, make lots of chil-
dren, and avoid any urban jobs which could make them rich,
because money and cities were sinful. The result of this situa-
tion was that, even in those areas where English-speakers immi-
grated (as in the Eastern Townships), there was in most cases
basically no contact between French-speaking Quebecois and the
English language, and no real reason for them to want to acquire
it. Until 1960, for example, the Catholic Church controlled
virtually all francophone schools and did not emphasize the
teaching of English.

Things have now changed drastically: the influence of the Church
is much more limited, and it is no longer considered sinful to be
successful and wealthy. Lay Quebecois have increasingly taken
control of the destiny of their province, and they are proving to
be quite successful at it. This results in more openness to the
rest of the world, and the immediate rest of the world is Eng-
lish-speaking, so there is now much more contact with English. 
It is very possible that some Quebecois resent the economic
success experienced by their English-speaking neighbors in the
province, but I myself feel that the nationalist movement ob-
served in Quebec in the 90's is not fueled by a desire for
revenge but is rather a consequence of the growing conviction
that Quebecois can take care of their destiny more successfully
without the rest of Canada. In this respect, the present nation-
alist wave is different from the one that led to the '80 referen-
dum, which presumably failed because it was not backed up by a
strong economy and may have seemed rather spiteful.

With respect to Paris dictating to the whole world what French
should be: does the United States adopt all the words and
spellings of British English? Obviously not! In fact, the
Americans have imposed some of their spelling reforms on the
British (e.g., Noah Webster's proposed "public" and "music"
ousted the British "publick" and "musick"). If Quebecois feel
that "stop" is an English word and that it is therefore prefera-
ble for them to use "arret", why not? Another example is "fin de
semaine": we have used this idiom instead of "weekend" for ages;
why should we change it now? The fact that a few lexical items
differ does not suffice to take the two varieties of French so
far apart as to make them no longer the same language, just as
the lexical differences between American and British English do
not create two languages. 

As for the use of "joyerie" instead of "bijouterie": I have
NEVER seen the former word used in Quebec, but, even if isolated
individuals use it (perhaps mistakenly or as a joke), we still
cannot draw from this any conclusions about the whole Quebecois
variety. If you ask Quebecois, I suspect that not one of them
will accept "joyerie" as a possible word for "jewelry". E.g.,
"joyerie" is not in any dictionary or glossary that I have
consulted. Maybe what you saw was the perfectly fine French word
"joaillerie" (or a misspelling of it, or a pun on "joie" `joy'?). 
Still, "joaillerie" refers to precious stones, whereas "bijoute-
rie" refers to all kinds jewels.

I realize I've gone on rather at length about all this, but it
seems to me that the purpose of the Linguist network is primarily
to share information and not misinformation. The fact that
certain English-speakers who once lived in Quebec later left
because they felt linguistically oppressed is an important piece
of information of the sort that French-speaking Quebecois will
have to deal with if they want eventually to have a unified home
of their own. But name-calling (like the outburst by a previous
author about the "disturbing", "outrageous", "ultimate stupidity"
of "linguistic fascism") does not get us anywhere.

--Julie Auger

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