LINGUIST List 2.193

Saturday, 4 May 1991

Disc: Language, Law and Ideology (Part 2)

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  1. John Goldsmith, Re: What stand should linguists take?
  2. , Canada and the US
  3. Vicki Fromkin, Re: What stand should linguists take?

Message 1: Re: What stand should linguists take?

Date: Wed, 1 May 91 21:16:02 CDT
From: John Goldsmith <>
Subject: Re: What stand should linguists take?
A few words from an American linguist who has spent a good deal of time in
Quebec over the last 15 years. I, for one, am in general sympathy with the
language policies of Quebec, and not in sympathy with the English Only
movement in the US. This is not based on simple-minded relativism.
 I would hasten to add that the French-only signs, and their
differential enforcement, is difficult to defend, and I wouldn't try to.
(Still, the strident level of objections to the law seem just a bit
overblown.) What I feel general sympathy for, and what I'll speak to here,
 is the attempt to structure the workplace, and more importantly, primary and 
secondary education, so as to channel immigrants into francophony rather than 
 I'll try to explain why I feel as I do about the situation, but
I would like to begin with an observation about why it is that some
Americans -- so many Americans -- find it difficult to think about the
Quebecois situation without become emotionally overwrought. Many
Americans are simply unable to think about political issues in any terms
other than the specification of individual rights -- "negative" rights,
in Berlin's terms, rights to do as one individually chooses. Obviously,
the development of such individual rights has been an important part of the
development of Anglo-American law and political thought over the past
four centuries, but it is only one part of even that tradition, and it
plays a proportionally smaller role in other traditions. Note well,
please, that this observation is not an invitation to fall into pernicious
relativism; it is a call to maintain a certain perspective on the
several and varied bases for the relation of the individual and the state.
I myself think that the unbalanced attention to individual rights in our
own system makes it difficult for our public political discourse to come
to grips with many pressing social issues, such as who is responsible for
the elderly, the education of children, day care, and so forth.
 The point of that remark is to emphasize that in Quebec, as is
true elsewhere, public debate and political choices weigh individual
freedoms against other socially valuable considerations. Julie Auger
has cogently explained what these considerations are, and I won't
repeat those points. It seems to me that the core of the language policy
in Quebec revolves around the following points:
 1. Quebec society, for reasons at both the provincial and the
federal level, will drift towards being fundamentally either anglophone
or francophone; it will not drift towards being Algonkianophone, nor
Lusophone, nor anything else. The history of the western provinces
illustrates all too clearly how a canadian province can go from being
nearly 50-50% french/english to virtually all English in a matter of
decades through the process of assimilation. This would be a loss at
a social level (though it would arguably be no loss if one viewed the
matter solely from the point of view of individual rights, to be sure).
 2. The most volatile aspect of the equation is the immigrant
population, who come, in general, from countries where neither English
nor French is spoken. Much of the language policy is in effect
immigration policy, strongly encouraging immigrants to integrate into
francophone society.
 To the extent that sound educational practices demand that children
entering school should be educated in their home language -- and I don't
know what the current wisdom is on that -- I would hope that Quebecois
law is sufficiently flexible. In any event, I have never heard criticism
level at it at that level.

 The US English Only case appears to be quite different. There is no 
similar concern, as far as I can see, for the social benefits that should
flow from the linguistic policies that have been proposed. In fact, as I
noted, American political discourse is notably silent on the question
of social good. Quite the opposite, in fact: the US English Only
movement is documentably xenophobic; unlike the situation in Quebec, where
immigration is encouraged, the English Only movement appears to me to be
quite hostile to immigration. That hostility explains a good deal of
us linguists' reaction to it, and rightly so. Does the quebecois policy
leave the immigrants' culture room to breathe? It seems to me that it does;
it seems to me that the desired effect of the Quebecois law is based on
the premise I cited above -- that the immigrants will have to integrate
to either a fundamentally English or a fundamentally French mode of
operation, and the provincial government is encouraging this public mode
of linguistic functioning to be francophone. Within the private sphere,
the other languages remain viable and reasonably resiliant.

 These are not the only considerations, but I have focused on these
in order to address the question as to whether there is an unhealthy and
pernicious relativism in the view of American linguists who do not roundly
condemn Quebecois language policies across the board.
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Message 2: Canada and the US

Date: Wed, 1 May 91 20:31:24 PDT
From: <>
Subject: Canada and the US
There are cultural differences between Canada and the U.S. Some
are even enshrined in law. One difference is demonstrated by a
section in the Canadian constitution, known as the
"Notwithstanding Clause". The clause recognizes that, at times
personal rights and freedoms have to be set aside in favour
of the needs of society. The clause, when included in federal or
provincial legislation, allows governments to pass laws
"notwithstanding" the Charter of Rights. The first and only time
the "Notwithstanding Clause" has been invoked was in the case of
Quebec's sign law.

Bill McKellin
Department of Anthropology and Sociology, 
University of British Columbia 
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Message 3: Re: What stand should linguists take?

Date: Wed, 01 May 91 23:01 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <>
Subject: Re: What stand should linguists take?
I agree with Paul Chapin that we can not or should not support linguistic
diversity in the US and oppose it or apologize for those who opposed it
in Quebec. But we also should look at the basis for the views of the two
monolingual groups; I do not think the motivations or the reasons for
their positions in the US or Quebec are similar, even though the end
result must be opposed, I believe, not only by linguists but by anyone
who opposes legal censorship of this or any other kind.


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