LINGUIST List 2.205

Tuesday, 7 May 1991

Disc: Last Word on Quebec

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , Language in Quebec

Message 1: Language in Quebec

Date: Tue, 07 May 91 10:18:59 -0400
From: <>
Subject: Language in Quebec
 While I would be happy in personal exchanges to discuss
language in Quebec at whatever length anyone desires, I fear that
this debate may seem to have gone on too long for those with no
personal involvement in the matter. I will therefore make just
this reply to an earlier posting addressed largely to me but
will then try to let others carry on the discussion publicly.
 An observation: It seems to me that most of those express-
ing unhappiness with the official language-policy in Quebec have
been either (i) anglophone former residents of Quebec or (ii) an-
glophones who have never resided in Quebec. The first group
obviously knows what they're talking about, but I can't help
wondering how much the second group really knows about Quebec. 
For example, Mr. Hoequist responds to a comment that francophone
Quebecois seem to be succeeding in gaining control of their own
destiny by saying, "I would hope they're successful; they don't
have any competition". But there certainly is competition. 
 First, while "many" anglophones have indeed left Quebec
(although we don't know that language was the reason for all of
these people), there remain quite a few of them at the head of
some of the most important businesses in Quebec. This fact is
well known to anglophones in Quebec; for example, an English-
speaking student at Penn recently stated that Quebec would never
become independent because "English-speakers control all the big
businesses". Because of the socio-religious reasons I mentioned
in my previous message, these anglophones have a big head-start
in running Quebec's economy. Second, Quebec does not exist in a
vacuum and, if its products and services were not competitive,
anglophones who did not mind learning French could easily put
themselves in a position to play a major role in and even domi-
nate Quebec's economy (just as, e.g., many Japanese and Saudi
Arabian businesspeople have learned English well enough to
dominate certain aspects of trade in some Western countries).
 In this regard, the francophone business community of Quebec
already has extensive contacts with English speakers all over the
world, and these contacts will by no means diminish, whatever
happens in the future. This kind of interaction is one of the
sources that encourages francophone Quebecois to learn English
well (Mr. Hoequist had asked what kind of contact the present
pro-French linguistic policy of Quebec makes possible with
English). But there are many others: the many scientific books
and journals published only in English, the English-language TV,
radio, and newspaper and magazine media in Canada (including 
Quebec) and the United States, tourism in the rest of Canada, 
the U.S., and the rest of the world (except francophone Europe 
and Africa). Strange as it may seem to some, the desire to make 
French dominant for official domestic purposes in Quebec does not 
exclude the desire to be competent in English for external purposes.
 Some discussants seemed to be upset by the fact that "many"
English-speakers left Quebec because they did not want to learn
French. This is not a new phenomenon; one ex-Quebec resident
pointed out that there are small towns where almost no one has
learned French in the 200 years or more that their inhabitants
have been in Quebec. But it must not be forgotten that there are
relatively large communities of French-speakers in many parts of
both western and eastern Canada outside of Quebec. I'm curious
why Hoequist and some others have not spoken out in favor of
protecting the linguistic rights of these French-speakers. For
example, Sault Ste-Marie (notice the name), a town in Ontario,
recently voted itself "monolingual English-speaking", implying
that it would make no concessions to any French speakers who also
live or visit there. Worse, the French-speaking population of
Northern Maine retained a flourishing educational and literary
(journalistic) system until approximately 1960, when state laws
abolished French schools. Since that time, there has been a
drastic reduction in the number of young people who speak French.
It is precisely such examples of the linguistic "benevolence"
shown by the United States toward French that makes francophone
Quebecois feel they need to enact measures like the law requiring
the official use of French.
 Concerning certain statements about Quebec French: I'm
sorry if I gave anyone the impression that I believe Quebec
French and French French to be two distinct languages; I thought
I had said explicitly that I consider them to be closely related
dialects of one language (although, as I and others have ob-
served, dialect vs. language is more than a linguistic question).
Mr. Hoequist states that he too believes the Quebec and France
varieties of French to be such related dialects and also rejects
the implication of having said that "Paris should dictate to the
whole world what French should be". But Hoequist still maintains
that it is illegitimate for Quebec to choose not to use "stop" on
its traffic signs. His rationale is that, if France French
happens to use a borrowed English word for a certain purpose,
then Quebec cannot legitimately deny anyone the use of that word
on signs in Quebec. This is admittedly a masterful trick of
logic: all that supporters of the use of English in Quebec 
have to do in order to get English words on signs is to find cases 
where people in another country use that word when speaking or 
writing French. 
 However, this is a little like saying that an American who
is injured because he doesn't understand a sign saying "Mind the
lorries" in an Englishman's trucking company in New York isn't
entitled to accuse that Englishman of negligence, just because it
happens that, in another country, "mind" is used for "watch out
for" or "beware of" and "lorry" is used for "truck". To tell
Quebecois that they have to accept France French borrowings from
English on their signs feels to me like saying: if Paris accepts
"stop", then who are we, several million of Quebec French speak-
ers, to reject it? I don't know if the European French can
"stopper leur voiture a une intersection", but all the (other)
Quebecois that I know "arretent leur auto", they cannot "stopper"
it. The word exists in Quebec French, but only in other usages,
like for stopping hemorrhages: "stopper une hemorragie". One
could say that "stop" instead of "arret" is no more acceptable
than it would be to label a sign warning against snow banks with
the French word "congere" (virtually unknown in Quebec; e.g. not
found in the Dictionnaire canadien) instead of Quebecois "banc de
neige". As the latter shows, Quebec doesn't automatically reject
loan translations. (It should be noted, however, that this dis-
cussion of "stop" may be misleading, since, on most traffic signs, 
the problem of understanding a particular word(s) used is made moot 
by the fact that 90% of Quebec's traffic signs now use iconic 
pictograms (source: "L'actualite", April 15, 1991, p. 61).)
 The acceptance of borrowings in a language is mostly NOT a
linguistic question but rather a social one. If the French are
comfortable using English words like "weekend", "shopping", and
"software", good for them. That they should dislike English
borrowings into French less than Quebecois do is easily under-
standable, given that English does not threaten their language in
their own country. The general feeling in Quebec is that we have
perfectly acceptable French words to refer to the same realities
( "fin de semaine", "magasinage", and "logiciel", respectively)
and that it is therefore preferable to use them. Where official
decisions have to be made by the government as to, for example,
what should be used in official public signs and in correspon-
dence, why can't we make our own decision? Would anyone ever
think of forcing the French to use "magasinage" for "shopping"?
 Finally, there is the issue of fairness and consistency
outside of the competition between French and English in Quebec. 
Several postings (e.g., by Paul Chapin and Vicki Fromkin) have
asked how one can oppose the U.S. English (only) movement and
support the Quebec French language policy without being inconsis-
tent or at least going through some pretty elaborate ethical
contortions. First of all, I believe John Goldsmith's posting
has already addressed this issue squarely: the U.S. English
movement appears to be quite hostile to immigration; many sup-
porters of the movement would apparently like to prevent immigra-
tion to the U.S. by non-English speakers. Quebec, on the other
hand encourages immigration and imposes only the reasonable
requirement that immigrants' children will be schooled in French,
the dominant language in their new homeland. I would only add
that, even in French-speaking schools, there is compulsory
second-language instruction in English starting in about grade 5
and continuing through grade 11. Furthermore, there are no
restrictions against anyone attending weekend or nighttime
classes in English. From this, I hope it is obvious that the
goal of the Quebec language policy is to make all immigrants to
Quebec fluent in French for general purposes of life in the
province, not to discourage English. As for myself, I don't see
how anyone can compare this to the absence of Spanish-speaking
schools in most of the American Southwest, which is--to the best
of my knowledge--at least an indirect violation of the treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo by which the U.S. took from Mexico what is now
CA, AZ, NM, and several other states or parts of states. 
 Perhaps we can now turn this debate in Linguist to a discus-
sion of what linguistic rights were legally promised to Hispanics
in the United States in 1848, especially as regards schools and
public use of language for official purposes. I would be inter-
ested in learning the facts of this situation from anyone who has
real expertise in it.

--Julie Auger

P.S. Margaret Fleck has asked why not compare academic Parisian
French and working-class Quebec French. Well, one could of
course make that comparison, but there is no non-arbitrary reason
to choose those two particular varieties than there is to compare
academic Montreal French with working-class Marseille French. 
The point is that, in any serious linguistic study, one wants to 
control as much as one can for potential interfering variables. 
If the object of study is geographical variation, for example,
one wants to make sure that the differences observed are really
attributable to geography and not to social-class. If, however,
the goal is to identify both social and geographical differences,
then one wants to make sure that the sample of speakers contains
representatives from a comparable range of socio-economic classes
in each geographical variety. In short, you can always compare
any two things, but certain conditions have to be met in order
for the comparison to be revealing.

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