Archive for July 2009
So the English language got it’s 1,000,000th word this summer.
This, of course is one of the great achievements of the great English adventurers who travelled the world, befriended the locals with whom they shared the English language while simultaneously incorporating their lands and lexicon into the British Empire.
That story reminded me of a time I visited my grand-mother about 4 or 5 years ago.
Her place was just a short walk from my place. I was near Place St.Henri where grown men drank Molson Export before noon on weekdays with no shirt on. Thanks to some family money that will not be coming my way she was the token french lady at the Place Kensington residence for old English people and ate her breakfast two tables away from where the Senator Hartland Molson ate his own breakfast wearing a suit and a tie.
That night my grandma wasn’t seated with her usual gang. Someone had broken their hip and someone else was at a christening or bar mitzva somewhere in the States. We were seated with two other ladies I didn’t know but who seemed nice enough. We exchanged polite greatings, they commended me for being such a great grandson and then when I thought I had done socializing I ignored them and started chatting with my grandmother.
As my grand-mother was giving the waitress a quarter or something so she would bring me a double serving of white fish one of the ladies leaned over to me and asked:
-What was that language you were just speaking? Was that French?
-Yes it was, I said.
I wasn’t surprised by the question. Place Kensington has plenty of American residents who were following their sons up the corporate ladder. They just spent a couple of years in Montreal until the next transfer and rarely ventured beyond Tony’s Shoe Store on Greene Avenue. They knew nothing about Québec’s linguistic situation and they understandably didn’t care if the help spoke French or Spanish or whatever it is Philipnas speak….
-Where are you from, I asked?
-Drummondville, she answered.
Now I was surprised. Drummondville, of course, is the home of the Madrid Bigfoot Diner, the mandatory pit stop on highway 20 for travellers between Montreal and Québec and the owner of the biggest collection of slightly-smaller-than-lifesize plastic dinosaures in the world. It is also a smallish town that, today, is pretty much entirely French-speaking.
Yet here was this lady who had been born in Québec, who had lived her life, not in the sizable English-speaking enclaves of Montreal, but in a tiny rural French-Canadian village that had some farms and two or three factories and she wasn’t able to, nevermind speak, recognize the French language.
English the great language of intercultural meeting and discovery? Give me a fucking break.
Like the great linguist Alastair Pennycook said: « The notion of English as a great borrowing language also seems to suggest a view of colonial relations in which the British intermingled with colonized people, enriching English as communed with the locals. Such a view, however, is hardly supported by colonial history. »
Even my separatist-fearing grandmother would lose patience with her companions.
-She handed me a napkin! I said « merci » and she had to ask me what I meant! Seigneur! What’s wrong with these people?
This from a woman, I remind you, who spent her summers at the Royal St.Lawrence Yacht Club and read the Montreal Gazette every morning.
There was a distinguished Jewish woman from Argentina who would come over after every meal and chat for a few minutes in impeccable French with my grand-mother. There was also another woman from eastern Europe –there was a rumour she was a hungarian baronnes or countess—who would always cordially say « bonjour ». The staff, of course had been born after the Empire and all spoke French.
But I never heard an Montrealer Anglo resident so much as salute her in French.
Now I am not saying that Place Kensington was representative of today’s enlightened Québec anglophonie. I am absolutely aware that Place Kensington is where the ghost of Montreal’s past goes to die.
But don’t tell me that Québec never existed. I’ve been there.
About 10 or 15 years ago Blockbuster opened their first Montreal franchise on Ste.Catherine Street, between the Forum and Guy Metro. About every second evening me and my roommate JF would walk all the way up the hill from St.Henri to rent some videos because, a. we had no real professional or social obligations to speak of in those blissful days of our early twenties, and b. because the only commerce going on in St.Henri back then was the sale of beer and steamed hot dogs.
At Blockbuster there was this one employee that we called Tommy. Poor Tommy, we used to say, he just doesn’t get it. He wasn’t a bad bloke—although a bloke he certainly was—but he always had a look of confusion on his face and permanent hesitation in his movement.
One phenomenon that absolutely mystified Tom was that almost every single night me and JF bring to his counter a movie in English, and then proceed to address him and conduct the transaction in French.
Every single time Tom would pick up the VHS, open the box, read the title aloud, and then, with a grimace, tried to warn us: Mais… sé en Anglèse.
Je sais, I would answer. C’est cool.
Tom would then take our money and stare at us as we left the store, dumbfounded by these two French dudes who kept renting movies they couldn’t understand!
Poor Tommy. He just didn’t get it.
Mercifully guys like Tommy are rare in Montréal. We French bastards and Angry separatists are usually able to consume our hearts fill of Anglo-American pop culture and simultaneously uphold our right to be served in French simultaneously, without any problem. I can go to a downtown cinema, buy my ticket in French, buy my Pepsi and gummy bears in French, ask directions to the pimpled employees in French and even share my always entertaining and insightful commentary on the movie with my companion of the evening in French, and still enjoy the new Transformer movie in the original English version.
I don’t switch to English when I buy my Engelbert Humperdink CDs at HMV. I don’t try to order in Japanese when I order sushi. I can go to a bookstore, purchase a book in English and even discuss it with a librarian, speaking only French. Even when I go to McGill’s library to photocopy scientific papers and gawk at young girls from New Jersey I make it a point to speak exclusively in French with the staff.
Not only is speaking French not a problem at McGill, I’m pretty sure I get better service than English-speaking chumps. Staff seems to light up and come to life. It’s like it’s something new and interesting happening. Oh, French! I know this! I can do this!
Or maybe I’m just better looking than you are…
This said, poor Tommy’s are still out there.
Last week Eric Amber, the guy who runs the Ste.Catherine Theater downtown, sent out an email to all of Québec’s cultural media and institutions promoting his venue’s lineup as part of the Zoofest, a new comedy festival run by the folks at Juste pour Rire/Just for Laughs. When a few people complained that the email was only in English and demanded to be contacted in French or taken off their mailing list, mister Amber blew a gasket.
His theater’s shows were in English and, therefore, there was no point advertising them in French, essentially wrote the promoter, who, like poor Tommy, cannot comprehend that someone who has learned English does not immediately abandon his tribal language.
« You obviously can’t read English because you are an uneducated bigot », was the eloquent response of the theater to the demands for a French email. « Go fuck yourself. »
Sure, I’ll do that in a sec., but before I go I’d just like to point out to the Eric’s and Tommy’s out there that there are roughly 500.000 to 750.000 Anglophones in Québec and about 3 million Francophones like me who speak, read and consume English-language culture but still expect to be informed and to buy our tickets in French.
If you think you can run a business by only catering to « real » Anglos while four fifths of your potential market is jacking off in the shower, good luck with that.
We have our answer! As I’m about to upload this post, I learn that Eric Amber and the people at St.Catherine Theater do not want money spent by people who still nostalgically hang on to their backward cultures. He is shutting his theater down and moving on to some other city where only people who have completely abandonned their primitive ways are allowed to talk back to the Anglos, somewhere like Toronto or Singapour:
« Due to the overwhelming racism and bigotry in French society toward minorities and non-french cultures, Theatre Ste-Catherine will be closing in protest. Effective immediately TSC will no longer be accepting bookings and will closed permanently Dec. 21, 2009.»
Cool. Now maybe some uneducated bigot like Gilbert Rozon, who happens to run the biggest English-language comedy festival in the world, or André Ménard or René Angelil can buy back the theater and make some money while Eric Amber relocates to Peterborough where no linguistic and cultural bastards will try to crash his productions.
So I’m sitting here ruminating on past humiliations because, you know, that’s what we Québec indépendantistes do, and the whole « should we have people singing in english at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste/Fête Nationale » crisis—as I’m sure you all are—and even though I personnaly though it was cool that a couple of Anglo bands we’re invited to sing in Rosemont, there is one argument hear time and time again during the debate that I just can’t let pass.
It’s the « Québec should open up to English-language culture » argument.
(For those who’ve moved on I apologize. You are better people than I am. I’m a little bit slow. Despite my unrivaled mastery of useless trivia which has earned me the nickname of The un-sexy Cliff Claven, I would suck at Jeopardy. Even though we all know Alex Trebeck loves to show off his French and he would no doubt signal the Double Jeopardy to me.)
How ridiculous is this idea that Québec needs to “open up” to English language culture? It quite quite possibly could be the dumbest thing ever said out loud in the history of La Grande Chicane, our century-old dispute that has inspired an encyclopedia’s worth of dumb statements.
And I’m not even thinking about the fact that we are surrounded by English speakers and are constantly bombarded with American media and culture.
English Québec has a healthy little local scene and have made a decent contribution to the wider English-language cultural world, but with the exception of Leonard Cohen and Mordecai Richler, both of whom are old or dead, its clear that French Québec has made a bigger contribution to the world’s English language culture than all of English Québec.
Listen, I am a aware that a few Québécois of English-language expression have done good. Cohen is a legend. Sam Roberts was called the future of Rock by the head of Sony Music. I’m not enough of a hispter to get it, but I hear Rufus Wainwright and Arcade Fire sold a few records.
So what? So have Simple Plan and Pascale Picard and Chromeo, all of whom are as French Québec as signing “Hey motherfucker get laid, get fucked” during the chorus of Billy Idol’s Mony Mony.
French Québec has always been in the game.
In the 1970’s Montreal nightclubs like the Limelight and Québec artists like France Joli, Martin Stevens and Gino Soccio were not only part of, they were once the heart of disco culture.
Or if you’re more of a metalhead you certainly know that even though Metallica certainly sold more albums than any other metal band in the 1980’s, their own inspiration was Jonquière’s Voivod and that’s the band Metallica bassist Jason Newstead chose to join when he quit Metallica after realizing, 10 years after the rest of us, that his old band sucked. “I think that I’m in a band now that can kick their ass”, said the old Metallica rythm-man.
Oh yeah, and there’s that French chick who sold more English-language albums than any other woman in the history of recorded music.
And then she got together with the people at the Cirque du Soleil and other Québec artists like André-Phillipe Gagnon and Alain Choquette to save Las Vegas and give it it’s most glorious era since Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
So what was that you were saying? Y’all want Québec to « open up » to English language culture?
Québec doesn’t open up to English-language culture. Québec makes English-language culture. As well as any so-called native English speakers in Québec or elsewhere.
And then it has plenty of talent left over to invade France.