On Québec’s Segregated Past and One million English Words
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.