On Québec’s Segregated Past and One million English Words

with 215 comments

End of the British Empire

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.

Written by angryfrenchguy

July 27, 2009 at 4:06 pm

215 Responses

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  1. “…or whatever it is Philipnas speak”

    Tagalog. I guess some things never change.

    *rolls eyes*


    July 27, 2009 at 6:12 pm

  2. You know what else doesn’t exist? English’s millionth word. See here and, for hard details, here.

    Meanwhile, I suspect the old lady was jerking you around. I can hardly blame her. Good story though!


    July 27, 2009 at 6:20 pm

  3. PS: Pennycook is an anthropologist, not a linguist. Unless you are living in 1910. Then he’s a linguist.

    As for his quote, English is a “great borrowing language” – it borrowed just a little from Norman, for one example.


    July 27, 2009 at 6:25 pm

  4. Not only is Alastair Pennycook a linguist, I was in the same linguistics department as him in the University of Melbourne. Although we had our own Two Solitudes going (theoretical vs. applied linguistics), so I didn’t know him as an internationally renowned theoretician on Postcolonial Englishes: I knew him as the guy downstairs who kept insisting my teal jacket was blue not green.

    Hats off to you for your blogue in general, btw. I ended spending more time reading it when I was in Montreal last week, than actually exploring Montreal…

    Nick Nicholas

    July 27, 2009 at 8:23 pm

  5. “Applied linguistics”. Note the necessity for a modifier. It’s Anthro with an interest in languages. As opposed to Linguistics, the study of language.

    Time to hang up the safari hat, Mr. Whorf. The 21st Century has been waiting.


    July 27, 2009 at 9:42 pm

  6. There’s enough flames here already without me getting into a new one. But (even though I am by training not an applied linguist!) what you’re saying—that only the study of langue is capital-L linguistics, that the study of parole is hyphenated-linguistics, and that what Pennycook does is anthropology and not linguistics at all… well, what you’re saying may well be what the East Coast of the States thinks linguistics is; it’s not what the whole world thinks.

    Pennycook an anthropologist? Funny, I don’t recall him wearing a pith helmet. Time to hang up the trees and the Universal Grammar, Mr Chomsky. That’s so 1957…

    Nick Nicholas

    July 27, 2009 at 10:11 pm

  7. Having been brought up in the West Island, I can attest that this is indeed a dying breed. Most of these overtly contemptuous people are already dead or followed their children to Ontario, mostly after 1995, having been freaked out of their existence. Their last stand was the partitionist movement, which died a quick death; some still publish their hatred in the Chronicle and the Suburban.

    What has replaced is arguably not much better; a generation of immigrants settling west and firmly believing that real business must be done in English, French being a mere annoyance at best. There contempt lies under the surface (after a decade of relative linguistic peace) but could very well bubble up again, for example if Harel was to be elected in November.


    July 28, 2009 at 8:39 am

  8. This is not to say that the situation hasn’t improved in some respects. There are a lot more respectful Anglos then there once was. But there is a worrying indifference to French found among ‘educated’ migrants and students in this city.


    July 28, 2009 at 8:46 am

  9. Well, in our age in which the English language in itslef has been elevated above and beyond the sciences and religions it was formerly used to transmit, someone like Pennycook who dares to go as far as question the very REALITY of the English language is about as subversive as it gets:

    “While it is evident that vast ressources are spent learning and teaching something called English, and that English plays a key role in global affairs, it is less clear that this activity operates around something that should be taken to exist in itself.”

    But, hum.. while I’m flatered that you’ve been enjoying my blog, you should get out some. The girls out there are much prettier than the political geeks that hang out here (myself included).

    Although… I’ve always pictured Tony Kondaks as a sexy 17 year old cheerleader…


    July 28, 2009 at 12:38 pm

  10. It is entirely possible that this woman from Drummondville spoke fluent French:

    1) the French she was taught in Drummondville was Parisian French which was what was taught in the PSBGM school system and, I assume, the same as in Drummondvillle. Listening to AFG and his grandmother talk together — was it a patoise you were speaking, or what? — may have sounded entirely different than the French she knew.

    2) As a senior citizen, she was most likely hard of hearing and couldn’t make out what she was hearing.

    Tony Kondaks

    July 28, 2009 at 1:32 pm

  11. Guillaume wrote:

    “Their last stand was the partitionist movement, which died a quick death; some still publish their hatred in the Chronicle and the Suburban.”

    Boy, you must have contempt for the PQ.

    The PQ is a partitionist movement; they want to partition Quebec from Canada. The want to do it democratically, peacefully, and without violence…just as the anglo partitionists want.

    Tony Kondaks

    July 28, 2009 at 2:49 pm

  12. Ha ha yes, some of the “research” AFG does for these articles is pretty funny. Not a bad piece, though even if I’m a little disgruntled about the obligatory shot at those conquering bloodthirsty Brits (come on).

    Next time, AFG interviews the dogs and cats of Pointe-Claire. Tune in.

    Tony Ronto

    July 28, 2009 at 4:56 pm

  13. Quebec may have a segregated past, as AFG suggests, but it most certainly has a very real segregated present, one created by law.

    Tony Kondaks

    July 28, 2009 at 5:44 pm

  14. (unindenting myself. sorry for long post, may need to take it to my blog or something)

    One can be plenty subversive in academe, AFG, and you know it. Postcolonialism has been a going concern in universities for decades. Why, academe even lets you pull stunts like Ward Churchill’s. But in the anglosphere at least, the universities are not running public discourse.

    The subversion cuts both ways of course: it subverts Anglo triumphalism, and it subverts Quebecquois nationalism, just as it subverts federalism and anything in between. I’ve been discussing issues like what Pennycook’s talking about with a friend from the Other Linguistics Solitude, who’s working on more “marginal” types of language. She’s enthusiastic about a new manifesto that the “mixed” language of second-gen Hispanophones is as legitimate a linguistic code as any other, and that it is paternalistic and misguided to think bilingual education is the answer to their difficulties: they don’t speak a “pure” language, and “Pure” English and “Pure” Spanish are equally foreign to them.

    In other words, the native language of Justin Trudeau and Ottawa bureaucrats is as legitimate a code as the language of Molière; tsé. Now, that a conclusion you may not be particularly happy with; but you, like the Anglo triumphalists, are acting on cultural imperatives. Which is cool, God forbid that you should lack a cultural imperative. (Then you might really be an Ottawa bureaucrat :-) .) But that in itself does not win you an argument against the Angryphonie: that’s not the terrain of the debate.

    Because Pennycook’s across the Linguistics Solitude, I don’t know why he argued there’s No Such Thing As English; but I can guess:

    * “English” is a vague, heterogeneous abstraction, fetishised for cultural imperatives.
    * It abstracts from a variety of regional norms, being pluricentric.
    * Each regional norm is an abstraction from a myriad idiolects.
    * Each regional norm also marginalises a million “non-standard” idiolects.
    * There’s a spectrum of variation between the idiolects anyway.
    * And even the idiolects, as langues, are abstractions from the much messier realities of parole.
    * And you’d only do any of this abstraction to fulfil cultural imperatives in the first place, defining your concentric In-Groups and Out-Groups.


    Thing is… I can apply all of those critiques to prove there’s No Such Thing As French. And most of them can also prove there’s No Such Thing As Cree. That’s useful, but again, only to prove that this is a cultural dispute and not a linguistic one. Which we knew. And that, as the Flemish will tell you, l’anglais is not uniquely maudite in human history. Which we also knew.

    And that “elevating English above and beyond the sciences and religions it was formerly used to transmit”—focussing nationalism on language—is not new at all, and I find it puzzling that you should say so. Like Ramsay Cook points out (and yes, I’m revealing my federalist bias in citing him), once the Quiet Revolution deprived Quebec of Agrarian Virtue and the Church as cultural rallying points, language was the main rallying point left.

    Oh, and your girls are indeed amazing looking; there was this rousse at L’usine de spaghetti (I know, I know), who made me grateful your city flag has a shamrock in it. But with my level of French, I didn’t get much further than le reçu, SVP… Which is a fitting reward pour ma conaissance mauvaise of French.


    Nick Nicholas

    July 28, 2009 at 7:39 pm

  15. …created by segregated school systems.


    July 28, 2009 at 8:16 pm

  16. For many years I lived in Ottawa, the closest landing point in Ontario for people leaving Quebec. People talk a lot about Toronto but there are tons of people in Ontario who are former anglophone, allophone and francophone residents of Quebec. Relative to the overall population, Ottawa probably has the highest concentration of former Quebec residents in all of Canada (maybe the world).

    All of which to say is that I have met tons of them in my life, including people with zero or next-to-zero knowledge of French who were born and raised in the most unlikely places: Shawinigan, Sorel, Quebec City, Sept-Iles, Val-d’Or, Rouyn-Noranda, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Trois-Rivières, etc.

    Some of them were WASP-type anglophones, but many were also of allophone origin. Like the 35-year Spanish guy I once met who grew up in Sorel and who fled the province because he wasn’t *respected* as an English (virtually only) speaking Canadian in Quebec.

    Granted, it is more prevalent among older people, but I still met people who grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s in 95+% francophone towns without really learning the main language of their surroundings.


    July 28, 2009 at 9:17 pm

  17. Tony makes a valid point here. The lady could very well have learned Parisian and not understand colloquial French spoken by two Quebec francophones.

    That said, it would still mean that she would have lived in Drummondville, a 99% francophone town, without ever speaking to any of her neighbours in their language. Because had she done so, as a person with knowledge of European French her ear would have become trained to the Quebec accent very very quickly.


    July 28, 2009 at 9:20 pm

  18. Precisely.

    Tony Kondaks

    July 28, 2009 at 9:45 pm

  19. …and this story teaches us what exactly? That the British Empire didn’t bother learning the languages of its conquered peoples? How shocking.


    July 28, 2009 at 10:40 pm

  20. … On the flip side, I’ve just discovered Chiac and Radio Radio thanks to you; so I retract any accusations of linguistic purism. :-)

    Nick Nicholas

    July 29, 2009 at 2:44 am

  21. Edward,

    This story is simply a testimony of how the indifference and insensitivity of some individuals aggravates some Québécois and hampers a constructive dialog. Uncalled-for references to some historical events may also have the same effect.

    Pure Laine

    July 29, 2009 at 9:57 am

  22. I’m repeating myself here but I’ll say it again:

    If the francophones truly respected the principle of speaking and respecting the language of the majority, we’d all be speaking Huron now.

    Tony Kondaks

    July 29, 2009 at 12:12 pm

  23. A segregated system that you and Bobby Libman have dedicated your lives to protecting while my team has been trying to abolish it. Quite a legacy, Tony.


    July 29, 2009 at 12:39 pm

  24. You’re half-way there with the “linguistic” abstraction that is English. I would add (my thinking, not Pennycook’s) the observation by Catherine Prendergast in Buying into English about the new generation of English manuals with titles like “Opportunity” without the word ENGLISH even appearing on the cover:

    And then think how adopting English IS adopting globalization, free trade, captitalism, the dominant university ecosystem with Oxbridge and Harvard at the top and the worlds other anglo universities as consumers of this language…

    It’s not just a language the world is buying into.

    By the way, French in Québec is something special because of it’s unique history in North America. I’m perfectly aware that it’s one of the bad guys in the rest of the world.

    Perspective, people. Perspective. There are no absolute good and bad guys,


    July 29, 2009 at 12:53 pm

  25. AFG writes:

    “A segregated system that you and Bobby Libman have dedicated your lives to protecting while my team has been trying to abolish it. Quite a legacy, Tony.”

    I have no idea what you are referring to, AFG.

    You are the one who supports Bill 101 which includes the provisions which segregates Quebecers into two separate and distinct civil rights categories.

    I support freedom of choice in language of education so that any Quebecer can freely choose to attend either English or French publicly funded schools.

    Unless, of course, you are referring to a position in which you support only French language schools in Quebec. Which nobody supports, would be completely illegal and unconstitutional, and is a non-starter.

    And who or what is this “team” that you refer to?

    Tony Kondaks

    July 29, 2009 at 2:16 pm

  26. I for one support French language schools as the sole option in Quebec. Two systems is apartheid.

    It may be unconstitutional but that’s what amendments are for.


    July 29, 2009 at 5:37 pm

  27. Heaven forbid we aggravate some individuals!
    It would be so easy to get along if we were all identical, after all.


    July 29, 2009 at 5:39 pm

  28. “…a person with knowledge of European French…would have become trained to the Quebec accent very very quickly.”

    It’s not so simple for us pauvres anglophones.

    I was trained in European French by three native speakers and I get by in it without too much trouble. With this background, my experience with North American French has been hit and miss. In general, the farther away from Montréal I go, the more difficulty I tend to have understanding what people are saying.

    Other Americans I know who speak French as an acquired language have reported the same sort of
    things to me, e.g. “They can understand me, but I can’t understand them.”

    I don’t mean to make excuses for people who live in Québec and don’t learn French in this day and age. I know enough about Québec to know that you have to. But speaking French as a second language in Québec is not always cut and dried, especially for those of us who have an anglo accent, and one of the many pitfalls is that the language many of us are taught is often quite different from what people actually speak, especially once you start venturing into la campagne.


    July 29, 2009 at 5:40 pm

  29. “Uncalled-for references to some historical events may also have the same effect.”

    That is exactly what this entire post was.

    Some old Anglo hag hasn’t bothered learning French and somehow this is standing in the way of constructive dialog? You can’t force an old bitch to learn new tricks. Why harp on this fact?

    OK Anglos suck. I agree. Is everyone happy now? Can we get on with our lives now?


    July 29, 2009 at 5:48 pm

  30. I can appreciate that littlerob. But Americans like you are not in contact with Quebec French in everyday life like someone in Drummondville would be. There, you encounter French as soon as you step out your front door.


    July 29, 2009 at 7:08 pm

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