My wife and I visited Montreal in 2004 (I reported briefly on it here), and ever since then I’ve had even more of an interest in the linguistic situation there. I was glad to find (via MetaFilter) a link to a discussion by Nicholas Little of the (now thankfully obsolete) phrase “Speak white!” that used to be directed at Francophone Québécois: “While the phrase itself is thought to have been borrowed from the southern United States, it was apparently used almost as a catch-all rebuke against anything not Anglo, not white, not born-and-bred. … The earliest recorded use of the phrase was supposedly in the Canadian Parliament of 1899 as Henri Bourassa was booed by English-speaking Members of Parliament while attempting to address the legislature in French against the engagement of the Dominion in the Second Boer War.” The MeFi post also has a link to a video (about four and a half minutes) of a 1970 recitation by Michèle Lalonde of her impassioned poem “Speak White” (Wikipedia); you will find the text at the end of the previous link. From it I learned a couple of new words (contremaître ‘foreman’; cambouis ‘dirty oil, dirty grease, sludge’); I might also point out that it is a macaronic poem, and thus fits well with yesterday’s post.
By a pleasing coincidence, Julie Sedivy has a post at the Log today about the current situation in Montreal, specifically the fashion among shopkeepers of greeting their customers with “Bonjour, Hi,” “often used as an advertisement that the customer can expect to be served in the language of his choice.” The pushback from the Office Québécois de la langue française causes a certain amount of drearily predictable arguing (“Linguistic fascism!” “Linguistic survival!”); while I can understand the emotions on both sides, as an outsider it looks to me like the situation is on the whole pretty healthy. And I very much liked Julie’s personal reminiscences at the end of her post:
For me, like for many people who’ve lived in more than one language, it’s true that each language is imbued with a different feeling and with different associations. And for me, Quebec French has always been linked with a broad and warm sense of pleasure. The language itself has its own attractions, with its spectacular swear words and the linguistic agility of many of its speakers who easily slide around between registers like virtuoso saxophone players. But there’s also this: it’s the language that I’ve had the most fun in. I never had to endure classes or write exams in it, or steel myself for family dramas in it (these took place in English and Czech respectively). French was my hanging-out language. And the French-Canadian friends of my adolescence were more rambunctious, inclusive and adventurous than my English-Canadian peers. My most animated political arguments took place in French, and ended not in stony silences, but in raucously funny insults and a collective decision to go get some food. And to this day any social interaction, even an incidental encounter with a shopkeeper, just feels more warm and spontaneous in French than it does in English. It’s like eating comfort food; it’s not so much that the food itself is inherently delicious, it’s that it comes attached to memories that soothe. …
So part of me thinks that, if a French-only greeting acts as a gentle implicit nudge for customers who command both languages to engage in French (as I bet it would), this is not such a bad thing. Shopkeepers can still readily accommodate those customers who might really prefer to use English.