I spent much of the past couple of weeks back in my childhood city of Montreal. It was an eventful time. Thousands of student demonstrators marched past the restaurant where I was having dinner, banging on pots and pans. The partial remains of a dismembered Chinese student were found not far from where my brother now lives. And scores of shopkeepers in downtown Montreal greeted their customers like this: "Bonjour, Hi."
This last development was reported by the Office Québécois de la langue française—this is the body charged with overseeing Quebec's language laws, not-so-affectionately referred to by many English Canadians as the "language gestapo". In a study released on June 1, the OQLF noted that while compliance with signage laws have increased over the past two years, there were concerns about how customers were being greeted. Evidently, in downtown Montreal, unilingual French greetings are in decline, from 89% in 2010 to 74% in 2012. More shopkeepers are initiating an exchange in English only, up from 10% to 13%. And bilingual greetings—"bonjour/hi"—have risen quite sharply, up from 1% to 13%.
The report drew stern warnings from several Quebec politicians, who argued that Montreal businesses should be doing more to encourage transactions taking place in French. For example, Quebec's culture minister and language hard-liner Christine St-Pierre noted in an interview with Le Journal de Québec (06/01/2012) that while bilingual greetings are legal (as long as service is available in French) the practice should be "corrected".
In Montreal, using "bonjour/hi" in this context amounts to more than simply a courteous acknowledgement of the existence of both languages. It's often used as an advertisement that the customer can expect to be served in the language of his choice. The OFLQ would probably not be happy with the following bit of text on Concordia University's website, which offers encouraging words to prospective anglophone students who might have trepidations about living in francophone Montreal:
Although the official language in Quebec is French, you won't have trouble getting by if you don't speak the language. In almost every store or restaurant you will be greeted with "bonjour/hi".
(It should mollify the OQFL though that this remark is accompanied by a good deal of pretty verbiage about Montreal as a center of French culture and the easy availability of French courses.)
Well, it appears that Concordia grossly overstated the frequency of the bilingual greeting. But the interpretation of the meaning of "bonjour/hi" is on target—indeed, the frequent orthographic trend of using a slash in the phrase hints at its meaning. Recently, Quebec blogger William Raillant-Clark offered the following user's guide to shopkeepers' greetings:
Here then is a spectrum of greetings you are likely to encounter from staff in a Montreal shop, and what they mean:
Bonjour – I am probably French mother tongue and I prefer to speak French. I might not speak English very well.
Bonjour-Hi – I am perfectly bilingual and am happy to serve you in the language of your choice. Although I am probably from Quebec, I might not speak French as a first language.
Allô! – "Allô" is a tricky one as it sounds a lot like "Hello." Sometimes counter staff use it to be ambiguous and will serve you in the language in which you respond. Sometimes, however, they are unilingual francophones who are attempting to be informal. In fact, as "Allô" is only used when answering the phone in the rest of the French-speaking world, it took your correspondant about a year to work out that it wasn't an heavily accented "hello"! Bonjour is almost always the best response to an Allô.
No greeting – I am probably waiting for you to say Bonjour or Hi so I know which language you prefer (by the way, your editor considers this rude.) I am probably not French mother tongue.
bonjour-HIII!! – I am stressing the "HI" because although I can serve you in French (and am required to by law), it is not my first language and I would rather serve you in English.
Hi – I only speak English or I strongly prefer to speak English.
This etiquette is apparently not followed by service providers throughout Canada. I was amused to find, for example, an incensed letter-to-the-editor to Montreal's Le Devoir by a disgruntled francophone writing to complain about his travels to Nova Scotia. It appears that, upon registering at a Parks Canada campground, he was greeted with a sincere "bonjour/hi". Naturally, the letter-writer took this to be an invitation to use either official language and launched into "la langue de Molière" only to be told "Sorry. I don't speak French."
Predictably, the censure of the bilingual greeting by Quebec bureaucrats and legislators caused some irritation among anglophones. I listened to a call-in radio show on CJAD, a local English-speaking station, in which numerous callers decried the remarks as an assault on common courtesy and free enterprise. One caller sarcastically remarked that perhaps the OQLF would legislate that shopkeepers utter the "hi" portion of the greeting no louder than at a whisper—an obvious reference to the signage laws which stipulate that French text be more visually prominent than English.
I myself have trouble getting enthusiastic about the bashing of Quebec's language laws and their enforcement. It's not that I don't find them asinine, or repressive, or soul-suckingly bureaucratic. I do. It's just that I can't help but be deeply sympathetic to their end goal, the preservation of Quebec French.
When I talk to English-Canadians about the language laws, they often perceive them as an attack on the anglophone community, as the result of a hostile attitude directed at themselves, as revenge for perceived injustices. But when I talk to French-Canadians who support these laws, I rarely hear them expressing anger or hostility, though I suspect that this exists too. What I often hear is the language of loss, the fear of losing a certain connection to their culture that just can't be preserved in translation.
In a piece titled "Why speak French?" (01/09/2012), La Presse blogger Stéphane Laporte puts it this way:
Pour de plus en plus de gens, une langue n'est qu'un code. Un outil interchangeable.
Si c'est plus pratique parler anglais, parlons anglais.
Si c'est plus pratique parler chinois, parlons chinois.
Une langue, ce n'est pas seulement un ensemble de sons et de symboles qui permettent de parler au cellulaire et d'envoyer des textos. Une langue, c'est l'empreinte du coeur de ceux qui la parlent. C'est le répertoire des réflexions, des émotions, des expériences et des rêves partagés par une communauté. Notre langue n'est pas meilleure que celle des autres, mais c'est la nôtre. C'est notre vécu. C'est à nous qu'elle parle. Bien au-delà des mots. Nos rires, nos pleurs, nos soupirs sonnent français. Et si on est fier de ce qu'on est, on est fier de la langue qui nous a permis de devenir ce que nous sommes. Notre réalité, c'est en français que nous l'avons nommée. Que nous nous la sommes appropriée.
Which I've translated as follows:
For more and more people, a language is nothing but a code. An interchangeable tool.
If it's more practical to speak English, let's speak English.
If it's more practical to speak Chinese, let's speak Chinese.
A language is not only a set of sounds and symbols that allows one to talk on a cellphone or send texts. A language is an imprint on the heart of those who speak it. It's the repertoire of thoughts, emotions, experiences and dreams shared by a community. Our language is not better than others, but it is ours. It's what we've lived. It speaks to us in more than words. Our laughter, tears and hopes have a French ring to them. And if we're proud of what we are, we're proud of the language that has allowed us to become what we are. It's in French that we've named our reality. That we've claimed it for ourselves.
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.
This subjective experience of many multi-linguals is beginning to be probed in experimental studies. Here on Language Log, we've had a couple of discussions about studies which suggest that for bilingual speakers, languages truly are not perfectly interchangeable codes, that people can be primed to show different behaviors depending on which language they're operating in (for example: "Non-Whorfian linguistic determinism", 01/02/2009; "Thought experiments on language and thought", 02/22/2012). Languages come attached with certain memories and associations. And presumably, a good bit of code-switching is motivated by such non-interchangeable connections; we use different languages to talk about different things simply because it feels more natural that way.
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.
And so it was at a car rental office during my visit to Montreal. The man behind the desk greeted me with a nice "Bonjour" and I happily continued the exchange in French. But when I handed over my Alberta driver's license and turned to talk to my mother in English, he then switched to English—which was, like my French, discernibly accented, but fluent and comfortable. I appreciated the courtesy, but persisted in French; he continued in English. Finally, I said to him (in French): "Please allow me the pleasure of speaking in French. I rarely get to use it now that I live out West, and it does me a lot of good." He smiled and we had a bit of small talk about where I used to live when I'd been in Montreal, and how things had changed in the local landscape. He relaxed, and so did his diphthongs, sliding away from the language of Moliėre and into the language of Michel Tremblay. And when he handed over the keys, I felt thoroughly welcomed.