Much ado about Montreal greetings

« previous post | next post »

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.



69 Comments

  1. Rod Johnson said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

    I knew a American woman, from Texas, who was fluent in French. She studied for a while in Tunisia, where she fell in love with a Tunisian man. Sine the only language they had in common was French, their courtship and eventual marriage was conducted in French. Eventually they moved back to the States and had several happy years. As he gradually became fluent in English, though, the language they spoke at home gradually switched over to English, and their marriage started to fall apart. As she later told me, "I just didn't *like* him in English!" Eventually they became aware of this, switched back to French and, as far as I know, they're still together. But what struck me is that she felt that they were somehow different *people* in French and in English–that the parts of their individual identities that were encoded in one language were somehow not as available in the other.

    I've talked with several bilingual people about this since, and there isn't unanimity, but most of them at least felt that there was some truth to it. I've always been curious, and Julie's personal discussion has renewed the curiosity–do you feel that the language you use is just a… context that you happen to be existing in, or do you feel that your identity as a person somehow varies depending on the language? (I wish I could sharpen that question somewhat as to what "identity" means, but it's not really that clear to me.)

    At any rate, Julie, thanks for an interesting essay.

  2. D.O. said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    Here's what Wikipedia says on language distribution in Montreal

    In terms of mother language (first language learned), the 2006 census reported that in the Greater Montreal Area, 66.5% spoke French as a first language, followed by English at 13.2%, while 0.8% spoke both as a first language.[84] The remaining 22.5% of Montreal-area residents are allophones, speaking languages including Italian (3.5%), Arabic (3.1%), Spanish (2.6%), Creole (1.3%), Chinese (1.2%), Greek (1.2%), Portuguese (0.8%), Romanian (0.7%), Vietnamese (0.7%), and Russian (0.5%).[84] In terms of additional languages spoken, a unique feature of Montreal among Canadian cities, noted by Statistics Canada, is the working knowledge of both French and English possessed by most of its residents.

    So how do those allophones feel in the city of Royal Mountain? Are their sensibilities taken to account in any way or all the attentiaon is consumed by this hundred years' war?

    [(js) The growing presence of allophones in Montreal is likely to reshape the language dynamics. When I was growing up there in the 70s and 80s, I was by no means an oddity as an allophone. But Quebec's birthrate has been very slow since, and the province relies heavily on immigration, with many newcomers arriving in Montreal. These Montrealers tend to be especially comfortable with multi-lingualism, and language usually has less of a political edge for them. It'll be interesting to see whether this dilutes linguistic tensions as their proportion in the population continues to increase. I suspect it will in Montreal, though outside of Montreal, Quebeckers may feel somewhat threatened by their eager embrace of English, even if they do speak French as well.]

  3. Michael Newman said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 3:32 pm

    Living in Catalonia this year and actually researching bilinguals the contrasts and similarities are striking. There's a language conflict, but there are no sign laws (some signs are only in Chinese for example), but there is constant negotiation of languages. People who are productively monolingual are seen by many who are productively bilingual as somewhat defective, perhaps ethically so. Those who are monolingual are defensive about it, and have many different motivations from contempt for the other language to fear of speaking it badly. Many people will start off an exchange with a disavowal of imposing their linguistic preferences on interlocutors. This is taken to a fault by an assumption that if you don't look local (via phenotype or clothes) or speak Catalan with an accent, the right thing to do is speak in Spanish. It can be hard to get some people to speak Catalan to you. Even some Latino kids who I interviewed in native sounding to me Catalan reported that no strangers speak Catalan to them. This is done not because of hoarding cultural capital but on the basis of a politeness norm, not to impose linguistically. Just a few observations.

  4. maidhc said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 3:48 pm

    I found it something peculiar to Montreal that there is this political edge to what language you speak, and even if you speak French, if you can't follow the local slang you are treated differently. I felt much more comfortable in small towns in rural Quebec, because generally no one speaks English at all, so the question doesn't arise.

  5. Jim White said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    I just got back from a week in Montreal for NAACL and *SEM. I'm only conversant in English and the experience of being immersed in a primarily non-English environment was very interesting to me. While I picked up a few new words of French from signage, I was primarily conscious of how reassuring it was to see or hear English. The dilemma the language police put the shopkeepers in is very clear. While I would liked to have gone to many local restaurants, I avoided any where I thought I might get into a bind trying to order. In both cases where I bought relatively expensive meals the proprietor greeted me "Bonjour/Hi" or something similar and immediately (and warmly) continued speaking to me in English.

    I'm entirely sympathetic to the social problems created by cultural bias and the challenges of cultural sustainability, but I question whether promoting interpersonal discrimination is really helping the situation (shades of Southern lunch counters and such). But perhaps it is since without this kind of militancy then the hegemony will simply win.

  6. Avinor said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

    For me as a non-native French speaker and European, the first sign in Laporte's text of its origins was the phrase "parler au cellulaire". Despite the language laws and cleansing efforts, sometimes Québec French is very…American.

  7. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

    I know a number of people active in minority language movements in Britain and Ireland. They often discuss how crucial it is in staving off language death to get people to initiate conversations in the minority language. The case of French in Quebec is more complex than that of a minority language, but it seems some of the same issues would be involved.

    Are there any key papers y'all could suggest on the ways in which conversations are initiated in multi-lingual societies or societies with active proponents of minority languages?

    [(js) I'd be just as interested as you to know of any such work. For example, does more prominent signage in one language over another increase the probability that the more prominently-displayed language will be used? Given much of the work that's coming out of the implicit priming literature these days, this would seem fairly plausible.]

  8. Gene in L.A. said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 4:32 pm

    French for me is definitely an acquired language, and though I speak it fairly well, I know I have much yet to learn. As part of my self-teaching, once I finished formal study, I bought a French translation of The Martian Chronicles. It's a very good translation, and I know the stories well in English. The interesting thing I experienced while reading it is this: I was more aware of the poetry in Bradbury's writing. I'm not sure if that confirms anything in this Language Log article, but I do think there are different "feels" to the two languages.

  9. Ben Caplan said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    Thanks for that.

    I'm a native Montrealer, now living in the US, an anglophone who went to French school who loves talking Quebecois French and doesn't get much chance to in Ohio. I used to make a point of filling out the French side of my customs form and replying to the language-inclusive greeting of the customs agent — I can't remember now what it was exactly — in French to try to steer the conversation into French. Upon my return from abroad yesterday, I was disappointed to discover that they've now replaced the agents with kiosks for Canadian-passport–holders. I was too jet-lagged to navigate the unfamiliar kiosk in French, so in a cowardly way I chose English.

    I learnt French in the locker room and in the school yard. It's a fun language for me to speak.

    It's been more than 15 years since I've lived in Montreal. I remember when people in the service industry started switching to English on me because they noticed my accent and wanted to be accommodating. It was a sad day for me.

    It's perhaps telling that the original French blog post is poetic in ways that the English is not: "notre vecu" is hard to translate (I guess it's literally something like 'our [what we have] lived'), and the transition from "ce qu'on est" to "ce que nous sommes" gets lost (since they're both translated as "what we are" — "what one is" wouldn't be right).

    [(js) Yes, my inadequate translation made it seem necessary to include the original French text. I also struggled with the feel of the syntax. For example, there are several instances of pre-posing in the French text that sound fluid and poetic, but that I've chosen not to preserve in English as they somehow feel awkward and unnatural: "Une langue, ce n'est pas seulement un ensemble de sons..."/ "A language, it is not only a set of sounds..."; "Notre réalité, c'est en français que nous l'avons nommée."/ "Our reality, it's in French that we've named it." Nevertheless, I'm sure a skilled translator could have captured the feel of the original text better than I've managed to.]

  10. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 5:10 pm

    In Southern California, where Spanish is widely spoken, your appearance often determines whether you are addressed by service employees in English or Spanish. If you look Anglo, you are addressed in English, but you may be initially addressed in Spanish if you "look" Hispanic. I've heard some native Spanish-speakers complain that, because they don't look Hispanic, they are usually addressed in English, and have to steer the conversation to Spanish. And I have had a few students of Middle Eastern origin who have said that, because of their appearance, they find themselves initially addressed in Spanish. (I also have some students of Middle Eastern origin who actually ARE native Spanish speakers, because their families settled in Mexico.) An interesting example of profiling.

    I've even run across this situation with African Americans back in Memphis, where those who code-switch between mainstream American English and AAVE initiate speech differently with people they perceive to be African American, sometimes leaving mixed-race people feeling closed out.

  11. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

    When I lived in a Russian neighborhood in Los Angeles, I was at first addressed in Russian when I went into the neighborhood shops and when the new supermarket opened I was once asked in Russian for directions on how to find something. I could see that they didn't do that with everyone, so I suppose I looked Russian to these Russians, although I'm nowhere near. I know I looked like a depressed peasant woman in my passport photo, so perhaps that was it.

    In non-verbal communication I also found that my Southern habit of smiling at strangers I passed on the street did not go over well with Angelenos, and was especially not appreciated by the Russians in my neighborhood, who would scowl back at me. Then I read in a book that Russians typically don't trust people who smile for no reason. I took to giving people a polite nod when I passed them, and often found them smiling at me in return.

    I suppose that in Quebec there are no visual cues apart from message t-shirts and the like that will let people know you would be more receptive to French or to English.

  12. Kimchikraut said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    I am an Asian from Toronto but am fluent in French. When I lived in Montreal for grad school, I tried to speak in French on every possible occasion but shopkeepers always switched to English when they heard my obviously school-acquired "bonjour". Only when I perfected the peculiar lilt of a Québécois "bonjour" could I get them to complete the entire transaction in French.

  13. Rubrick said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 6:46 pm

    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"!

    The writer was likely unaware that "hello" in English was also used almost exclusively as a telephone greeting early in that device's history (though its full etymology appears to be murky). The French telephone usage was surely borrowed from the English one, and so probably is a heavily-accented "hello" — or rather, was a century and more ago.

  14. Jeff Carney said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

    Although one might pooh-pooh the (I don't know) greater Whorfian world view, it seems inescapable that a minor Whorfian world-view really does obtain. I don't know what its boundaries are, and maybe they are only aesthetic. Still. One feels differently speaking in a different register, dialect, language — especially when you associate one with "home" — and that's got to mean something, I think, snowclones be damned.

  15. Robert said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

    from an interesting piece on language by Robert Dessaix,

    "I was talking a while ago with the Russian writer Andreï Makine who writes in French and speaks both languages perfectly. At one point I asked him, in French, how many friends he had in Paris. Scarcely any, was the reply, scarcely any amis. Then I asked him in Russian how many friends he had in Paris—how many druzya. This time he had more. He laughed and felt a bit nonplussed."

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/linguafranca/2012-05-19/4019828

  16. Joshua said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 8:27 pm

    Would it be better to translate "nos soupirs" as "our sighs" instead of "our hopes"?

  17. marie-lucie said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 9:47 pm

    I usually find Julie Sedivy's posts a little too breezy and populat magazine-like for my taste, but this one has a lot more feeling in it and I like it very much, even though my personal experiences have been quite different since I have never lived in Québec.

    About feeling different in different languages: I am very comfortable in English and it does not feel foreign to me, but if I am talking with someone in English and I discover that this person is also a francophone, I feel like I have been wearing sunglasses and they have suddenly been ripped off my face! then it would seem very awkward to continue in English. I say "sunglasses", not "a mask": I don't feel I have a different personality or I am playing a role, but there must be a slight barrier, which I am not usually conscious of.

  18. marie-lucie said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 9:51 pm

    Joshua: Would it be better to translate "nos soupirs" as "our sighs" instead of "our hopes"?

    Yes. Soupir is 'sigh', 'hope' is espoir. "Our hopes" here is just a typo, probably caused by haste.

    [(js) Yes, thanks for the correction.]

  19. D.O. said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 10:28 pm

    Then I asked him in Russian how many friends he had in Paris—how many druzya.

    That should be "druzey". I would consider a possibility that Russian drug and French ami do have somewhat different scope.

  20. HMM said,

    June 16, 2012 @ 10:40 pm

    @ Avinor – Despite the language laws and cleansing efforts, sometimes Québec French is very…American.

    In a cold winter in the 70s, I visited Québec City with a friend of québecois background. As I needed to get gas and have the level of my antifreeze checked, I stopped at a gas station and, in my Europe-acquired French, I said something like "Pour l'essence, faites le plein, S.V.P. et pouvez-vous vérifier le niveau de l'anti-gel?" [For gas, make it full and can you check the level of the anti-freeze?] My friend was having hysterics, so I said, "OK, you do it!" and he said to the attendant, "Remplissez-le et chequez l'antifreeze." [Fill it and check the antifreeze.]

  21. z said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 1:30 am

    To come back to the question posed in the first comment:

    do you feel that the language you use is just a… context that you happen to be existing in, or do you feel that your identity as a person somehow varies depending on the language?

    Identity as I feel it – no, I'm the same person. But those interacting with me in a given language see different parts of my personality – so externally I do vary. This is because one of my languages has been pretty much confined to interactions with my family for most of my life (I'm a Russian-American young adult; my family immigrated when I was three), so there are all sorts of limits to my vocabulary (I have no idea how to discuss most academics, politics, etc.); I find it difficult to use a formal register; words have various connotations and issues attached to them due to my family's particular issues; and while I can converse on most reasonably frequent conversation topics with equal ease in either language, and read with almost equal ease (Russian reading's just a bit slower), I find expressing a large chunk of my feelings much more difficult in Russian (again, because of some particulars of my family's interactions). So I'm more reserved in Russian, because there's a lot of stuff I'm not used to expressing. For this reason, actually, I'm unsure if I want to teach my hypothetical future kids Russian – I'd love for them to have the language, but it might be more important for me to be able to speak to them (more or less) as I do to friends (and friends are mostly English's territory).

  22. Reinhold {Rey} Aman said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 2:22 am

    @ D.O.:
    "I would consider a possibility that Russian drug and French ami do have somewhat different scope."

    To me, the connotations and emotional depths of English friend and German Freund are definitely different. In German and Bavarian (my two mother tongues), a Freund is a real friend, whereas in American English (which I've been speaking for some 55 years), "my friend" is often used for merely a shallow acquaintance.

    Just as Glinda asks Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?", whenever someone talks about his or her friend, I am always wondering, Is s/he your real friend or just a "friend"?

    I wonder whether native speakers of French and Spanish (or other languages) also feel this psychological difference between their ami/e and amigo/a and friend.

  23. boynamedsue said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 3:55 am

    What a wonderful article, a real pleasure to read. And the comments are interesting too.

    @Michael Newman
    "here's a language conflict, but there are no sign laws (some signs are only in Chinese for example), but there is constant negotiation of languages. People who are productively monolingual are seen by many who are productively bilingual as somewhat defective, perhaps ethically so. "

    I lived in Barna for several years, and there are definitely signage laws, and quite strict ones too. It's illegal not to put up signs in Catalan, though any other additional language is permitted. So for economy's sake a lot of big stores sign only in Catalan. This can have some interesting consequences, I once saw an old Spanish-speaking couple from La Mina trying to work out what fish they were buying, and asking the Peruvian shop assitant, who had no idea either.

    @Rod Johnson

    "As he gradually became fluent in English, though, the language they spoke at home gradually switched over to English, and their marriage started to fall apart. As she later told me, "I just didn't *like* him in English!""

    I met my wife (an Italian) when the only language we had in common was English. Now we are both trilingual and the home language has switched to Italian (though I speak English to my daughter). She often tells me that she wouldn't have fallen in love with me in English, and I also notice a difference in her personality depending on which of the 3 languages she speaks. She still amazing and gorgeous in all three of them though.

  24. boynamedsue said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 4:02 am

    Sorry, I meant "the only language we had in common was Spanish"

  25. boynamedsue said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 4:02 am

    Sorry, I meant "The only language we had in common was Spanish".

  26. WT said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 5:52 am

    @z, boynamedsue, Kimchikraut

    My parents speak different types of Chinese, and only spoke English to each other and to me. Even though I picked up both Chineses in later childhood, I still only speak English to my parents and grandparents and we only interact with strangers in Chinese. Furthermore, even though my generation of cousins can all speak English and Cantonese fluently, we only speak English to each other.

    As an Asian-looking person who has visited France and Quebec with a basic command of French and no slang, I found that Quebecois (who could speak English well) were willing to let me have a go in French, whereas in France they would instantly switch to English even though they struggled with it. However, the French probably assumed that English is not my first language.

  27. andrew said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 7:04 am

    For 30 years we've heard all the arguments justifying the legislative efforts of the Government of the Province of Quebec to limit the use of languages other than French…..I have no problem requiring l'affichage commercial to include French, but beyond that, a lot of the legislative programme is petty and indeed is redolent of paranoia and repression.

    (I did my DEA in France, and later was a Canadian federal civil servant who worked largely in French for a long time, and was delighted to do so……and my wife was a French immersion teacher…..so I am hardly hostile to French……but I am not a fan of the pettiness of the legislation…..!)

  28. languagehat said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    That should be "druzey".

    No. In Russian, of course, it's сколько друзей, with the genitive plural, but in English we do not carry over foreign grammatical rules. You can say "how many drugs" (using the singular form plus the English plural) or "how many druzya" (using the Russian plural), but using the Russian genitive plural would just be silly.

    To answer Rod Johnson's question in the first comment, I definitely feel very different when speaking different languages; I wouldn't say I was a different person, but different sides of my personality emerge. I particularly remember a bibulous and vivacious conversation one evening when my girlfriend and I were in Paris (we'd traded apartments for a couple of weeks with a French couple who were visiting New York); I was much nimbler of wit, more effervescent, than I ever am in English.

    This meditation on the phrase "speak white!" (now thankfully obsolete) is relevant to the topic of the thread.

  29. marie-lucie said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 11:17 am

    LH, maybe the bibulousness had something to do with it? I have been known to speak Portuguese not too badly (I think) and at length on a similar occasion.

    Speak white! I heard a recording of Michèle Lalonde performing ("reading" would not be the right word) this poem, around the time it was written. The performance was extremly powerful. It is true that the poem is now obsolete, but older people in Montreal remember the situation very well. The online piece (in several parts) is worth reading in its entirety.

    In the 70's I worked for a while with a woman from Québec, who was probably in her late thirties at the time. Apart from being an excellent teacher, she was a lovely person in every respect, very pretty and elegant, and kindness itself. Her husband, also a French speaker, was a career officer in the Canadian Armed Forces, and being close to perfectly bilingual, had been accepted by his anglophone colleagues (but probably at a heavy psychological price). Years before, when he told them he was getting married and they discovered that his future wife (whom they had never met) was also French, he was told: "What do you want to marry a French girl for? You are one of us now, you could have married an English girl!"

  30. D.O. said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

    @languagehat re: drug/druzya/druzey. I can understand using drugs, Russian base, English use of derivation. But if somone goes to trouble to get Russian plural, why not do it all the way?

  31. hector said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 12:39 pm

    @Reinhold {Rey} Aman

    I'm not sure this is entirely a language thing. I've heard a number of Canadians comment on the shallowness of American friendliness. Don't get me wrong — the outgoing, friendly nature of many Americans can be very enjoyable. But there is a tendency for Canadians, who are more reserved, to assume Americans mean it, and then be disappointed when they discover that the American in question has no real commitment to them, but acts that way towards everyone.

  32. languagehat said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    But if somone goes to trouble to get Russian plural, why not do it all the way?

    If you're going to "do it all the way," you speak Russian. Again, we do not carry over foreign grammatical rules into English. Would you really expect an English-speaker to say "four druga" but "five druzei"? Or learn the complex grammatical rules of, say, Georgian in order to refer properly to Georgian people or customs?

  33. languagehat said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    But if somone goes to trouble to get Russian plural, why not do it all the way?

    If you're going to "do it all the way," you speak Russian. Again, we do not carry over foreign grammatical rules into English. Would you really expect an English-speaker to say "four druga" but "five druzei"? Or learn the complex grammatical rules of, say, Georgian in order to refer properly to Georgian people or customs?

  34. languagehat said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 1:56 pm

    I've heard a number of Canadians comment on the shallowness of American friendliness.

    I've heard a number of Russians comment on the same thing for the same reason. But it's a shallow and ethnocentric complaint; the proper response is that the ideas and practices of friendship differ in complicated ways between Americans and Canadians (or Russians). Of course, if one is looking to feel superior, any hook will do to hang one's superiority upon. (Hamburgers, how banal! Television, how vulgar! Etc. etc.)

  35. D.O. said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

    @languagehat: I would expect the use of base form and English rules of derivation. My wonderment is about someone doing it part way.

  36. Robert said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    Well welly welly my oomny droogies have we figured the correct English plural? It's all chepooka to me.

  37. Robert said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    Well welly welly my oomny droogies have we figured the correct English plural? It's all chepooka to me.

  38. Robert said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    Well welly welly my oomny droogies have we figured the correct English plural? It's all chepooka to me.

  39. Robert said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

    oh dear, three for the price of one. Appypollyloggies.

  40. Jonathan said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 7:58 pm

    I was taught that in French "ami" means a good friend, while a more casual friend is "copain."

    But I lack sufficient data to confirm this, or, as D. O. would probably say, I lack sufficient datorum.

  41. William Raillant-Clark said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 8:45 pm

    Thank you for quoting from my blog. I feel very honoured!

  42. marie-lucie said,

    June 17, 2012 @ 9:57 pm

    Yes, ami/amie means a close friend (male/female), while copain is more like 'pal' or 'buddy' (the feminine is copine, which I don't quite know how to translate). In current European French, copain/copine is also used for boyfriend/girlfriend.

  43. Jon said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 2:59 am

    I have been told that there is a law in France that mandates that if the French state has paid for research, then its presentation, even at international conferences, must be in French. If that's true, the law is generally ignored in my experience.

    A few years ago I attended an international scientific conference in Montreal. The official conference languages were of course French and English, though probably less than 10% of delegates would understand French.

    An ancient professor from France was given the honour of presenting the keynote address. He started it by saying: "Because zees conference is held in ze beautiful French city of Montreal, I weel give my presentation wiz a 'eavy French accent."

  44. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 4:10 am

    @Jon: My mentor used to tell us a story about the linguist Roman Jakobson. He was about to present a paper to an audience of Indo-Europeanists, and in English he said, "I will be giving this paper in Russian. Is there anyone here who does not understand Russian?" A number of people raised their hands, and he shrugged at them and very kindly said, "Well– Try."

    This story was meant to give us courage when encountering forms of Irish we had not seen before.

  45. z said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 4:47 am

    Re: druzya/drugs/druzey: I just did my undergrad linguistics thesis on Russian-English codeswitching in a group of teenage native speakers of both (really mostly insertion of Russian into English in much the same manner as this "how many druzya" bit). This is exactly how my informants would have expressed it: they fully expressed number on Russian nouns, but defaulted to nominative case always. On adjectives, they had number and gender, but no case distinctions either. So "doing it partway" is really what people do, even when they do the morphology virtually perfectly when actually speaking Russian. (Their inserted Russian verbs were invariably infinitive, so I guess that's an example of *not* doing it partway – and this sounded really weird to me, actually.) I speculated that this partial realization of Russian morphology in an English context might be because number and gender are so much simpler than case: just two possibilities for number, three for gender, SIX for case (and way more if you multiply all three). (Only two-three possibilities for tense, which is also excluded – but tense is forced to interact with all the other features, which would give rise to way more possibilities.) This parallels Maria Polinsky's findings that speakers in the U.S. who've incompletely acquired / lost most of their Russian severely reduce the case system and totally eliminate inflection for tense but basically preserve gender + number with only slight modifications. It seems some morphology is just more "basic" / easier to keep than other morphology.

  46. Bob Ladd said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    Some years ago I attended a McGill graduation ceremony at which Morris Halle was given an honorary degree. The usual succession of speeches by deans and provosts was noteworthy for the fact that, in the middle of almost every speech in English, the speaker would throw in an untranslated sentence or two in (usually) heavily accented French. I supposed that this was somehow intended to atone for being an elite anglophone institution in an increasingly non-anglophone city. In any case, at a certain point it came time for the presentation to Halle, and he got up and, in flawless French, said how pleased he was to be asked to say a few words. Usually, he said, all that was expected of honorary degree recipients was that they sit on the platform and not fall asleep. The sparse scattering of laughter among the audience of perhaps 2000 showed just how anglophone the whole gathering was.
    Halle switched into English for the rest of his remarks.

  47. quim said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 10:12 am

    @boynamedsue, @Michael Newman: There are sign laws in Catalonia (strict or not I don't know…) but they are not strictly enforced. Thus the Chinese-only (of course Spanish-only very often, also English-only) signage.

    With respect to fish names: I've heard the question "Qué es `pota'?" ("What fish is `pota'?") asked in one of those stores; the shopwoman answered "Es `calamar' en catalán" ("That is Catalan for `calamar'"). Actually it is a different (though similar, and I suppose cheaper) fish type. And `calamar' is a perfectly valid Catalan word (just as `pota' is correct Spanish).

    Most anecdotes about Spanish monolinguals having trouble with Catalan signage seem like exagerations to me. To begin with, the two languages are similar enough; in addition, you'll always have a bilingual willing to help nearby, especially if they have something to sell. Well, not always maybe, but almost, because as Michael points out, most bilinguals will address in Spanish anybody perceived as non-local.

  48. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 11:20 am

    @z: If you're talking of single words being inserted into sentences in the other language, then I think (I'm not an expert on this) the rule would be that the word conforms to the target morphology. No case endings in English, thus druzya. I'm not sure about verbs, though.

    Going the other way (at least from my experience in Polish/English), English words in Polish sentences would certainly "do" case and aspect, as in recorder -> Genitive recordera, Dative recorderem etc., and luknąć/lukać 'look'.

  49. michael farris said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 11:37 am

    @Jarek Weckwerth: "Genitive recordera, Dative recorderem "

    recorderem would be instrumental (narzędnik kim/czym) dative (celownik komu/czemu) would be?

    recorderowi? recorderu?

    It's hard for me to imagine the dative with non-human nouns a lot of the time

    IME only nouns that can be treated as masculine will be declined, even nouns that end in -a and which would be declined as feminine often aren't.

    My favorite recent borrowing in Polish is reupnąć (upload again).

    When I was in Palma, Mallorca (not Catalonia but part of the speech area) several months ago all the official signage was in Catalan, sometimes, but not always, with Spanish added.

    Private signage however was overwhelmingly in Spanish. The weirdest thing was a second hand bookstore where all the sections were labelled only in Catalan but Spanish language books outnumbered those in Catalan by about 5 to 1 (and Spanish and Catalan books weren't separated at all.

  50. Mr Punch said,

    June 18, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    My experience in Montreal, as an Anglophone who speaks merely serviceable (European) French, is that when I start out in French shopkeepers, etc, often switch the conversation to English. In Quebec City this rarely happens, and occasionally things are mysteriously cheaper in French than in English.

  51. Hugo said,

    June 19, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    As a bilingual Montréalais who speaks French as his mother tongue, it was quite refreshing to read Julie's text and many of the comments detailing various linguistic experiences in Montreal and elsewhere. It's not often that we can read an impression of the linguistic situation in Québec that does not fall into cheap politic comments.

    I agree with most of what Julie said, and I do feel too that francophones' attachment to their language is more cultural than politic, or stemming from revenge against anglos. My point of view is that here, we speak French, so you should expect to be greeted in French. If you speak mainly English and the sales clerk you speak to is fluent in English too, alright! let's speak English. I mean, when I traveled to Berlin, I was happy when I could get a conversation in English, but first and foremost I expected to be greeted in German, so I tried my best when my interlocutor couldn't speak English. Here, I've seen many times anglophones get angry at sales clerk who were having trouble with English. IMHO, requiring shops to use French opens up everything to everyone, and prevents a situation where anglos would stay with anglos, and francos would stay with francos.

    The comments about how Québec French borrows from English are funny and totally true – although maybe less so since about the last few decades, due to the children with better education having grown up. In some areas and in some domains, it's still particularly striking. For instance, it wouldn't be outlandish to hear a car mechanic say something like "Pitch-moi le ratchet, il faut que j'arrange le gasket de tank qui est slack." (Pitch/throw me the ratchet, I must fix/arrange the loose/slack tank gasket.) However, in registers higher than very familiar, most borrowings from English quickly disappear.

    [(js) You're right that the English borrowings tend to occur in a less formal register. And, as suggested by several here, people who show evidence of being native speakers of Quebec French (or other perhaps non-standard dialects in other places) are more likely to be addressed in registers reserved for intimates or in-group members. Which leads to the following delicious irony: that you're probably more likely to be addressed in a Quebec French register that contains anglicisms if you sound like a native Quebec French speaker than if you sound like an anglo! ]

  52. Hugo said,

    June 19, 2012 @ 9:27 am

    Also the case of Montréal is much different from the rest of Québec. Outside of the greater Montreal area, even in big cities like Québec, people in general are much, much less fluent in English, so it's harder to get by if you don't speak French.

  53. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 19, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    @michael farris: Yes, of course recorderem is Instrumental. Me just a native speaker, sketchy on those case names ;) Recorderowi is the only Dative option. And quite a few verbs and collocations require the Instrumental, no relation to being animate or otherwise.

  54. marie-lucie said,

    June 19, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

    Cases like Hugo's mechanic's use of English words arise because the workers, trained by monolingual anglophones, never had a chance of learning the French technical terms.

    [(js) That may be a factor as well, but I think there's also something more playful going on as Hugo suggests, in certain registers, even for non-specialized terminology.]

  55. Frank GIbbons said,

    June 19, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

    @Victoria Simmons,

    Nancy Dorian has done pioneering work on language death, focusing on a dialect of Scots Gaelic spoken (as a minority language) in 3 isolated highland villages. (Ancestors of the Gaelic speakers were relocated there in the late 1800's, at a point in time where the villages were "monolingual" English/Scots speakers.) Over time, the kids stopped learning to speak it, and eventually only the older people in a few families continued to speak it to each other. This was the perfect environment to study a language that is in the terminal stages of death, and Dorian has spent her career chronicling that process in great detail: the loss of linguistic nuance, the impoverishment of vocabulary, the falling apart of grammar, the importation of grammar and vocabulary from the dominant language, etc.

    One of her (to me) most interesting discoveries was around the idea of "what a particular language is for". It's the idea, in multilingual environments, that each language has a scope. You may have a work-language, and a home-language (and possibly a school-language). Anyone who's developed friendships in a second language knows what I mean – it can feel strange to switch to another mutually common language, like you're not quite talking to the same person (others have touched on that theme here too).

    Dorian's realization was how this feeling can feed into language death, because speakers of the minority language start to feel that this language is not "for" greeting strangers, it's only for speaking with people you know. This, of course, drives the language underground, taking it out of the public realm over time. I grew up on the west coast of Ireland where Irish Gaelic is still (barely) the vernacular in certain areas, and you can see the same phenomenon there – a stranger walks into a store and the Gaelic conversation stops as he is greeted in English, even if he first issues a greeting in the local vernacular.

    You can watch a 30-minute documentary on her work here http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7647046783946085652

  56. Keith M Ellis said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 12:41 am

    I love this thread. Great conversation, everyone. Thanks.

  57. Alex said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    @D.O. "So how do those allophones feel in the city of Royal Mountain?"

    One of the issues that allophones have in Quebec is that, these days, they cannot choose to send their kids to English-language public schools. The province does offer public schooling in either national language, but you may only choose to school your children in English if English is your own mother tongue. If you're a Russian-speaking immigrant, for example, and you send your kids to public school, it must be to a French one.

    I've known more than one new immigrant family who have taken advantage of Quebec's generous immigration policies for those people who have some French fluency (particularly popular with Romanians, since the languages are related) to get into Canada, but who have then moved here to Toronto because they want their children schooled in a language that will make it easy to live and work anywhere in North America.

  58. Rod Johnson said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 10:15 am

    @Hugo: My point of view is that here, we speak French

    I think what gets me is that "we." I understand that there's a legal basis for what you say, but the implication, for an anglophone from Quebec, is that they don't belong to "we," and that surely must provoke an emotional reaction regardless of the validity of your reasons. I see this voice-of-the-group used often as a way of ignoring or rendering illegitimate dissenting or simply different voices; US politics is shot through with it right now, alas. But what seems obviously true to the "wes" can look very different, disrespectful and ominous to the "not-wes."

  59. Rod Johnson said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    By the way, I've never seen this use of allophone before. Is it a standard term, or a Quebec-only neologism?

    [(myl) The OED's allophone, n2 has the gloss "Esp. in Quebec: a non-native Canadian whose first language is neither French nor English." ]

  60. Much ado about Montreal greetings « Linguistic Shoebox said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 3:37 pm

    [...] Much ado about Montreal greetings 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." [...]

  61. “Much ado about Montreal greetings” « Linguistic Shoebox said,

    June 20, 2012 @ 4:12 pm

    [...] From Much ado about Montreal greetings. [...]

  62. Hugo said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 11:39 am

    @ marie-lucie and js: My example of the mechanic is a bit extreme, and is not the most representative. In a case like this, I agree with marie-lucie that the choice of words has to do with how the people have learned the terms in the first place. However, it does happen (to a lesser extent) in other contexts too, where non specialized words get swapped for their English equivalent, even if the speaker perfectly knows the French word.

    @ Rod Johnson: I understand why you're uncomfortable with "we" as I used it, and I think your parallel with US politics is spot on. This use of the pronoun certainly and legitimately provokes emotional reaction, just as the linguistic debate in Quebec often is emotional itself. Let's just say that my inappropriate wording meant that the main language of the province in French. I believe it's more representative to say it this way than with an inclusive/exclusive "we".

    About "allophone": It's so natural and widespread here that I never even thought that its use could feel strange to an outsider! The Office québécois de la langue française does not make the Canadian distinction that the OED does. It says (rough translation) it is someone whose native/main language is different from the official language(s) of their country of residence.

  63. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 21, 2012 @ 7:01 pm

    @Frank Gibbons– Thanks for the heads-up on Nancy Dorian's work, especially as it in a cultural area of particular interest to me. So code-switching helps dig the grave for the endangered language. I can see that happening with AAVE, also, as it becomes the household speech of fewer people. With AAVE, though, use is still encouraged by its being a cultural badge that speakers employ to assert unity.

    @Alex– French is popular with Romanians not only because the languages are related, but because French was formerly the preferred language of the elite. I remember how, back in college, my Classics adviser, a Latinist, mentioned he was going to learn Romanian over the summer. When I saw him again that autumn and asked how it had gone, he said he had decided not to bother upon learning that most Romanian literature was in French anyway. Perhaps an exaggeration, but it made me recall how the aristocrats in Tolstoy speak to one another in French.

  64. z said,

    June 22, 2012 @ 5:37 am

    @ Jarek Weckwerth

    Right, in the case of nouns your generalization works, but it breaks down a bit with inserted adjectives, since those (at least in my informants' speech) correctly inflect for gender, which English doesn't have. Also, Russian verbs were always infinitive even in contexts that in English would demand some overtly inflected form (e.g. past tense). Hence my search for a different explanation.

  65. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    June 23, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

    Sometimes knowing a language other than French or English in Montreal is useful.

    My late husband and I visited Montreal at a time when feelings against Americans were running high in some quarters of Quebec. We had a great vacation and got by with my inadequate schoolgirl French and a lot of English, except for one evening when we were out late and were confronted by a beefy, belligerent, clearly intoxicated man who wanted to know if we were Americans. He asked the question in English, but he had a strong French accent.

    We were young and, at that moment, scared. There was no one else in sight. My husband finally looked at him and, using the Russian he'd been studying in college, told the man we didn't speak his language.

    The drunk, visibly deflated, mumbled "foreigners" in a disgusted tone, and walked off.

    Looking back, I think it is interesting he still spoke English after my husband answered in another language. He didn't revert to French.

  66. Raymond Lutz said,

    June 26, 2012 @ 11:22 am

    Câline que l'monde est p'tit!

    J'suis ce blog depuis un ti'boutt pis chus de Montréal itou!

    8-)

    now living and teaching physics in Drummondville (150 km NE from mtl)

  67. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik said,

    June 29, 2012 @ 9:05 am

    [...] idiocy on the subjunctive; Julie Sedivy discussed some fracking words and the hubbub around bilingual greetings in Montreal; and Ben Zimmer decrypted some [...]

  68. Mark said,

    July 27, 2012 @ 4:34 pm

    Montreal was over 60% English-speaking in the mid 1800s. An influx of rural French-speakers drawn to factory jobs changed the linguistic face of Montreal. The flag of Montreal shows symbols representing the English, the Scottish, the Irish and the French. Things change over time. School children in Quebec are not taught this. Maybe their resentment at hearing English spoken in Montreal would be less if they knew of this.

  69. John said,

    April 25, 2013 @ 6:45 am

    I was wondering if someone could help me with a question I have. When I was in secondary school, I recall that we had to study Shakespeare (I'm from British Columbia, Canada, so that's not surprising). However, I dodn't remember ever studying Moliere. I didn't even start learning French or Quebecois literature until I was in college and university.

    In Quebec, do francophone students generally have to study Moliere and other francophone European writers (e.g. Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.) or do they focus more on French-Canadian/Quebecois literature and folklore, or is it a combination of the two? Also, do they study French-language translations of Shakespeare, Farley Mowatt, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, George Orwell, Tennessee Williams, etc.? Thanks.

RSS feed for comments on this post