Language islands – Quebec as indomitable Gallic village in North America

written by David Spier

PFK – Poulet Frit Kentucky. You are barely 50km away from the US border, and yet, the otherwise so unmistakable and uniform names and slogans of the strong neighbour’s major companies are not always to be understood at first glance. I was amazed the first time I strolled around Montreal’s streets. And all this in a city where most of its inhabitants can communicate well in English – whether they actually do it, well that’s another story. Montreal is Quebec’s largest city, the only region in Canada where the majority grows up with French as mother tongue, otherwise surrounded by mostly Anglophone provinces. Quebec thus forms a so-called language island or enclave in the English-speaking part of North America. Even though my mother is French, which explains why I am familiar with a certain French language patriotism, I was quite surprised about the extent of the measures taken to protect the language in Quebec.

The term “language island” or “language enclave” is more common in the German-speaking territories (where it is called “Sprachinsel”), where historically it was mostly used to refer to enclaves or exclaves (depending on one’s point of view) of people speaking German in Central and Eastern Europe. Of course, these are metaphorical islands where language groups are surrounded by others and could be “flooded” by them. In some cases, centuries of isolation (another island-related metaphor) can lead to major changes in the minority – but here majority – language: In Quebec, this process can be observed particularly well.

In 1760, the French colony of Quebec was annexed by the British Empire, and the influx of further migrants from France was restricted. Nevertheless, the use of French persisted for two centuries. After a long period of relative stagnation, the independence movement became more active in the late 1950s and early 1960s, followed by a decade of political, social, and cultural liberalization (the so-called “Quiet Revolution”). The advocacy of the province’s language was seen as a core aspect of the autonomy movement, with some separatists describing the supremacy of the English-speaking part of Canada as a form of cultural and economic imperialism. However, it should be reminded that Quebec itself has a colonial past that has hardly been dealt with and that indigenous peoples are still isolated and discriminated against today, in that Province too. Their concerns are barely taken into account in the independence movement, which is why the majority of the so-called First Nations are sceptical about an autonomous state of Quebec. Referendums on a possible independence have already been held twice, the last time (1995) the separatists lost by a narrow margin.

This general attitude also has consequences for the province’s immigration policy, since people from countries with a French-speaking presence or history seem to be preferred. On the national scale most foreign-born immigrants come from (in descending order) India, China (excluding Hong Kong), Philippines, United Kingdom, United States; while in Quebec France, Haiti, Algeria, Morocco, and Italy are the top five countries of origin. Although Quebec enjoys a relatively good reputation in North African countries (recently better than France), Arab and Berber immigrants often face discrimination, as illustrated among others in the film Monsieur Lazhar.

The fear of the loss of Quebec’s linguistic peculiarity led to the famous Charter of the French Language (also called Bill or Law 101), passed by the Province’s National Assembly in 1977. Since then, French has been the only official language of Québec. In addition to shops‘ names, movie titles are often cited as example to illustrate the far-reaching consequences of this law, as titles in other languages must be translated into French almost without exception – in some cases, this also concerns films which have retained their original English title in France. Even if it sounds a bit strange (and French people like to make fun of it), the film is usually quickly recognizable, e.g., Toy Story becomes Histoire de jouets or Pulp Fiction becomes Fiction pulpeuse. Sometimes, however, it is not obvious even to French speakers, as for instance for Origine (which stands for Inception) or Ferrovipathes (Trainspotting). Some terms from everyday language sound old-fashioned to European Francophones, such as “croustilles” instead of “chips” – maybe that was too English?

That is why more quite a lot of Québecois told me that their homeland is more involved in protecting the French language than France with its all-regulating and conservative language academy. At the same time, it is impossible not to notice that many English words and expressions are used in everyday speech, especially in Montreal. Even if written language can be regulated quite easily from above, the influence on the actual spoken language is much more difficult to shift. The differences with European French are sometimes so overwhelming, that Xavier Dolan’s films are largely subtitled even in France.

The independence movement has become a bit less radical recently, but quiet it will probably never be, and Quebec will continue to hold a special position – and it is nice to see so many captions in French (or Québecois?). Besides Quebec, there are smaller Francophone language islands in North America, as in Alberta or New Brunswick, but they are much less visible. At the same time, Canada’s (at least official) bilingualism forms a counterpart to its southern neighbour and it represents an important part of the country’s identity (construct) – in this case, Quebec’s distinctiveness is suddenly sold as a positive attribute even in Anglophone Canada.

Another characteristic of Québec: the „Arrêt“ signs (after all, the shape is unmistakable)

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