Quebec’s language police have had to call off the dogs after a row over an Italian restaurant being forced to drop the word ‘pasta’ from its menu says Jane Bradley
When I was living in Quebec a quarter of a century ago, a local English-language TV station delivered a fantastic April Fool’s Day broadcast.
It ran a news item telling people that they would no longer be allowed to give their dogs commands in English, and they would have to retrain them entirely in French.
The trick piece showed dog owners desperately trying to teach their pets to respond to commands such as “assis” rather than “sit” and “reste” rather than “stay”. Owners who were struggling were to be provided with special state-funded language classes for their dogs, the programme claimed.
It was funny.
But the problem was, no-one knew if the news segment was actually a joke or not, because what was known locally as ‘the language police’ was a serious institution.
A small business in my suburb of Montreal was closed down for a short period of time because its branding did not follow the rules – which required any sign in English to be just two thirds the height of the French sign.
This particular business ran into problems because it combined the lettering of its dual language signage. It read: “Floriste St Lambert Florist”, which could be read as “Floriste St Lambert”, the French version – or “St Lambert Florist” – the English version. The problem was that it printed all of the letters in the same sized font.
This was not good enough for the Office Quebecois de la langue Francaise (OQLF) – to give it its Sunday name - which jumped on the owners from a great height and insisted they rectify the matter immediately.
Just last year, a pub in Montreal was warned over a sticker in its window which said it was “recommended on TripAdvisor”, which the OQLF said was not acceptable as it was only in English. Meanwhile, a few months earlier, the owner of a board game shop – ironically with a French-English name, ‘Chez Geeks’ – ran into difficulties with the OQLF because it had too many signs and adverts in English – even though the owner said many of the games he sold were produced in countries outside of Canada and therefore had no French version.
This month, the watchdog has relaxed its guidelines for the first time after its head was forced to resign amid a furore that an Italian restaurant in Montreal was forced to remove the word “pasta” from its menu.
Now, suddenly, in a move which is unprecedented in Quebec, which fiercely protects its French language roots, politicians have told the OQLF to be less aggressive over the use of foreign words in French - particulaly Anglicisms.
Set up 56 years ago, the organisation’s aim was “to align on international French, promote good Canadianisms and fight Anglicisms”. Originally, the Charter of the French Language required that all commercial signage be in French and no other language – a decision which was modified in 1993, just a few years before I lived there.
The new regulations are a shock for Quebecois, who have previously translated words which originated in English into the French language – even when in France, they have stuck a French prefix in front of the English moniker for the item.
While the French would more often talk about “le weekend”, in Quebec, we referred to “la fin de semaine” – the “end of the week”.
Words such as “un grilled cheese” were prohibited in the past, with the watchdog insisting on a “sandwich au fromage fondant” on a restaurant menu, while the popular North American game of softball no longer has to be called “balle-molle” under the new rules.
A small number of words from languages other than English, including Italian terms such as café latté, gelato and scampi, have also been adopted as permissible in French in Quebec.
In Quebec, around 78 per cent of people class themselves as Francophone, while 42.6 of the local population are bilingual.
What is particularly bizarre about the OQLF’s previous stance is that it is so at odds with how the Quebecois society actually uses the language. In everyday speech, Canada’s Frenchies pepper their language with a complete amalgamation of English and French. A sentence begun in English can often end in French - or, if a word is more suitable in one language or the other, it is thrown into the middle of a conversation conducted otherwise, entirely in the alternative language.
As a teenager visiting my friend Sarah’s house in Montreal, I would watch in awe as her family chatted over dinner. She would speak in French, while her parents, a British-born ex pat married to a Francophone Quebecoise, would answer in different languages. Of her two older brothers, one leaned more towards French, while the other preferred to speak English.
They were, of course, all bilingual (most people in the cosmopolitan city of Montreal are, even if there are other areas of Quebec where English is rarely heard), but they all had their preferences – and it made no difference which language they spoke – everyone understood.
Naturally, the OQLF is not to be disbanded entirely. It will, it says, continue to promote French and create French equivalents as words come into common useage in modern society. Due to the prevalence of English as a business language around the world, technology-related words are more likely to be in English, requiring foreign languages to either adopt them as their own or create an equivalent – such as the Quebecois “mot-clic” for “hashtag”.
And nor should it. With such a close proximity to the US – and English-speaking parts of Canada – it is understandable that the Quebecois want to preserve their French culture and ensure the English language is not allowed to run rough-shod over a fascinating and important part of Canadian heritage.
But at least the new, more relaxed attitude will mean English-speaking dog owners in the province will be able to breathe easy again.