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Musings on Montreal’s Brand of Franglais

April 24, 2012

About a month ago, Frenchie and I realized that we had fallen victim to that monster lurking around every New York street corner. We’d been so caught up in New York minutes that we hadn’t seen the last month go by.

We needed to get away, recharge, se retrouver (to reconnect). Luckily, two friends from France were on a tour of Canada and proposed that we meet them in Montreal. Within 24 hours, we’d put a four-day, work-free jaunt on the books (FOUR days! it felt almost illegal).

The trip was delightful, once I’d gotten over the devastation that ensued when we realized Frenchie had accidentally booked our return flight for the wrong day, clipping a day off our getaway – his second travel planning offense of this nature. Needless to say, he is banned from all future trip preparations.

Students protesting some injustice a block from our hotel. Felt more like Paris already!

Anyway, I had planned to spend the weekend soaking up old world culture and French-inspired cuisine. Instead, the trip was more educational than I expected. Almost upon arrival, it was clear that this was not exactly an outpost of France, and the most obvious sign was how the language itself was used.

I consider myself linguistically confused most of the time, but Montrealers must suffer a whole new dimension of blurred language lines. Or maybe not. Sales associates darted between French and English without batting an eye. I didn’t even know which language to start with when approaching people. While one language clearly dominated, they operated seamlessly in both, albeit with an incomprehensible accent.

At first I was beyond impressed by this linguistic agility. And then I began to notice how Montreal, at the confluence of French and Anglo-Saxon cultures, had evolved the language I know and love into an entirely different animal.

While the French language has morphed over the years to legitimize a number of Anglicisms (le parking, un mail, etc), Canadian French has retained a host of words and phrases that would be viewed as archaic in France. I noticed little things – like “le weekend” had reverted to “la fin de semaine.”  Instead of “boissons,” there were “breuvages” – apparently from the French root bevre, origin of our own “beverage”. My French comrades erupted into giggles when they came upon a new word reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

On the flipside, contemporary Canadian French has borrowed heavily from English in a way that may be convenient, but sometimes just seemed silly. I said “merci” to a shop assistant after a purchase and received a “Bienvenue!” in response. What?!  It took a few moments to realize they were directly translating the English “you’re welcome” to a French equivalent. On menus, “accompagnements” (side dishes) became “Les a cotes” – literally, “on-the-sides” in English.

Quaint houses in the sleepy Mile End neighborhood


They’re also not shy about breaking the rules. Most people kicked off conversation with the tu form – no “getting to know you’ period here. The gender of nouns was fair game – and given my inner language geek cringes when I forget if it’s le or a la, the complete disregard for this grammatical pillar was wild.

Despite the liberties the Quebecois seem to have taken to facilitate their bilingual interactions, the Quebec government has taken considerable measures to safeguard the place of the French language as the province’s primary language. Companies with 50 employees must demonstrate that official workplace communication is in French and the language dictates everything from schools to signage.

View of the city from the Mont Royal

It also seems that though tourists perceive a happy co-habitation of French and English, things aren’t so harmonious under the surface. Our friends informed us that some neighborhoods are hotspots for Anglos, while other parts of the city are friendlier for francophone citizens.

The weekend we were there, a new survey on the “language war” was the topic du jour. The findings pegged Anglos in Montreal as hostile to the efforts to preserve the supremacy of the French language. Ensuing debate has questioned the region’s ability to enforce French dominance as the Anglo population grows.

While the weekend included plenty of wine, poutine and laughter, I came away more intrigued by this region’s simmering struggle than anything else. Should governments take action to preserve the integrity of languages, or should they be allowed to evolve with the times and the circumstances? Should language be protected as part of a national identity? Questions that will become increasingly relevant as France presumably enters a period of uber protectionism (see NYT article – Frenchie calls this la fin du monde) following the election, and even as regions of the U.S., the world’s most famous melting pot, become more Spanish speaking than English speaking. Thoughts, dear readers?

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