Conversation on language is changing in wake of 'Pastagate'

Toula Foscolos
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Many francophones also fed up with stuck-in-the-past OQLF

On Monday, after “Pastagate” made international headlines and made us the laughingstock of pretty much everyone, provincial language minister Diane De Courc, decided to order a review of the way complaints to the Office de la Langue Française (OQLF) are handled. It was followed by a promise to publish the results of the review in mid-March.

Toula Foscolos

This review is way overdue. Not because I (and really, anyone) should care what the Italian press thinks of Quebec (most of the international press covered it as a silly oddity; the news lacked the kind of gravitas that would make a potential tourist cancel their trip here), but because, while I do believe in and support the raison d’être for the OQLF’s existence, it urgently needs to be reined in and its role redefined.

But this isn’t one more discussion about the OQLF. It’s a discussion about perception. About how we can all look at the same thing and see something different. And as perceptions starts to change in this province, the picture Quebecers are starting to see is no longer the same. And now even the most adamant French-language supporters are starting to realize that the OQLF, in its present form, is an anachronism.

Because, put aside the petty politics of division and the obvious links to those it benefits, what’s ultimately at stake here is the survival of the French language. Language, both oral and written, is the currency of communication within a culture. It’s its soul. Nothing incites more love, more passion, more insecurity, and more tangible, knee-jerk fear than the threat (real, perceived, or otherwise) to one’s own existence.

The real reason French Quebecers have always shown such a strong aversion to the use of English in this province (compared to, let’s say, how English or anglicisms are treated in France) is not because it’s an actual threat, but mainly because of what the influence of English on the French language is held to reveal about the historically superior position of anglophones in Canadian society. It’s perception based on reality. The thing is, though, it’s not today’s reality.

The reason why the OQLF’s recent over-the-top actions are now starting to annoy a lot of French-speaking Quebecers is that the perception is changing, and inevitably it’s changing the conversation. As the conversation changes, the right questions are finally being asked.

Is the French language so weak, so anemic, and so helpless that it’s in danger from an ON/OFF switch on a coffee maker in a restaurant kitchen? Can you really institutionalize language or does its survival ultimately depend on a culture’s motivation and desire to do so? As the ever-growing generational gap between the previous generation who saw Anglophones as a threat and today’s multicultural, mostly bilingual younger generation expands, Francophones are starting to understand that the biggest 'threat' to the French culture isn’t Anglophones (especially not the overwhelmingly bilingual Anglophones who have been born here, live here, have chosen to raise families here, willingly send their kids to French school, and for all intents and purposes plan to die here), but Francophones’ own insecurity towards their culture and language.

Is the French language so weak, so anemic, and so helpless that it’s in danger from an ON/OFF switch on a coffee maker in a restaurant kitchen? Can you really institutionalize language or does its survival ultimately depend on a culture’s motivation and desire to do so?

Let me explain. French Québécois (which I love) is often derogatorily called 'joual.' It’s considered “improper” French; “informal” and “colloquial.” It astounds me how much hand-wringing takes place on a daily basis in this province over the state of the French language. As if language was something static and fixed. As if it wasn’t a living organism that continuously evolves and adapts and absorbs the colours of everything it comes into contact with. Here in Quebec isn’t it inevitable that our French would have a certain amount of anglicisms and would differ from the "standard" of normative French? That doesn’t make it inferior. It just makes it different.

The newfound love many young French Quebecers have for 'franglais' is not a sign of the erosion of the French language. It’s a sign of increased confidence in who they are and what their culture has to offer. When you live your life from a place of pride, confidence and love, you don’t react like a victim cowered in a corner, fighting off fictional attacks. You simply take the necessary legal steps to retain its predominance and survival, and move on. People aren’t motivated to speak, learn, or preserve a language out of fear or guilt. They do so out of love. Out of pride.

Here’s an interesting historical anecdote. In 1821, when the Greek War of Independence took place, finally resulting in the establishment of a Greek independent state after 400 years of Turkish occupation, the intellectuals of the time tried to counteract the popular usage of Demotic Greek, by artificially introducing an archaic form of the language, referred to as Katharevousa. They referred to Demotic as “vulgar”, “base”, “profane”, while Katharevousa was “correct,” “rich” and “noble.” Try as they might (and it was institutionalized and even made the official language under the Military Junta in 1968), it never caught on. Four hundred years under Turkish rule (Greeks weren’t even allowed to speak their language in public or they risked death) and, yet, the language survived.

Demotic means “language of the people.” Because, ultimately, the people decide what’s spoken, what survives, and what’s passed down from generation to generation. Not the government and certainly not a bunch of pseudo-intellectuals arbitrarily choosing what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Language can be supported, can be protected, it can even be regulated by the government. But it can’t be institutionalized. It can’t survive merely through forced legislation. In the end, we conserve only what we love. And the amount of love –  irrelevant of mother tongue – that all Quebecers have for the French culture and language is immense.

As Premier Marois would say, 'Don’t be inquiète.'

Organizations: OQLF

Geographic location: Quebec, France

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