Sunday, December 5, 2010

Oui, je parle Franglais !

When I moved to Quebec, I was determined to get over my fear of looking like a ham-tongued linguistic yokel and take a serious crack at speaking the language of the land.

I’d forced myself to take French all through high school, even though it was about as enjoyable as sitting in a sauna with a parka on, rhythmically whacking myself in the head with a 20-lb hard-covered unabridged Roget's English-French dictionary while listening to a Beau Dommage album on replay... particularly since one of the major qualifications for teaching the language at the secondary level appeared to be a high proficiency in being a colossally unamused harpy whose motivational techniques were limited to frequent and random outbursts of exasperated shrieking and whacking desks with a ruler.

Dictée or Die!

When my daughter was three, she asked me one day why she had to learn French in daycare, because she hated it. When I asked her what the problem was, she said: “I don't know... but when its time for us to do French, that's when the hating starts”.

That pretty much summed up how I'd felt about it in high school, but I'd knuckled down and scored good marks – so I naively thought I’d slip into functional bilingualism fairly quickly.

But as it turned out, the French I learned in school is like a quaint and obscure dialect compared to how Quebecers actually speak. I might have stood a chance in the court of Louis XIV, where daintily articulated stock phrases like “Comment-allez vous?” were actually still in use.

In the real world, I was up against a streamroller onslaught of nonsensical, mushed-together aural slurry speckled with the incomprehensible mush of joual and dotted with bizarre idioms. It sounded like somebody firing off a verbal machine gun of nonsense underwater.

I DID try at first. When someone was speaking to me, I’d train my eyes on their lips and focus on the verbal barrage pinging my brain like a coked-up woodpecker, desperately trying to figure out where one word ended and another began, then trying to parse the meaning of enough of those words that I had half a clue of what they were saying. But after about the tenth syllable, all I could focus on was how I was suddenly awash in an acrid body sweat of confusion and intellectual panic, while crumbling under a sinking sense of inadequacy.

So trying to get my brain to rev at franco-speed was exhausting work with negligible gains. Once I got a job where the lingua franca was English, I happily gave up on my noble aspirations to fluid bilingualism. Primarily because I already had a massive brain-taxing hill to climb in order to teach myself a new profession; and partly because semi-ignorance of the language makes it easy, when in public spaces, to block out dumbass background chatter.

My keener attitude also changed after the Great Sovereignty Referendum Drama of 1995. The separatist camp was allowed to run its mouth off largely unchallenged, with all its unfounded accusations about Quebec languishing under the oppression of the English boot… and how, as an independent nation bouyed by an economy that would magically become stronger without billions of dollars in transfer payments from the feds, the master race would firmly put the non-“pure-laine” into their rightful place as second-class citizens.

Not sure which is more offensive… the guy’s belligerent anti-Anglo hostility, or his 70s porn star ‘stache.

Although the vote to separate from Canada was narrowly defeated, it was enough to prompt a noticeable exodus of Anglos to places where you could fly a flag on Canada day without getting a rock through your window. But me? I thought: For the most part, we all get along fine here. And most francophones aren’t idiots: they realize that linguistic isolationism will only limit them in an increasingly globalized world. I am not going to do what a bunch of bullies with delusions of grandeur want me to do, which is to get scared and leave. Hells no! I’ll stay … and from now on, I will not be ashamed to stand out as an Anglo.

Its not that I don't support the nurturing of Quebecois culture. I may not get their fascination with unicycles, juggling, and all other things circussy....

Dude, seriously. Just get some normal pants and a bicycle.

….the way that they seem to be endlessly amused by goofy faces...

As the founder of Cirque du Soleil, billionaire Guy Laliberte is like unto a demi-god in Quebec. Cleverly combining face-making and circustry, this is the look our hero chose to go with on the momentous occasion of becoming the first Canadian space tourist. Way to represent your province to the global media, Guy! What’s next? Unicycling at the UN in a day-glo unitard?

... nor their fondness for 70s-style rock.

I smell cheese!

And leather pants.

I may tease, but I fully realize that Montreal’s unique charm comes from its people -- I love their big-hearted openness; their child-like ability to just let go and have fun; their comfort with casual physical contact and demonstrations of affection. Its so refreshingly opposite to the reserved Protestant tight-assedness that I was raised in.

Just another balmy Sunday in free-and-easy Montreal. “Sans pantalons, toulmonde !”, shout the happy children.

It only marginally bothers me that the most deranged and heinous toad-aliens in the Parti Quebecois show no shame or regret any time they drop a completely racist crack against the English, Muslims, Jews, or anybody else not born with a fleur-de-lis up their arse. So we have megalomanical idiots in government. No different from most places.

I don’t really give a damn that the St-Jean Baptiste day celebrations are, if you scratch slightly below the surface, a display of exclusionary nationalism. Let the haters have their party. I can just stay away.

The St-Jean Baptiste Society is the skulking ground of some former members of the FLQ terrorist group. How bitter and crazy are these people? Well… in 2009, when Prince Charles was about to visit Canada, the society formally requested that he apologize on behalf of the British Crown for harm caused to French culture in North America, specifically for: Deportation of the Acadians (1755), Deportation/execution of leaders of the 1837 Rebellion; Uniting Upper and Lower Canada in 1840; Executing Louis Riel (1885); Repatriation of the Constitution without Quebec’s permission (1981). ??? I mean, talk about holding a grudge! And, ok, if we’re going to be like THAT, how about Quebec formally apologize to the entire PLANET for the ongoing cultural damage wreaked by Celine Dion?

What makes me as irritated as a mime-school graduate trapped in a shrinking box full of angry bees, is the fact that in a place where overpasses are falling apart, and driving the streets is like shooting a rapids of sinkholes and potholes deep enough to swallow a toddler; and where seriously atrophied schools can’t even cover their photocopy budgets let alone keep the toilets working, Quebec wastes a shitload of money playing sovereigntist games.

In 2006, five people were crushed to wet smithereens when a huge piece of a highway overpass in the suburb of Laval gave way on a Saturday afternoon. An hour before the mayhem, a city inspector was dispatched to the site to pick up pieces of concrete that had fallen off -- apparently, he didn’t take that as a hint that maybe the highway oughta be closed and inspected.

Mind you, its kind of understandable that he wouldn’t think anything was out of the ordinary, since Montreal has a history of crumbling mega-structures and Mob- and/or graft-influenced flouting of construction standards. In 1996, a chunk of the Olympic stadium tower fell onto the playing field during an Expos game, with another exterior slab coming off that fall. In July of 2009, a woman at a café terrace was killed when a concrete slab fell off the Marriott hotel on Peel St, one of the city’s busiest bar/club strips. Especially tragic was the fact she had switched tables, unwittingly moving herself from safety into the target zone.

This fall, the ADQ party reported that the province is spending $57 a year to maintain diplomatic offices in 37 cities in the U.S. , Europe, and Asia where Canada already is represented by the Department of Foreign Affairs. And roughly $20-million a year in tax revenue goes to the exhalted generatrix of intra-linguistic tension, the Big Brotherish Office de la Langue Francaise.

Backed by the muscle of Bill 101 (which lays out the rights and restraints accorded to Anglos in Quebec), the OLF’s mandate is "To align on international French, promote good Canadianisms and fight Anglicisms [...] and carry out a global language policy that would consider notably the importance of socio-economic motivations in making French the priority language in Québec."
Once you get around the (typically) convoluted phrasing, it sounds quite grand and noble, doesn’t it?

In practice, what the OLF mostly seems to do is waste a whole lot of time and money on pointless bullying and intimidation; for example:

- Call centers are one of the few workplaces that offer jobs to unilingual English speakers… primarily out-of province kids trying to pay their way through university. Recently, a caller to The Mirror’s Rant Line reported that Language Police storm troopers had shown up at their call center to tear down all the cheesy motivational slogan posters because they were not in French.

- In January 2008, a reporter from the Journal de Montreal pretended to be a unilingual anglophone while applying for temporary jobs at downtown stores during the pre-Christmas rush. The fact that 15% were willing to hire her without French skills set off hysteria in the English-Go-Home camp over the continuing legacy of grievious indignity suffered by Francophones because they can’t get service in their own language. (Which, of course, is overflowing buckets of crap.) In response, the OLF launched the $1.5 million “Bonjour!” campaign which urged people to speak French to each other.

Inexplicably, it appears the genius "Bonjour !" brain-washing blitz was not enough, because this past march, the “Merci de me servir en français” campaign was pointlessly released on the downtown core.

- If you run a business, even if it’s a one-person on-line operation run out of your home, you can be threatened with legal action if somebody squeals on you for answering the phones in English (or even if you answer in English first, then in French); or for not having a French version of your website; or for not making the French text on your menus bigger than the English text.

In terms of “fighting anglicisms”, here’s an example of the dazzling alchemy employed by the OLF’s linguistic wizards.

When challenged to determine which term to use for “branding”, the sage ones examined the entrails of a spilled dish of poutine and, after rigorous and empassioned debate while wearing their magic hats that funnel the pure essence of la Francophonie into their heads, arrived at the yawningly pedantic “choix de la marque”. That is just sooo French all over: instead of using one snappy, efficient word, replace it with a sluggish multi-word phrase will all the modernity and verve of an old-folks' whist club.

As part of its ruling, the OLF explained why “marketing” is acceptable, but “branding” is not. Apparently, the former can be pronounced with a frenchified twist, but the latter can't. So... “le mar-ke-TING” sounds suitably French; but “le bran-DING”??!??! Nope. Too English.

When faced with that kind of non-logic, you might reasonably wonder what good is served by these tireless crusaders for the Supreme Glorification of the Mighty and Infallible French Language. Perhaps I am too biased with bastardly English arrogance, but it kinda looks like, indeed, we’re wasting money we can’t afford on an organization with Inquisition-like powers that does the bidding of a minority of deranged zealots who get off on anonymously setting up their neighbours for pointless harrassment.

Her Most Lizardly Franco-Highness, Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Quebecois. For breakfast, she enjoys an energy shake of pureed Anglo babies.

If the OLF want to do something that will actually help French catch on in popularity, I suggest they take a crack at modernizing and simplifying the language so that learning it becomes less like trying to decode the Rosetta stone with a mouth full of marbles.

For instance, the fact that nouns are either masculine or feminine really messes people up, because the gender of a word determines whether it is “le” or “la” ….and, in some cases, whether the noun and its adjectives get an extra “e”, and whether modifiers are pronounced differently and/or take on additional semi-random letters at the end. That is a LOT to figure out on the fly when you’re hopping from foot to foot trying to figure out how to ask where the women’s washroom is. In English, we don’t care if a shoe is a girl and foot is a boy. Both use “the”. So elegantly simple!

There isn’t even any intuitive logic to how noun-genders are assigned: For example, masculinité, virilité and moustache are feminine; whereas the nouns for “breast” and “vagina” are male.

[a pause while your mind reels].

While the inventors of French may have had their pantaloons in a twist about objects needing to be male or female, they didn’t seem to think it might be a good idea to devise unique words for different objects. For example:

Ver = worm;
Verre = glass
Vers = near
Vert = green

…and they are pronounced the same (unless, remember, you’re describing a green female object, in which case, vert becomes verte… and you are required to execute a subtle but complicated facial tic to get the exact nuance of the object’s womanly hue across correctly).

I picture some prehistoric Frenchman sitting in a cave up in Lascaux, pondering the inscrutable gender of his foot, and his potter buddy Jean-Louis Hippylotte-Lachance (mes amis also have a penchant for excessively long multi-hyphenated names) comes over with this amazing earthenware drinking vessel he's invented. He tilts his woolly mammoth beret off his beady simian eyes, sparks a flint so he can light up a Gauloises, and says “Zut alors, Philippe-Honore Donat-des-Iles-de-la-Madeleine, what do you think I should call it, hein*?”

*A charmingly French expression which, in this context, it is roughly equivalent to “eh?”. But it can also mean “WHAT?!?!?”, in which case, its typically pronounced like this:

And between the two of them, the best they can come up with is to take the word for “worm”, add a few silent letters, and call it a day? REALLY? Even if you’re a Neanderthal, how hard is it to throw around a few different sound combinations until you come up with a new word? Evidently the Pict savages across the channel were able to do it.

“UNH!! Feels masculine.... uh. Noooo... feminine?? Ah, fuck it... i'm gonna go live in the monkey camp. If they try to invent language, i'll throw my feces at them until they stop.”

Another example? In French, the following words are all pronounced “pat”:

Pâte (which can mean pastry, dough, batter, or paste)

Pâtes (pasta)

Patte (which can mean paw, foot [but only on an animal!], hand [as in a hand of cards], tab, lug, flap on a bonnet (?), the tongue of a shoe, or … and here comes the crazy… a sideburn).

None of these is to be confused with pâté, which we have all spread on crackers.

And then, from WAY out in left field, comes Shepherd’s Pie, which in another turn of wacky French logic, is called “pâté Chinois”, even though I don’t believe there has ever been a time when ground beef, corn, and mashed potatoes were a staple of Oriental cuisine.

ONE sound can mean a dozen different things? Good system! Hell, while we're at it, why not just use “pat” plus a few silent letters for every new English word that gets invented? So...

Pattage = marketing
Pât = stem cell research
Paaats = sexting
Paaatttt = Adorkable
Paât = Webinar
Mobbe de paât = Flash mob
Pique de pât = Road rage
Gâteaux de pât = Oversharing


On fait de la pat !

And then there are words dotted with pointless silent letters (why have TWO LLs in brouillard, if you don’t pronounce either of them?); the dilemma of how to pronounce words like aieux that are effectively all vowels; or total tongue-fuck combinations like bouteille d’eau, which I actually get tense about saying, because I know my mouth is just NOT going to cooperate, am I'm going to mangle it horribly.

Fortunately, however, I can capably execute the phrase: “Une pinte de Boréale blanc, s'il t'plaît.”

And don't even get me started on the arcane and convoluted structures of the formal written language. Reading a notice from Hydro-Quebec is like parsing Shakespeare.

While the French can somehow magically discern whether you mean you merely like something or completely adore it when you say “j'aime ça”, paradoxically, they can't make a small mental leap to figure out what you mean if you make a wee mispronunciation. Once, while asking where I could buy a drink, I said “boizzon” instead of the only-very-subtlely different “boisson”. She was at a complete loss until I mimed out an interpretation of crawling through a parched desert while mewling “j’ai soif!”.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s how the French get back at people who can’t be bothered to master their language… they pretend incomprehension so we’ll dance pathetic charades for them, like the Anglo idiots we are.

Vive le quebec !!


  1. Well, I see that you did not publish my post. Sadly, that doesn't surprise me.

  2. All my apologies. You did allow my comment, it was I who erred by posting it at your previous blogpost, here.

  3. Ah Quebec. Where neither side gets shot at daily or thrown in gulags but end up hating each other's guts anyway.

  4. French-Quebecers are retarded and inbred. Plus, they are lazy, hate-filled scum