A French Canadian says: Yeah, we speak some slang but your lingo’s got thingamajigs and watchamacallits in it too



A French Canadian says: Yeah, we speak some slang but your lingo’s got thingamajigs and watchamacallits in it too



A French Canadian says: Yeah, we speak some slang but your lingo’s got thingamajigs and watchamacallits in it too

In the March 5 issue of Maclean’s Jeff Holmes argued that French Canadians speak a unique language, almost as far removed from “French” French as modern Italian is front Latin. In the interests of national unity, Holmes suggested, Quebec should make its offshoot language official and English Canadians learning French should follow suit. Dozens of indignant French - Canadian readers replied that Quebec French contains no more slang than most other languages, that ‘T rench" French is and always will be the official tongue and that Quebec is spending millions in its schools purging the language of unwanted Anglicisms. This counterArgument, by a Montreal insurance manager, sums up most of their points.

THERE is one bright English Canadian who is not wasting his time and ours asking “What does Quebec want?” Jeff Holmes knows — a lot better than we Québécois do. Mr. Holmes’ revealing Argument on the quaint idiomatic customs of our peasoup-eating tribe demonstrates with devastating honesty that for French Canadians, “French” French is a foreign language that we neither speak nor understand.

Furthermore, he says, we get terribly hot under our soiled collars if anyone tries to speak it to us. Since legions of naïve English Canadians seem to be learning “French" French for the self-defeating purpose of communicating with us, Mr. Holmes’ burning desire for national unity impels him to sound an alarm.

If only he had thought of asking us about our feelings for a language which has been sacred to us for more than three centuries, he would have learned that his notions made as much sense as Lord Durham's longexploded dreams of assimilation. And if he had not made such bosomclasping allusions to “French-Canadian” French. I should not have had to answer him in my best “FrenchCanadian” English:

□ The language you speak of. Mr. Holmes, was never quite our own; there was just too much of your language in it for us to really like it.

□ We are doing plenty about it—in a slam-bang anglicism-routing operation that’s usually known as la révolution tranquille.

And before we shoot our Minister of Education and give his job to you. let’s have a look at your qualifica-

tions as modestly submitted in your article. You call yourself a bilingual snob (I’ll buy the last part), an amateur linguist (I'll buy the first part) and an occasional private teacher of French (I advise your pupils to try Berlitz). You have had “seven years of intermittent listening to 'FrcnchCanadian’ French.” But listen to your own language, man. I could pronounce “anti-constitutionally” in two seconds flat but still required a month of “non-intermittent” listening before 1 could make out “watchamacallit” or “thingamajig.”

You rebuked a French - Canadian teacher with a two-year postgraduate course at the Sorbonne for having advised a Toronto schoolmarm against the use of the colloquialism piastre (sometimes slurred into sounding like piasse, but NEVER like the impossible pièce which your obviously too-English ear had heard). And all this was because you knew that our shopkeepers cannot understand the correct term dollar . . . Wannabetabuck on that?

You had to use the English word, toothpaste, to a pharmacist who could not make out your Parisian pronunciation of “our” pâte à dents, which you had helpfully proffered, knowing that a university graduate would never have understood the “French” term, dentifrice.

That cute cartoon gracing your text shows that you had said patay don. My God! Would you identify a now famous name if it were pronounced Hoi mays? The silent “e” also exists in French, did you know?

And w'here in Torontonian Hades

did you ever get the idea not to use dentifrice? That tube you finally bought had that very word printed on it, in huge letters. It got there, on all brands, because our druggists told the English-speaking manufacturers to go fly a kite with their asinine pâte ¿i dents. And “our side won.” (CRESTfallen, Mr. Holmes?)

If, as you imply, you had never heard the otherwise universally known sound why as a colloquial deformation of oui, until you came to Quebec, to whom, pray tell, had you been listening during your stays in Paris? I have heard it thousands of times in French movies. Besides, are you trying to tell me that, in your language, “yes” is always “yes”—oh yeah?

If “French” French insults us, why do Radio-Canada and most private TV and radio announcers speak it to us? It seems to me the people who are offended by its sweet sound in Toronto bear English names. Probably they are carrying on English Canada’s noble tradition of “protecting” our minorities against such contamination.

As for our separatists’ refusal to speak “French” French, how did they ever get to choose Pierre Bourgault for their leader? Even when he speaks English — he does, you know — he sounds like a dead ringer for Laurier LaPierre. (Not that LaPierre is any the less a French Canadian.) Finally, Quebec will gladly trade you all her “defiance-hurling” jouai writers, eulogized in your article, for just one of your beatniks.

Now then, if this has not been enough to convince open-minded English Canadians that not only was your proposition wrong but that you knew it was and still distorted the truth to support it, I shall show how you shamelessly slandered Professor Roch Valin of Laval University through the less-than-honorable device of out-of-context citation. From his article suggesting means of ensuring the survival of French in Canada, you gleefully picked out the parts which described the influences and conditions threatening it. But what about his conclusion? Here it is (my translation): “Here, we have no

choice. The French to be taught makes pressing demands on us (s’impose à nous). It is the one which, in all of French-speaking Europe, be it in Walloon Belgium, in Norman Switzerland or in France, is spoken by cultured people. It and it alone is the one which foreigners identify as the French language (le Français)."

Was the answer not good enough for you, Mr. Holmes? Why did you not print it? Because it would have shot down your French-baiting balloons in flames, that’s why. What other answer do you think can be given? Show me one civilized country whose language is not taught in accordance with its academic structures. How do you suppose our children are taught your language? They are told to study English, period. Our teachers don’t warp young minds with

sophistry, lumping you all in one slang-festered bunch just so that we can salvage a precious sense of superiority.

Of course, as soon as they hit the streets, the same children have to come to grips with the lowest forms of English, as well as with its finest intelligence. Because the street is precisely the place where one gets to know a language, any language, and especially, to attune one’s ear to its multitudinous accents and distortions. I should know. After 10 years of two-hours-a-week English classes, it took me at least three months to begin to follow a conversation in your vernacular. In those three months, and for most of the following three years, I was constantly laughed at, pointed at and corrected, as a stupid Frenchy.

But I couldn’t have cared less. I knew that learning a language necessarily entailed the humiliations of child-like helplessness and inferiority. If English Canadians forsook the pride with which they have been living in sin ever since 1759, they would not be so defensively prone to blame us for their inability to identify the (to them) unfamiliar sounds that keep gushing out of our Gallic mouths with the easy volubility of rapid-fire native speech. They should also realize that, accustomed though they may be to having their way with their erstwhile vanquished, they cannot expect us to provide them with a magic formula. There just “ain’t none.” What they need, on top of nonHolmes-like humility, is a lot of hard work and a generous dose of love for all that is Canadian.

For my part, fiercely proud of my intimacy with two of the world’s finest cultures, I still care enough for my linguistically estranged compatriots to say to them: “If you want to converse with us without insulting our intelligence, learn the French we are spending millions to ensure that our children learn. Chances are they will speak it a lot better than most of us can. If you can do that too, bully for you! That kind of contest is the best thing that can happen to us and to our beloved country.”