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Ἡλληνιστεύκοντος
(Greek Linguistics)

2009-07-27

Montreal VI: Joual 4, Nicholas 1

I'm back in an implausibly cold Melbourne Town, and I haven't been blogging my experiences in Canada live as they were happening. That's always a high risk venture: on the one hand, I'm far enough from the actual experience to smudge it round the edges, and come up with something less accurate and more entertaining. On the other, I'm far enough not to bother coming up with anything at all.

There will be a post or two (so long as I can still be bothered) ruminating on federalism vs. sovereigntism in Quebec. As I hinted in previous posts in situ, the issue poses me a challenge: enough so that I spent quality time over the weekend there, when I should have been exploring even more of the Latin Quarter or venturing out to Deepest Darkest Westmount, reading the local blogs instead, or Ramsay Cook's take on Quebec history. The convenient thing about that is, it saved me interacting on a substantive level with any real live Quebecquois. I did talk briefly with a local involved in my workshop, who gave me some "I'm not a separatist but" insights. But tapping into blogs allowed me to mainline the political currents at little risk to life and limb.

OK, I don't think I was actually at any risk of life or limb. Except if I kept eating poutine. Put on almost 2 kg in 10 days. They really do eat like North Americans there. That was my first eye-opener that no, this was not France: they may not all want to make common cause with Anglo-Canada, but they still have a lot more in common with Anglo-Canada or the States than with Vieille-France.

The other thing they do differently than France is French; and because Quebec French was the highlight of my last day in Canada, and I suffer from recentism, that's what I'm writing about.

My French is not good. Three years at school, awful Greek-derived accent (my uvular fricatives are all velar, my vowel quality is shot); mediocre production, abysmal comprehension. To contextualise the anecdotes I'm about to relate: in the first week a few of us (a Franco-Quebecquois and a Franco-Belgian and me) went out for beers. When the prospect of Belgian beers came up, I said ingratiatingly, ça va sans dire! The Franco-Belgian, seeing an opening away from English, responded:

FRANCO-BELGIAN: Ça va Liège Bruxelles Gand Anvers Charleroi!

NICK: ...

What he said, in response to my "it goes without saying", was simply "it goes even better when said." In a quite reasonable normal everyday continental French accent, since noone has spoken Walloon since 1926 or something. But faced with one subordinate clause, and I've forgotten my own name.

Which means that Francophones, like Germanophones, have to switch to English when I'm in earshot. In fact, when two other workshop participants thought I was out of earshot, they switched back to French. I tuned back in, and interjected a pertinent comment in English; by now they knew how crap my French was, so they switched back to English.

That, ça va sans dire, is awful and hegemoniacal and lazy of me, especially since I've been an Esperantist; but living in Oceanic Monolinguia, I don't particularly have opportunity or motivation to do any better. Well, strike "opportunity". In fact, having worked for five years in the School of Languages, University of Melbourne, strike it with a two-by-four.

Given the linguistic sensitivities of Quebec, my franco-failings struck me even more than usual. I was halfway convinced Angry French Guy would hear me imposing English on whoever I talked to in a shop, and mow me down with his Eighteen Wheels Of Justice Dix-Huit Roues de Justice. Of course, I already have an out from the Rules for Linguistically Negotiating Montreal, which Angry French Guy has formulated himself, by being a dumb anglo tourist. But being a dumb anglo tourist *and* a kneejerk supporter of federalism, I knew I had to earn my out.

So I wore my Deutschland football cap everywhere, and initiated conversations in French, um, a third of the time. Although I had not read Angry French Guy's formulation of the Rules beforehand, I'm not surprised that a German cap on its own would have gotten me dispensation. OTOH, my French may be wretched, but it's not Anglo-wretched: it's Greek-wretched. Anglos are frustrated trying to practice their French in Montreal, because Montrealers hear their 'Allo 'Allo vowels, and respond in English. More often than not though, I did *not* get le switch: people in the service industries responded in French. (Although I'll note, le switch did happen more often when it came time for the bill.)

At the beginning, my French was limited to taxi drivers, who tended to be Africans or (I'm guessing) Haitian. That meant their French was (a) close to the continental standard, and (b) slower and more painstakingly enunciated, so I came perilously close to actually having a conversation with them at least once. Thanks to that, I can report that Montreal does indeed have a bed time, but that bed time is 3 am—and you can still find a feed after midnight if you know where to look. Thank you M. le taxi driver, though I've got amends to make to my diet.

Now, Quebec's accent is not the continental standard. Not at all. I already knew about oi being pronounced archaically as [we], but that is certainly not the only thing different. In fact, had I looked up why the local variant of French is called Joual (or read the archives of Language Hat), I might have been more steeled for what I ended up hearing.

Still, by the last few days, I felt confident enough not to initiate le switch in my interactions with people who looked plausibly like speakers of more Quebec-inflected French. Er, you know. Um, white Montrealers. (Yes I know. I'm sorry. But you know why I'm making the distinction, and *I* know that within a generation, the distinction won't be there.) And when I did speak French with them... when I did, I wish they would initiate le switch after all.

It was embarrassing, it was mortifying, it sucked, and it assaulted my self-image as cool languagey person—as if that self-image hadn't taken enough of a battering already. We do the phatic exchanges, we're sticking to French, I'm happy that I'm not being a maudit anglais... and I realise to my horror that I do not understand a single word I'm hearing. Yes, I didn't understand the subordinate clause from the Franco-Belgian either, but at least I recognised that what he was speaking was French. When the Montrealers started using subordinate clauses at me... I could not even tell they were using a Romance language.

Oh, Joual? It's the Quebec pronunciation of cheval. That's right: /ʒwal/ < /ʃəval/.

I was so screwed.

As a cool languagey guy and all, I am happy that Quebec has its own language norm, and that language diversity survives, and that it's escaped the Parisian steamroller that's killed off the Walloon of Liège and the Francoprovençal of Geneva and the Breton of Brest. It's great, it'll keep linguists at Montreal U in employment, it's a welcome instance of a pluricentric language other than German. (English is pluricentric too, but without the language academies and authorities that you can pinpoint in French and German.)

... Still. I was so screwed.

1. UPS EQUIVALENT


My travails started my last morning in Montreal, when I was trying to mail a book to Toronto. I declined to use French in the hotel (because settling my bill was complicated enough), but I did leave with a parting merci infiniment, and I was primed to redeem myself in francicité. Maybe not with the hotel staff (who were wonderful: Montreal Holiday Inn Midtown, I recommend it), but certainly with everyone else I was going to bump into that day. For mailing my book to Toronto, I was directed by the helpful hotel staff to the local UPS equivalent, Purolator, Cnr University & Cathcart. (Not Canada Post, but a private mailing company: again, they really are North Americans here.) The dude at the UPS equivalent was serving people in alternating English and French; despite my German cap, I was going to try to stick to French, and make good.
NICK: I would wish to mail this to the Toronto.

UPS EQUIVALENT GUY (French): You'll need to fill in that form.

OK, that's going well. Form. Right. I can do this. But, how much will it cost?
NICK: It will cost the how much?

UPS EQUIVALENT GUY (French): Ti-Pet Ti-Poil Boubou Patapouf envelope is free.

NICK: ....

UPS EQUIVALENT GUY (French): Sherbrooke Gatineau Lesage Lévesque.

Actually, no, that isn't doing Joual justice. The vowels are different, and the diphthongs are way different, and the consonants are different enough—so representing a Montreal French accent with random Quebec placenames and personalities isn't going to cut it. It was more like:
UPS EQUIVALENT GUY (French): Sharbroke Gætinoo Lesarzh Levæck.

NICK: ...

UPS EQUIVALENT GUY (French): ...

NICK: ...

UPS EQUIVALENT GUY (English): It costs 20 dollars.

NICK (French?): Oh. Um... you are not the having the something the more economical?

UPS EQUIVALENT GUY (English): [teensy bit exasperated] More economical? No, that's the minimum cost.

By this stage, I am freaked out. Freaked out that I have presumed on this good Montrealer's patience. More freaked out that he's asking me to fork out 20 bucks to mail a half a kilo of paper to the next province. I'd like to think that the implausibility of $20 was got in the way of me parsing what he had to say. I'd be wrong, because when plausibility gets in the way of me understanding German, at least I still recognise it's German.
*Flashback: Vienna, July 1995*

NICK: [at McDonalds] (German): Please to give to me one Happy Meal.

McDONALDS DUDE: Would you Donauschifsgebot Kärtner car?

NICK: (que?) I... came to here from the Salzburg, by the bus.

McDONALDS DUDE: No, would you Donauschifsgebot Kärtner car?

NICK: But... I am not wanting to purchase an automobile?

McDONALDS DUDE: [rolls eyes] [pops onto counter McHappy Meal toy McCar]

NICK: ... oh! Yes sir please, I will to take the game car with the Happy Meal.


*Flashforward: Montreal, July 2009*

NICK: ... [takes form to fill out]

...

NICK: [exit stage right, pursued by Eighteen Wheels of Justice]

The pattern was set for the day.
  • Slight mishaps would befall me,
  • I would freak out.
  • I tried to speak French,
  • and through no fault of my interlocutors, would freak out when I didn't understand what was going on.
  • And the next time a mishap befell me, I tried speaking French again,
  • rinse and repeat, atoning in my own misguided way for the Plains of Abraham.

2. In Search of Canada Post


My next mission was to find a Canada Post office, because damn me if I was going to pay $20 in French to ship a book to Anglo-Canada. This meant I had to find someone willing to tell me where the nearest Canada Post was, without me accidentally launching a new Quebec referendum.

To the reader's surprise, I managed to do so three blocks later, without switching into English (or phrases any longer than 6 words long). To my surprise, I did so on Réné Lévesque St, of all places—which is much more of a feat than back when it used to be Dorchester St.
NICK: (French) One ice cappucino please. And that please.

[Plonks oatmeal cookie onto counter, thereby avoiding having to work out how to say "oatmeal cookie" in French]

CAFE COUNTER CHICK: Is that all?

NICK: Yah.

CAFE COUNTER CHICK: Five sixty.

NICK: Please, you know where is the Post Canadian?

CAFE COUNTER CHICK: ... Sorry.

HELPFUL ELDERLY QUEBECQUOISE: They have an office in Pharmaprix.

NICK: ...

Five seconds later, once I'd worked out that Pharmaprix was not another random Quebec placename, but the pharmacy I walked past three buildings ago, I was set, and walked out with renewed purpose and a spring in my step. And an oatmeal cookie.

The spring in my step didn't last long: as I headed back towards Pharmaprix, I was accosted in French by an random vocal dishevelled someone or other:
RANDOM VOCAL DISHEVELLED SOMEONE OR OTHER: Would you Groulx Bourassa Trudeau Duplessis?

NICK: [back to panicked] Nonononono [Heads in opposite direction]

RANDOM VOCAL DISHEVELLED SOMEONE OR OTHER: Sir! St Urbain St Denis Ste Catherine Câlisse!

I think it's great that Montreal's panhandlers (or homeless, or insane, or whatever the dude was) feel confident enough in their language to accost tourists in French with German soccer caps on. I think it's great in the abstract, at least. In the concrete, I went round the block, and the blocks on that side of downtown Montreal are sizeable enough to work through an ice cappucino...

3. Canada Post


Once I made sure the random vocal dishevelled someone or other was nowhere to be seen, my venture into Pharmaprix was much less eventful, and indeed close to a success:
NICK: (French) I am wanting to post the this book to the Toronto. [Takes envelope, attempts to weigh book]

PHARMAPHIX POSTIE: Yes, you can write on that envelope, and pay at the end. [Those weren't the scales]

NICK: [writes address] ... I am not knowing the postage code of the address.

PHARMAPHIX POSTIE: You can look it up here. [Points to ginormous compendium of Canadian postal codes]

NICK: [Wow, you mean each apartment building on (STREET NAME CENSORED), Toronto has its own post code? No wonder the compendium is so ginormous]

PHARMAPHIX POSTIE: Is that everything?

NICK: Yes thanking you.

PHARMAPHIX POSTIE: $7.70.

NICK: [Now that's more like it.]

PHARMAPHIX POSTIE: ... Plus taxes, plus the envelope.

NICK: [Crap.]

4. Vieux Dublin Burger


$10.40 to mail half a kilo of paper to the next province is still too much in my book. But the book was mailed, and I was now in search of repast. Not that I was remotely hungry, but I had a couple of hours to kill before heading to the airport, and I was flying back cattle class all the way. Freaked out aplenty by my misadventures to date, I made sure I made like the readers of the anglophone Montreal Gazette, and retreated to Deepest Darkest West Montreal.

Well, not that deep; I never made it to actual Westmount, where the Anglo money had its mansions, and which Réné Lévesque memorably compared to Rhodesia. I *did* however end up at Le Vieux Dublin Pub, and I figured that at worst, I'd have to dredge up the two words of Old Irish I learnt twenty years ago. And try to avoid saying póg mo thóin.

And yet... I was *still* trying not to be an anglais maudit. Even in Deepest Darkest West Montreal:
REDHAIRED VIEUX DUBLIN WAITRESS: Bonjourhello.

NICK: (French) Bonjour. You are accepting the cards of credit?

REDHAIRED VIEUX DUBLIN WAITRESS: (French) Credit cards? Of course.

NICK: OK. I am to having the... Boddingtons, one pint, and the cheeseburger.

REDHAIRED VIEUX DUBLIN WAITRESS: Which one?

NICK: Um... the McGillucuddy, please you.

BRUNETTE VIEUX DUBLIN WAITRESS: [To REDHAIRED VIEUX DUBLIN WAITRESS] (English) *** [No idea what she head, I was just relieved to hear English]

NICK: (English) [A little *too* eagerly] Oh! It's safe to speak English then.

[Man, it's a good thing I'm flying out in four hours. They're going to tar and feather me, the way I'm going.]

REDHAIRED VIEUX DUBLIN WAITRESS: (English) Oh, I can speak French, English, Spanish, and a little bit of Polish.

NICK: [Man, think of lighthearted repartee, quick]... ¡Para yo, no entiende español!


No, that wasn't the right answer. The right answer, of course, after a morning mangling French, was that I should also mangle the Polish counterpart of Happy Birthday, which is all the Polish I know. ("Sto lat, sto lat, Niech żyje, żyje nam".) Under the circumstances, that was probably not all that much more right an answer.

The Old Dublin is a pleasant enough quiet pub with not much of a view, but did not stay empty and quiet for long: in ten minutes, it was packed out with the entire business community of Montreal at lunch, and with more lunching done in French than English. The burger wasn't the burnt paragon of beefitude I had been craving (I forgot to say brulez ça SVP.) But then, I was in North America.

5. To the Aerodrome


I lingered at a café for another hour, reading the local street press. More Two Solitudes: there's a vibrant Francophone band scene, and a vibrant Anglophone band scene, and they aren't intersecting. At least they're both reviewing the same crap Hollywood movies.

I ended up back at the hotel, picked up my luggage, and into my shuttle van to the airport. I had now switched into English with the driver, but this did not prevent the shuttle van stranding me at Montreal Central Bus Depot. I had negotiated the shuttle bus with the concierge in my native tongue, but I'd failed to catch that crucial detail. I'd also failed to catch the other crucial detail, that the shuttle van did not take credit cards. This may have been correlated with me ending up stranded at Montreal Central Bus Depot, not entirely sure.

By the time I understood why I was there, I'm missed my connection to the airport, and was waiting another twenty minutes for the next. That's fine, I still had a little while left, more than enough to down an ice cream, and negotiate the automatic ticket machine.
AUTOMATIC TICKET MACHINE: (French) ...

NICK: Not noticing an English option. Yeah, this is a service provided by the province of Quebec alright.

AUTOMATIC TICKET MACHINE: (French) Please choose your destination.

NICK: *button C*

AUTOMATIC TICKET MACHINE: (French) Please indicate number of passangers.

NICK: *button A*

AUTOMATIC TICKET MACHINE: (French) Please insert credit card for preconfirmation.

NICK: *inserts card*

AUTOMATIC TICKET MACHINE: (French) *thinks*

AUTOMATIC TICKET MACHINE: (French) Your purchase has not been confirmed. Please proceed to the counter. *Expectorates receipt*


Ah, another mishap. Maybe the machine can't deal with credit cards with chips in them, so they take signatures at the counter. Yeah, that must be what it is.

The woman at the counter is of a swarthy complexion, which as I had already concluded (yes, I know, I know) meant to me that I should default in French—and that I had a good chance of understanding her in response.
NICK: (French) I am not the certain what has taken place, but... *shoves receipt across counter, it will be more eloquent than me*

BUS COUNTER WOMAN: Your card has been refused.

NICK: ... Oh?

BUS COUNTER WOMAN: [circles *Card Refused* on the receipt]

Oh, that's what that meant. Yeah, I did just pay 10 days' accommodation on the same card; that might have done it. Ah... *rummage*
NICK: You accept the card American Express?

BUS COUNTER WOMAN: [accepts the card American Express] Where are you going?

NICK: The aerodrome. Dorval.

The official name of the aerodrome is Pierre Trudeau, but the airports are federal territory—and I hadn't noticed any streets in Montreal named after Trudeau. So I'm guessing (correctly) that the airport name is Ottawa tweaking Quebec's nose, and I'm avoiding repeating it to the locals unnecessarily.
BUS COUNTER WOMAN: [hands over ticket]

NICK: (Wuh? That was quick! ... She must have done this before.)

BUS COUNTER WOMAN: Your bus departs at half past two, at platform SEVenTEEN.

[Enunciating a little too clearly, even for someone who doesn't look like a stereotypical joual speaker. Not that I'm complaining by this stage. Or indeed any stage.]

NICK: ... Seventeen. Thank you.

It's a big queue at platform 17, Montreal Central Bus Depot, and the two American students in front of me have a heckload of luggage. But I'm trying to humble myself down to cattle class.

Some humblings, though, I'm unwilling to truck on company time. The bus rocks up around 14:35, and the long queue of passengers rustles into action. And waits. A few minutes later, the driver (or what looks like a driver) turns up at the front of the queue.
DRIVER OR WHAT LOOKS LIKE ONE: (French) ...

NICK: (This... is not going to be in English, is it.)

DRIVER OR WHAT LOOKS LIKE ONE: (French) The bus Maisonnevv Closse Jænne-Mænce Cartiærr inspectors Celine Dion Stephane Dion will not depart Canadiæns Alouettes inspection Place d'Ærmes Place d'Ærts next bus will leave at 15:00.

I think I know what's going on; but since I've already paid my money with the card American Express, I'd like confirmation, before I go off to make alternate arrangements. So I look up expectantly, and so do the two American students in front of me.
DRIVER OR WHAT LOOKS LIKE ONE: (English) Euh... The next bus, leaves at three.

... Right. I fly at half past five. Taxi!

6. To the Aerodrome, Seriously This Time


Taxi:
AFRICAN TAXI DRIVER: (French) Let me help you with that. Where are you going?

NICK: (French) Dorval aerodrome.

The accumulated weight of the McGillucuddy burger, the joual-induced stress, and colonialist's guilt made me sleep through the trip to the aerodrome. When we alighted to the aerodrome, I produced my credit card so I could be on my way. This time, I had not asked beforehand whether the taxi accepted cards of credit, so...
AFRICAN TAXI DRIVER: (French) No, I can't.

NICK: Um... *rummage* ... The American Express?

AFRICAN TAXI DRIVER: Uh... No sir. [gesticulates towards his obvious lack of credit card facilities in the vehicle]

NICK: Ah. This is the problem. There is the Automatic Teller Mechanism inside?

AFRICAN TAXI DRIVER: Yes, there's one back there, near the Air Canada terminal. I'll park just in front there.

NICK: Yes. I will revert here in the soon.

A couple of minutes of panicked search ensue. Then...
NICK: Behold, sir. How much.

AFRICAN TAXI DRIVER: [English] Forty five dollar.

Dude, I feel your pain. Really, I do.

7. Checking in at the Aerodrome


So, that's done. Now to get my seat on the flight to LA.

I choose to be checked in by a human being and not a ticket machine, because I'm transiting through to Melbourne. And I choose to be checked In French. Because I never learn, and because I still have an inflated idea of my linguistic abilities.

The woman checking me in is a Mme Trudeau. Given my Trudaeuolatry, this is all the more reason to try in French.
Mme TRUDEAU: Bonjourhello.

NICK: (Um, am I really going to do this?...) Bonjour.

Mme TRUDEAU: (French) Where are you travelling today?

NICK: Melbourne. With the transiting to L.A.

Mme TRUDEAU. So... you are flying to New Orleans?

NICK: No, the Los Angelès.

(Or maybe that misunderstanding happened in English, one level of security further along. Anyway.)

Mme TRUDEAU. Ah. One piece of luggage?

NICK: Yah.

(Mme Trudeau spends a couple of minutes investigating my ticketting situation, and has a quick exchange with a colleague in English.)

Mme TRUDEAU: [Pushes my ticket to me and huddles towards me—the way people in service industries do, when they need to explain something complicated to you, that will involve at least one subordinate clause.]

Mme TRUDEAU: (French) Right. Montréal Quebæc Gatsinoo Sharbrouc Trwè Riviàres Sænt-Djan-sur-Richelioo. Sænt-Hyacænthe Jolietts' Rouÿn-Noranda. Salaberry-de-Valleyfield Alma Val-d'-Or Sænt-Djorges Baie-Comoo. Septz-Îles Riviàre-du-Loup Amos. Matæne La Tsuque Dolboo Lachuts'.

NICK: ...

I was dumbstruck. Her lips were moving, but I could not understand a solitary syllable of any of it.
Mme TRUDEAU: (English) ... It's better in English?

Right. Think of something suitably apologetic and humble to say.
NICK: (English) I'm sorry, I haven't learnt joual.

... That may not have been it.

Turns out my flight was overbooked, and I'd have to renegotiate passage at the gate. Well, OK, I could do that.

But I was astonished that, all of a sudden, a veil had come over my ears. I think part of it was that Mme Trudeau's accent was a little stronger than the UPS Equivalent guy's. One of the Anglophone Angryphone thugs commenting over at Angry French Guy's blog described Joual as quack-quack-quack-tabarnak. I in no way endorse Angryphone thuggery, and I have the highest of respect (in the abstract) for Quebec going its own linguistic way. (More respect than the Office for the French Language in Quebec does, which tries to keep Quebec French as close to Paris French as possible, outside the accent—and the English loanwords.)

Still, Angryphone ghastly thuggish stereotypes of what a language sounds like do come from somewhere; and the [æ] of the Quebec accent was quite noticeable. (Especially for what in Paris French is /ɛʁ/.) The "tabarnak" comes from somewhere as well; but again, Montrealers were consistently much nicer to me than I deserved, so I did not directly experience the fine panoply of sacreligious swearing that Quebec has to offer. With the possible exception of that panhandler or homeless person or whatever he was outside the Pharmaprix.

8. Having Checked In at the Aerodrome


I wasn't quite out of the woods; I still had to clear security. This time, I knew to take of my jacket, so avoided my previous day's embarrassment, when I'd flown to Toronto.
*flashback: Day Before*
NICK: [Takes both computers out of carry-on luggage]

SECURITY GUY: Padlikid?

NICK: ... ?

SECURITY GUY: Pas de liquides?

NICK: Euh, no, no liquids.

SECURITY GUY: Anlevrlvest SVP?

NICK: (Whatever that is, I'm sure I'm not carrying any of that, either.) Nononon.

SECURITY GUY: Enlever la veste, s'il vous plaît. (Mimes taking off jacket.)

NICK: Ah, le vest. [Takes off jacket]

It's lovely of me, in a cloth-eared pointless kind of way, to respect the Francicité of Quebec by misunderstanding simple instructions and staring blankly. I'm not as sure that the security queue at Trudeau Aerodrome was the right place to do it.

Transiting through to the States meant security was a little patch of sovereign American territory, with American security procedures. The flight was slightly held up, the airport staff to process us more so; by the time I noticed the airport staff, a sizeable queue had already formed. A couple (en anglais) was being referred to the staff's supervisor, with apologies which I thought too leisrely placed given how soon the plane was supposed to leave. (The staff knew more than I did at this point.) While the woman of the couple was on the phone with the supervisor (and the man of the couple was off fuming to one side that the supervisor was not there in person), the queue grew, and people weren't being processsed in an obvious way. The guy two people behind me bounded forward after five minutes (en anglais), to ask why the queue wasn't being reduced.

I would not add to the staff's trouble by arrogating Anglais to myself. Assuming the staff was a francophone, and I was already addled enough not to be sure any more. So I didn't *arrogate* Anglais to myself, exactly; but I did insinuate it: I drifted into French more tentatively than before, and I mostly got English in reponse.
AIRPORT STAFF: (English) ... Would Business Class be OK?

NICK: ... Ça plane!

As I waited to embark, the big screen TV was running ads for the upcoming gigs in Montreal, with the kind of inflection I normally associate with Monster Truck shows. (I am in North America.) "Coldplay! Et Beastie Boys! Le promiàr et dezziàm Oût!"

Emperors get to place themselves above grammarians: when Lucius Mestrius Florus pointed out to the emperor Vespasian that a wagon is properly pronounced plaustra, not plostra, Vespasian retaliated by calling Florus "Flaurus" (φλαῦρος, "worthless"). And Florus had to acknowledge the emperor's sparkling wit if he knew what's good for him. Vespasian's vernacular pronunciation won out in the end: we say en Anglais /ɔːˈɡastəs/ for his colleague Augustus, for the same reason. (Well, *I* do. You may say /ɑːˈɡʌstəs/ or something.)

But in revenge for Florus' snub, French has kept chewing away at the emperors' phonemes, especially when the emperors named months after themselves. Old French was already down from Augustus to Aoust; then the s went, leaving only a circumflex as its calling card (Août); then the final t, with the general massacre of consonants in French. Augustus is now already down to /aˈu/ in Paris. Now the final indignity to Augustus: his eight phonemes in Quebec are down to one. Oût. /ˈu/.

I mean, ç'est cool, that's what language does. But not all languages their nouns down to a single letter like French does. French reduced hodie to hui, and had to repair it as au jour d'hui. I wonder if Joual-speakers somewhere are already coming up with au mois d'août.

I did not have the presence of mind by this stage to take my ruminations that far; oût was one more oddity to trip me up by now. Classe d'affaires means you get to board at leisure, and board at leisure I did. As I left Quebec, I thanked the staffer for the upgrade:
NICK: (French) Thank you immoderately!

AIRPORT STAFF: (French) I have placed you in a very good seat Mr Nicholas.

NICK: It is the... er, day... day of good fortune for me!

AIRPORT STAFF: Duplessis Godbout Sauvé Barette Lesage!

NICK: ... *smirk* *waves*

13 comments:

John Cowan said...

Another set of excellent guffaws, and much needed in present circumstances. For me, the first syllable of Augustus is firmly schwa, by the way, but your conjecture is otherwise correct.

Tipoukeitos said...

Boy oh boy, aren't I laughing out loud! Btw, I'm so sorry, but hardly surprised, that it cost you so much to mail me that wonderful book! :-)

Well, if it's any consolation, let me tell you that I, too, was introduced to Canada the Overpriced the hard way. Consider yourself lucky you're not a Canadian taxpayer (ouch!)

Léonard Minh A. Langlois said...

As a `francophone` Montrealer and McGill student, I find your experience very interesting. It seldom happens that tourists try their French, today I helped a Korean tourist & an Indian on a summer exchange and of course they were speaking to me in English. Actually, I find that you were really good in your attempts to speak French... and get replied in our dialectal Quebec French (with a degree of "Joualness" depending how we think the other speaker understand). I think we are just speaking too fast and not articulating as well.

Léonard Minh A. Langlois said...

" I wonder if Joual-speakers somewhere are already coming up with au mois d'août."

Yes but I would not call it a typical Joual use though.

opoudjis said...

Sorry for delay, folks.

@ John: the primary reason I volunteered to go to the workshop in Montreal was to end up with an article like this. :-) (Oh, and to contribute to better understanding of technical standards in e-learning; *that* blog post is next week, and not on this blog.)

əɡʌstəs not ɑːɡʌstəs? Well, I say əstræiliə, so fair enough...

opoudjis said...

@Tipoukeitos: You have the book, now use it wisely! Really, my fault for forgetting to bring it with me to Toronto in the first place. But you made me have an interesting morning!

The cost of postage surprises me here too; but citing prices without the VAT tax (or in this case, taxes) always aggravates people more. We just cite prices GST included, and noone meditates on it.

Just remember: with your taxes, you're purchasing civilisation!

opoudjis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
opoudjis said...

@Léonard: welcome and thank you. I am intending on commenting on your blog, as you have a couple of interesting posts. Je vais commenter probablement en angalis, à fin de ne devenir pas un clown. Mais puisque vous êtes un francophone fier de parler français, et qui veut que ça sera sa fierté quit fait survive le français en Québec et pas seulement l'intervention gouvernmentale, alors si je fais ça, veuillez me réponder en français. Ç'est un peu plus juste, comme ça, non?...

I am suitably mortified with the Quebecois misspelling (I *knew* there had to be a reason I was spelling it -cq- without a u: there wasn't a q there either.) I'll fix it as much as I can without falsifying history.

Of course, my French is weak enough that I don't know if I could tell true Joual from mere Montreal accented standard French in those setting. I forgot to include it in the post, but I was worried I'd put my foot in it when I said to Mme Trudeau I didn't understand her Joual; so I listened out in the plane for the captain's announcement. Same failure to understand, which means it really was the accent that I was failing on, even before I got to the dialect.

Of course, you should never have to apologise for speaking your own language in your own way in your own home: if I respond to bonjourhello with bonjour, the responsibility is really on me not you. (And I did not respond bonjour as often before my final day in town.) I just wish I had the presence of mind to discover the Learn Canadian French blog *before* travelling north.

But I was surprised that I wasn't getting le switch more than I did. It made me all the more disappointed in myself when I really couldn't follow what was being said...

Léonard Minh A. Langlois said...

"But I was surprised that I wasn't getting le switch more than I did. It made me all the more disappointed in myself when I really couldn't follow what was being said..."

C'est bon signe, cela veut dire que votre français que vous qualifiez vous même de faible ne l'était pas autant que vous le croyiez. Les Montréalais sont malheureusement trop impatients et vont habituellement parler anglais (le switch) si votre accent est étranger. N'étant pas complètement «de souche» il m'arrive de me faire aborder en anglais fréquemment, le pire ennemi du français à Montréal est l'attitude des francophones envers les «autres».

opoudjis said...

@Léo: that bit about you not looking pur laine, therefore you're addressed in English, *really* struck me.

I've written that the dominant ideology of Quebec nationalism is civic, and I believe it. But that there are individuals who assume anyone who doesn't look like them can't speak their language either... is regrettable, but not unheard of.

Over at AFG, an Anglo commenter expressed annoyance that living in the Plateau Mont Royal, even if he only used French to his neighbours, they still would growl "why are all the Anglos moving in to our neighbourhood." AFG said it's because of those other anglos speaking just English, and this guy was just suffering the consequences of the maudits' bad actions.

Maybe not. Because even before your comment, I thought, if these people don't like anglos maudits moving in to the Plateau, even if the guy they're speaking to right now is talking French to them—then language is not the issue they're objecting to; it's the Plateau demographic changing at all. And they would be reacting similarly to "visible minorities".

("Visible minorities". I think that's only a Canadian term, and I don't quite know how to react to it.)

I wasn't there, and I'm not there now, but that's what I suspected was going on. It's an understandable tribalist reaction if that is what went on, and it does not discredit sovereingtism at all, as the Anglo-Canadian use of "pur laine" thinks it should. But it means, again, that there are several competing discourses going on among the Montreal public.

Such an attitude is indeed an enemy to the survival of French, which is why Law 101 was always all about Allophone allegiance, and which is why it's great (and common sense) that the Quebec establishment disavows it. But identity politics, especially as practised by the masses, is not just about a language, or even primarily about a language.

I'm curious: how do you respond when addressed in English? Does it ever escalate?

Léonard Minh A. Langlois said...

I'm not on my laptop so I'm going to write in English and not bother with diacritic marks.

Think about Quebecers of Haitian descent that are francophones, they still face huge unemployment rate and many of them with diplomas are indeed forced to be in the taxi business. There are also many people from Maghreb countries that are fluent in French as well, but because of cultural differences, sometimes they have trouble to find work.

I believe that moderate sovereignists are not discriminating people, but there is still a fringe of the people, regardless of their political views, that does discriminate.

I remember a case when someone applied to a job sending his CV with the same qualifications but using different names. One was his real name, I don't remember exactly but it sounded Middle Eastern (Mohamed something). Then he waited to be called back, he never was.
Well, he decided to send back the same CV, changing only the name for a pure laine sounding name, Mr ** Tremblay.
Guess what, he was called upon for a phone interview. If there is such discrimination upon the way your name sound, how do you expect immigrants to react to the mainstream Quebecois society? They will resent it.

A few years ago, a LPC candidate that lost her riding (a 'de souche' Quebecoise) to a Bloc Quebecois (the somewhat secessionist federal party) candidate that was born in Cameroon. I remember that she said disrespectful things about her. This is why I don't have a nice opinion about multiculturalism in general; accepting total cultural diversity does not mean you're going to really want to consider these 'others' as your fellow Canadian citizens. I don't believe in full assimilation either - I think that the melting pot, very criticised in Canada as being a US 'thing' is promoting the blending of cultural background from somewhere else with the mainstream cultural background as long as there are not conflicting with Western core values ( Men & Women being equal, all individuals having the same rights regardless their gender, their sex orientation, their religion, their ethnicity, State & Church separated - that is not in Canadian constitution but I wish it was because we faced a lot of religious accomodation that frankly is non-sense to me as it may cause prejudice to the majority)

Anyways, that's probably this ethnocentric attitude that pushed me away from independentist movement. I still think it wouldn't be that bad if it could ensure some sense of security that would make laws such as Bill 101 not 'useful'. I still think that the most radicals would dream to erase all the British history to make people with last names such as Smith speak French as their mother tongue & if ever English only as a second language! I'm against such views, someone may decide more or less consciously to do such things over a number of generations (I know a lot of Quebecois de souche with names such as McGregor, McClure, Williams, francophones, sometimes even separatist as hell), but not forced by a law over someone.

Melissa said...

it's comforting to hear about le switch phenomenon from someone else; I wish I had known about that before my 5 weeks in Montreal this summer. I have an advanced intermediate grasp of French, but my accent is distinctly west coast of Canada French (that is, more standard French) with few hints of my anglo roots (a.k.a., i didn't speak joual or Quebec French--since that time, I have made efforts to expand my understanding of joual, etc.--but I grew up speaking French with my French marraine). It was super insulting to get le switch, especially when I communicate clearly, understand what's being said, and have very adequate compositional skills and accent. Plus, I came to Montreal specifically study at UQAM and to practice and improve my French, but i felt discouraged from engaging and conversing with locals in French on a number of occasions. I never had any problems interacting with the locals while in France, so I don't get the issue with my interlocutors in Montreal. (Heck, I even had no troubles conversing with the Cajuns down in LA--and they never answered me in English! Seriously, have you ever talked with a Cajun speaker? Intense.). Le switch is insulting and alienating, IMO. Honestly, 'they' want ppl to speak (Quebec-)French in MTL, but more than a few will condescendingly reply to you in English--sorry, it's rude to do that to someone who is clearly making an effort to meet you on your terms. As a Vancouverite, I deeply believe in the active and vigorous promotion of authentic bilingualism in Canada. After my recent experiences, I just don't get the mentality of many Montrealais in their behaviour. Sorry for venting.
I look forward to reading more of your tales. Thanks for sharing.

opoudjis said...

De rien, Melissa. Le switch is not an irrational strategy, FWIW; it's alienating, sure, but there are reasons why it happens:

* The in-group marker is Joual and not just French; language use in Montreal (as everywhere else) is about Us-And-Them, and Standard French just gets you "Them" language.
* The language conflict is alive and while, and le switch is a sort of coping mechanism.
* Unlike Louisiana, Montreal French is not so minority that they're grateful at anyone speaking French. Unlike Paris, Montreal French is not so majority (especially in prestige historically) that they'll just default to French with strangers (with the exception of that panhandler guy on Cathcart).

It's difficult: yes, le switch means Montrealers are rejecting an effort to meet them on their terms; but it's their turf, and they set the rules on when their terms may be met. At any rate, Angry French Guy is in Vancouver this week, with his own take on "speaking bilingual"; and he always has a more informed take on Quebec linguistic issues than I do. What with him being Québécois and all...

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