Montreal IV: Snapshots from a linguistic conflict

By: | Post date: July 15, 2009 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Countries

Montreal, you are multitudinous like the sea—or like your weather. Every five minutes’ walk, you turn into a different streetscape, with quirks its own, with charms its own, with colours its own.

Most of which work for me, especially because this time of year there’s no snow to burrow under, and no black ice to trip me.

I have even more photos to cull after Plateau Mont-Royal, the implausibly photogenic high-tone neighbourhood of townhouses and iron grills and flowers. Yet here, I will not show you snapshots of Plateau Mont-Royal. I will show you snapshots of the linguistic conflict, which I still don’t get, but which provides me much divertissement nonetheless.

I assume that ecclesiastical establishments such as the People’s Church are exempt from the Language Police strictures. Quebec already knows it has a publicity problem with its language policies. (Hint to the Quebecqois wikipedians: appealing to the parallel of Estonia, after the whole Unknown Soldier conflict, is not the most strategic of illustrations.) The last thing the Language Police needs is to spread the conflict into the religious sphere.

Still, the People’s Church, even if it is in deepest angloest West Montreal, looks monstrously out of place:

St George’s Anglican Church, even deeper in deepest angloest West Montreal, has taken no such chances:

The notices may be in English for an Anglo congregation, but Église anglicane is on top of everything else.

Of course, St George’s is overshadowed by the scale model of the Vatican that is the Basilica Of Mary Queen Of The World.

It makes sense for St George’s to announce itself to its bulkier neighbour in the neighbour’s language.

The federal army also appears to be exempt from the language police:

At least, they’re exempt until the next referendum, when once again the Canadian Air Force will discretely jet its planes out of the province to avoid them becoming bargaining chips. But the next referendum is a long way off; and meantime, JOIN THE FIGHT is decidedly larger than COMBATTEZ AVEC NOUS, right?

One of the more disconcerting things about the Montreal streetscape (thank you Wilbert for verbalising it for me) is that many of the buildings (especially in deepest angloest West Montreal) are Victorian in a way quite familiar to a Melburnian—but they’ve got French superimposed on them. Like the Royal Victoria College:

Or the High School of Montreal:

Or the kicker, a plaque informing the locals of the identity of une certaine Reine Victoria, next to her statue in the eponymous Square:

And if you want to find out who this certaine Reine Victoria is en anglais, you can good and go to the web site. (That’s standard practice for Montreal landmark captions.)

Victoria OWNED this town when the statue was built. You can tell from how many statues of her there are in Montreal, and throughout her empire. Now, she has to be glossed to Montrealers in French, as the daughter of Guillaume IV, presiding over the expansion of the empire brittanique. And when you say empire brittanique in French, it sounds like Quebec was never part of it. Of course, it sure isn’t now. Banknotes notwithstanding.

But statues in Montreal are in a dialectic. Glossing Queen Victoria in Square Victoria is fitting payback for the inscription on the Place d’Armes monument to de Maisonneuve, the founder of Montreal. This is where Montreal was created, this is where the heart of French Montreal beats, M. de Maisonneuve and his cohort proudly facing their creation in Notre Dame.

A marvellously vivid statue, dedicated by the grateful citoyens de Montreal. In English.

There are other reminders on the streetscape that this is French-in-North America, not France. Beside the size of the restaurant servings. For example, NASCAR is quite loaded politically in the States, as an activity of the American, English Spoken Only heartland partakes of, and the Coastal Elites deride (though they may not be all that more multilingual). So I was thrown to see NASCAR turn up in Lyon-on-the-St-Laurent:

Bilingualism can be harmful to your traffic flow. This, near the entrance of McGill University:

Apparently a merging lane for Anglos and Francos.

Dorchester Square, the centre of Montreal Downtown, is now Square Dorchester. It is also closed for refurbishment, so I did not get to inspect its Victorian statuary. I did however get to inspect the outward facing French announcement of its contents:

“1800 geraniums! 240,000 granite paving stones! 1 Victorian Square!” (I’m now wondering whether “Victorian” is a code word.) “1.5 km of granite edges! 1 Scottish Poet!”

Rabbie Burns, you used to be a default fixture in any large city square in the British Empire. You’re now a long way from hame…

Rue Ste Catherine is the shopping mecca of Montreal. Or at least one of them. It features a FCUK store. Now I’ve always thought FCUK were TWATs (Trendy Wankers, Acronymically Tendentious), who should instead be hawking CNUT (Couture Nouveau, Urban Trends). But curiously, FCUK (French Connection) here announces itself as French Connection (FCUK):

Once again, I don’t know what subtlety I’m missing. The Idiot Acronym would be lost on Franco-Montrealers? The anglos are using an excuse to flaunt the Language Police with prominent English (and FCUK isn’t English)? The parent company is trying to ingratiate itself with Franco-Canadians (and avoid a bomb) by emphasising how French they are—in the wrong language?

Chains from out of town doing business must adjust to the realities of Montreal under the Language Police. Such as avoiding apostrophes, a topic for another time and another blog. Booster Juice, launching Açaí on an unsuspecting populace, duly Francifies BRAZILIAN POWER, and TRY IT HOT, and BRAZILIAN STYLE:

They’ve left in “All Rights Reserved”, but at least that’s in small print. They’ve also left in AH-sci-EE as the pronunciation key for this exotic Brazilian condiment. As a result, Franco-Montrealers are going around ordering /asiˈe/ instead of /aˈsajiː/. This wasn’t the only American pronunciation key in advertising that I’ve seen left as is in French. I’ve got to wonder whether Franco-Montrealers by now expect pronunciation keys to be en anglaise maudite, regardless of the containing language. I would.

The Montreal Jazz Festival, of which I caught all of ten minutes of, is a drawcard for jazz aficionados (and not-so-jazz aficionados), from throughout the world. Including the English-speaking world. OTOH, it is the *Montreal* Jazz Festival; so it has to represent Franco-Montreal.

Which means the programme—

has to cater for both fr and en:

But fr and en is not all that is spoken in Montreal. The reality of modern multiculturalism (which Canada pioneered) is that you will see other languages on the cityspace—although the French language planners have correctly identified that the allophones will eventually pick one or the other. There was outroar when the Language Police started going after Hebrew being more prominent than French. I think the Arabic here is the same size as the French, but it’s a difficult decision to have to make:


  • Claude says:

    That's a very interesting survey. I wish you had also posted photos of le Plateau Mont-Royal where I grew up. It's such a very French and appealing section of Montréal. Specially the streets where the houses have outside second floor stairs, so gracefully curved.

  • John Cowan says:

    Victoria was the queen of Canada, certainly; but she was not Queen of Canada, as Elizabeth II is. The latter monarch is the first to bear different titles in her different realms, whereas Victoria was "by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Queen, Defender of the Faith" throughout the British empire, and later "Empress of India" as well. No mention of Canada anywhere, much less Australia or its constituent parts.

    It's perhaps significant that in Canada (and Grenada) your queen is "of the United Kingdom, Canada and Her other Realms and Territories Queen" whereas everywhere else her title is "of X and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen", with no specific identification of those other realms. The "Defender of the Faith" bit is found only in Australia, Canada, N.Z., and the U.K.; "Head of the Commonwealth" is used everywhere.

  • opoudjis says:

    A comment from Richard C, left in the alternate dissemination of the blog (facebouc):

    "Constitutionally she was also Queen of Upper Canada including Quebec so the sign is wrong. She was as much constitutionally Queen of Canada as of the UK of GB and NI."

    Oh, I think the sign-writers knew full well that she was queen of Montreal as much as she was queen of London, Edinburgh, or Dublin (I not NI at the time of course). That the sign doesn't explicitly say so is surely not an accident, it's part of the filtering and reimagining of history. Like I said: empire brittanique sounds like Someone Else's Empire…

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