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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Lingua Franca English, qu'est-ce que fuck!

In the battle between English and bilingualism, which will win?

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A bilingual stop sign in Quebec. Photo via Kids Brittanica.
A bilingual stop sign in Quebec. Photo via Kids Brittanica.

That exclamation is one of my favourite colloquial offspring of the rocky linguistic marriage between French and English in Montreal, the self-proclaimed Paris of North America. Loosely translated, "qu'est-ce que fuck" means "what the fuck" and can be heard throughout Montreal where ever a beer glass shatters on the floor or a cyclist has a close call with one of the city's many aggressive motorists.

The head-spinning fluency of French-English code switching among the bilingual Montreal population is prided by most and deplored by a fair number. But regardless of how you feel about it, it's nothing short of mesmerizing to listen to.

I wonder if the strong presence of English in the day-to-day language of Montrealers is an embarrassingly loud symbol of cultural and linguistic subjugation by the vast Anglophone sea that surrounds Quebec, or is it a proud example of bilingualism symmetrically achieved?

Although Montreal's linguistic identity crisis is made unique by the presence of many English-speaking communities that have histories in that territory as long as their Francophone neighbours, I think that many minority language communities around the world could ask themselves similar questions about the role of English in their lives.

As peaceful and beautiful as it may be, the city of Montreal has long been a fierce political battleground in Quebec's cultural and linguistic struggle. The city has offered itself as a stage for impassioned speeches of nationalism and independence and remains the largest visible display of historic breakthroughs in language law in Canada, and a worldwide example of the linguistic territoriality principle in action.

I have given my all...for a single great idea, a single dream – the dream of the unity of humankind Ludwik Zamenhof

The either celebrated or lamented Charter of the French Language (Bill 101, as it's known by most) is one of the hallmark achievements of Quebec's Quiet Revolution. The law regulates with precision and determination le visage du Québec, or the predominance of the French language in the public sphere.

This means using French in marketing and business communications province-wide, from billboards and cinema marquees to internal business memos, restaurant menus, and nutritional facts labels on the back of soup cans. It is an expensive and perpetually strained effort to exercise the principle of linguistic territoriality in Quebec, and it has resulted in a further icing over of relations with the province's historic Anglophone communities.

This law and others like it have contributed significantly, with both their successes and shortcomings, to the world's repertoire of possible strategies for addressing linguistic friction between the many tiles that make up the mosaic of multicultural societies like Canada's.

Although the full complexity of the Quebec situation is beyond the scope of this article, I think that the linguistic tug-of-war between French and English in Montreal, as the largest city in Canada's only officially unilingual French-speaking province, serves as a suitable threshold from which to enter a discussion about the future of minority languages in the face of English language predominance in politics, economics, and culture worldwide.

As English continues to pick up momentum as history's first globally shared language for economics, diplomacy, and even culture, more and more communities, language groups, and even whole nations are being pushed to live along side it, if not intimately incorporate it into the fabric of their societies.

Today's globalized economy is so tightly intertwined that the benefits a lingua franca are clear and abundant, no matter which alphabet, grammar and syntax play the role. Those benefits, though, do not come without great risk.

English is currently the leading contender, but I wonder if any language can really fulfil the role of global lingua franca and unite us all without pushing aside, damaging, and even erasing the very cultures it would serve to connect. Can any language really be the apolitical and culturally non-threatening interpreter we all may come to depend on?

In 1887, a man named Ludwik Zamenhof dreamed of a world where the language one spoke would neither oppress others nor oneself. This dream was a concoction of linguistic genius and glowing idealism, and from it sprouted Esperanto.

"I have given my all," he pronounced, "for a single great idea, a single dream – the dream of the unity of humankind." In Zamenhof's eyes, this unity would come through the lab-made language he so optimistically offered the world. Esperanto was to be the neutral answer to what he saw as the unavoidable political and cultural hegemony of a global lingua franca that already belonged to an army and a navy.

This project is still alive today, however barely, and has been both showered in accolades and dismissed as little more than enthusiastic romanticism. Some critics would even have Esperanto share a page with pop-culture's science fiction and fantasy favourites like Klingon and Elvish.

These days the Esperantist community exists mostly as a club of ageing enthusiasts that hold annual conferences and contribute to a withering selection of Esperanto language publications and digital media. Esperanto's failure to catch on is due in large part to its inability to convince people to take serious stock in building the language and to contribute to what was hoped would be a natural growth and evolution as it was disseminated around the world.

Esperanto's self-proclaimed "neutrality" is also a point of contention as its strong adherence to Latin roots. In any case, it was surely a commendable effort with an inspiring ideology, but I think its safe to say that we wont be seeing Fundamento de Esperanto grammar books clutched under the arms of school children any time soon.

Far from being at a disadvantage, Montreal is just one of many cities around the globe where new forms of speech are being created when historically complex linguistic contexts interact with the fluid, rapidly changing pace of a globalising world. I think we can safely say that hybrid phrases like "qu'est-ce que fuck!" will continue to play a key role in our creative efforts to communicate.

This is Part I. Part II will be "The future of language: What will global lingua franca English look like?"


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