Canadian French: A Language Worth Protecting?

Emma Buckby

8 Dec 2014

Many languages spoken in the world today are under danger of extinction while many others are changing rapidly, especially as they adopt words from other languages.  These borrowed words may be new themselves, for example, as technology develops. In other instances, borrowed words may become popular as they capture a meaning more succinctly than any existing word or perhaps the word has simply become trendy amongst a segment of the population.

In the past, languages that were under threat of extinction often died a natural death. However, in modern times, many people who speak a threatened language have become much more proactive in their defence and are taking action to preserve and promote their language. We have examples in Britain with Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, most visibly as travellers cross the border and view bilingual road signs.

However, there are also instances where the language itself may not be under threat of extinction globally but may be under threat as a minority language within the region it is spoken.  An excellent example of this situation is the Canadian province of Quebec.

Whilst the French language is not in danger of extinction in Canada with more than 10 million speakers, the Canadian Government protects the French language through the Official Languages Act, which recognises French, along with English, as the country’s two official languages. Furthermore, Quebec province has its own Charter of the French Language, also known as Bill 101, which defines French as the only official language of the province. The idea is to protect the French language and French culture in the only remaining predominately French speaking region of North America.

The OQLF (Office québécois de la langue française) is responsible for monitoring French language use in the public domain, to the exclusion of other languages. Most traditionally, this included, for example, that all shop signs are displayed in French. Although sometimes pedantic, such as forcing an Italian restaurant to translate the word ‘pasta’ to ‘pȃtes’, the task was relatively straightforward.

However, with the spread of modern technology into all walks of life, the OQLF’s task is much more difficult. An article on Lowdown Online raises an interesting question about how language use can be enforced online. In the article, it highlights the case of a shopkeeper of a small boutique in Quebec. Although her shop’s signs comply with Bill 101, the OQLF has objected to the shopkeeper’s reference to her business on Facebook, which she has published in English. Other challenges cited in the article include other businesses’ websites that have commercial content in languages other than French.

The dilemma of advancing technology and legal rules that could not have anticipated modern realities have become lost in translation. Although a shop sign in a Montreal retail district is undoubtedly in Quebec and thus under the jurisdiction of Bill 101, how does the law interpret its jurisdiction of the internet? Does a shop need to comply with a local or regional regulation in cyberspace, especially if it is now possible to sell a product or service online beyond the legal boundaries the law intended? Where do the legal boundaries end and the natural use of language begin? Blurred lines – to borrow from another Canadian popular reference – indeed.



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