"Beastly Horrible French," Hein?
- Luise Von Flotow (Translator) and Chantal Bouchard (Author)
Obsessed with Language: A Sociolinguistic History of Quebec. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Stefan Dollinger
Obsessed with Language is a historical study of language attitudes towards Quebec French (QFr), aiming to analyze the "collective consciousness" of QFr speakers from 1850 to 1970. It is, despite the subtitle of the English translation, a sociolinguistic history only in the widest sense of the term. The data come exclusively from comments by journalists, literati, and writers of letters to the editor, making this a metalinguistic study that cannot offer insights on the social (sociolinguistic) uses of QFr.
Central to Bouchard's argument are the various movements of Quebec peasants into the cities and their existence as a "dominated people," as laborers of Anglophone business men, which resulted in a collective identity crisis. Bouchard sets out to explain the QFr speaker's linguistic insecurity and discusses a host of phenomena, including the fears for linguistic survival in North America, the portrayal of French as "the guardian of the [Catholic] faith," the fight against English loan words and QFr regionalisms, the separation of QFr from other Canadian French (CFr) varieties, the language laws, the association of bilingualism with French language attrition, and the discussion of the concept of a CFr "patois," a term that was once praised as representing the "pure" language of 17th-century France, which was allegedly spoken by the CFr farmer. The latter Romantic notion is in dire need of deconstruction, which is only hinted at. While the chapters on 1910-40 and 1960-70 are most informative, chapter eight, apparently added for the translation, breaks the flow of the book.
The despair of French Canadian commentators over the differences between QFr and French French is another important theme. The label "beastly horrible French," used by an Ontario minister in the pre-WWII period in relation to CFr, illustrates the attitudinal prejudices CFr speakers have had to face. These attitudes, which have improved only fairly recently, are shared, to varying degrees, by French speakers from France, and, perplexingly, by CFr speakers themselves, which is shown in Pierre Trudeau's characterization of CFr as "lousy French." The belief that language change can be reversed to preserve the linguistic ties with France, "one of the most brilliant cultures in the history of mankind," informs much of a truly colonial debate.
Some sociolinguistic concepts would have enriched the book, two of which I can mention. First despite discussing pluricentric approaches to French, Bouchard's terminology equates the label "standard French"-in violation of the concept-with the French of the elites in France: "standard French French" would be preferable. Second, overt prestige (prestige forms in public discourse) and the underlying focus of the book, is at no point discriminated from the prestige of non-standard linguistic varieties (covert prestige). While the study is not designed to investigate the linguistic insecurity of the majority of the language users, there is good reason to hope that Bouchard's volume will serve as a springboard for such work; a function that can only be hampered by a rudimentary table of contents and the lack of an index.
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MLA: Dollinger, Stefan. "Beastly Horrible French," Hein?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #201 (Summer 2009), Disappearance and Mobility. (pg. 141 - 141)
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