Monday, 5 February 2018

Two Principles of Sociolinguistics

I attended many conferences during my career as a linguist. For the last ten years in particular, I attended conferences where the issue of the valorisation of linguistic variation was discussed, in particular the legitimisation of non-standard varieties and the recognition of national varieties of French.

The politically correct reasoning is always the same: all languages are equal, all linguistic varieties are equal to each other. From a theoretical point of view, all languages are equal, of course. But that does not mean that they enjoy equality of status or that they have the same value on the language market:

The analysis of the world linguistic situations shows that languages are profoundly unequal. At first they are unequal from a statistical point of view: some are widely spoken, others not [...]. They are unequal from a social point of view: some are dominated [...] while others dominate and perform official, literary, cultural, international, or vehicular functions.
– Louis-Jean Calvet, Le marché aux langues : les effets linguistiques de la mondialisation, Paris, Plon, 2002, p. 102-103.

This inequality does not exist only between languages, but also between varieties within the same language.

I propose to explain the paradox of equality and inequality of languages and language varieties through two principles inspired by English science fiction writers.

First principle

All languages are equal. What one language allows to convey, another allows to convey it just as well.

The fact is well known and hardly needs demonstration. The English possessive, e.g. Peter’s book, is not superior to its Latin equivalent, liber Petri, nor its Hungarian counterpart, Péternek a könyve [= Peter-to + the + book + possessive suffix ]. And the same holds for dialect variation within a language: me father is equivalent (in terms of denotation) to my father (leaving aside the issue of connotation).

I propose to call this first principle the principle of Huxley, because it is reminiscent of equality between human beings as is presented in the novel The Brave New World:

"All men are physico-chemically equal," said Henry sententiously. "Besides, even Epsilons perform indispensable services."
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, chap. 5

At the level of phonemes and morphemes, all languages and all varieties of a language are of equal value: All languages are phonetico-morphogically equal. Besides, even substandard varieties perform indispensable services.

Second principle

But as everyone knows, some languages are more equal than others. How many parents in Sept-Îles (on the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River) would ask for their children to be taught the language of their Montagnais (Innu) neighbours? If further proof were needed, one need only have to have a look at the second and foreign language education market, where the value of English far overrides that of other languages. This inequality is based on what I propose to call the Orwell principle:

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.
– George Orwell, Animal Farm

In my original post in French I exemplifed the working of these two principles from the point of view of the French linguistic market.

In the media world interpreters know very well on which side their bread is buttered and adjust according to the audience they target. Take the example of two very popular Quebec film actors in recent years: François Arnaud and Marc-André Grondin.

On the Quebec language market, François Arnaud uses the Quebec standard variety of French. On the international language market, he has a brilliant career in English (he was Cesare in the drama television series The Borgias).

On the Quebec language market, Marc-André Grondin uses the Quebec standard variety of French in a film like C.R.A.Z.Y. But in order to break into the European French language market, he needed a language coach (by the way a current practice among opera singers): on this market, Marc-André Grondin speaks like a Frenchman of his generation.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Puigdemont out of a double bind

While reading the book Dir la realitat by sociologist and sociolinguist Catalan LLuís Vicent Aracil I came across the concept of double bind introduced by American psychologist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson.

This concept of double bind refers to an impossible choice between two paradoxical or contradictory injunctions. One cannot comply with the first without breaking the second. The two rules are accompanied by a third constraint that forbids going out of this situation. Without this third constraint, it would be a mere dilemma.

It reminds one of the tale of the Greek tragedy Antigone. In order to comply with her religious obligations, Antigone must bury her brother even if he died in a rebellion against King Creon. But the king forbids her to perform the funeral rites. Should she obey the gods, or obey the king? Antigone decides to fulfil her religious duty. Creon resorts to violence and condemns her to death. As Aracil writes, in a case of double bind "one must choose between blind and desperate violence and the fatalistic acceptance of disorder and helplessness."

That Greek tragedy was replayed this year in Catalonia. Madrid invoked the Constitution to prevent the Catalan Government from holding a referendum on self-determination. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont chose to act according to his electoral mandate, held a referendum and went on to proclaim the Republic of Catalonia. Madrid resorted to violence in order to prevent him from holding this referendum, sent to gaol pro-independence leaders including eight Catalan cabinet members, suspended regional autonomy and took control of the Catalan Government. At this stage greater violence is not to be dismissed offhandedly.

In a case of double bind, what can be done?

Let us listen to what Aracil tells us: "... an insoluble problem in the immediate and narrow context proves to be soluble in the context of the context."

In the case of Catalonia, what is the context of the context? The European Union. This explains the exile of Carles Puigdemont to Brussels. In that way one  hopes that violence will be avoided and that the issue will be raised in a new and more favourable setting.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Revitalising Aboriginal Languages

Last week, the Consulate General of the United States in Quebec City invited some people interested in the future of Aboriginal languages to a videoconference organised by the Department of State in Washington, D.C. Two experts from the Smithsonian Institution talked about programmes to revitalise Aboriginal languages. This was a multiplex conference between Washington, D.C., Vancouver, Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. It appeared during the meeting that there were listeners in other countries as well, at least in Ivory Coast and Bolivia. I am still not sure about the objectives of such a meeting: perhaps the organisers sought to create a new right of interference to protect endangered languages and cultures abroad.

The experts first presented the situation of endangered languages around the world, making the now common comparison with the disappearance of animal and plant species. The Breath of Life programme for language revitalisation was also presented. Examples were given of children brought to a museum to show them pieces of pottery and to teach them at the same time the vocabulary of the natives who had made them. Rather a backward-looking approach to revitalise languages, I would say. But, after all, the Smithsonian is primarily known for its museums.

But first a remark on a technical aspect. Images during this multiplex conference were often blurry when they did not freeze. Not at all the quality of images that the pilots have at their disposal with remote-control drones in the Homeland TV series. I wondered in petto what it is like for the drones that are currently sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The conference began at 2 pm and abruptly ended at 3 pm although we had been informed that it would last an hour and a half. This was a blessing in disguise because the Quebec City group continued the discussion – which was more interesting, I would venture to say, than the videoconference itself. Our group was composed of Wendat (Huron), an Abenaki, an Algonquin, perhaps an Innu (or Montagnais as they were formerly called, here I have a memory lapse), and a few Euro-Canadians. There were also three contributors to my book Quebec’s Aboriginal Languages (French edition 1992, English edition 1996).

Few know that the Wendat are trying to revive their language which ceased to be spoken more than a century ago. One of them pointed out the necessity, in order to revive the ancestral language and to use it in everyday life, to find equivalents for words as common to us as sidewalk or fan (for this object, he argued that the solution would be to use a term that would be equivalent to a periphrasis in English – she pushes the wind – adding the further explanation that there is a preponderance of the feminine in the Wendat language). This intervention would seem at odds with the backward-looking (or even purist) vision that seemed to be presented during the videoconference. For the Smithsonian expert did not address the theme of language modernisation, an essential feature if endangered languages are to be used again fully in everyday life. Let me add here that this topic has been studied at length and extensively exemplified in the six-volume series Language Reform: History and Future edited by István Fodor and Claude Hagège (1983-1994).

For my part I quoted from Statistics Canada's analysis of the 2011 Census questions on Aboriginal languages: "According to the 2011 Census, almost 213,500 people reported an Aboriginal mother tongue and nearly 213,400 people reported speaking an Aboriginal language most often or regularly at home". A mere difference of only 100 between the two figures. This sentence calls for two comments. First, it is unlikely that Aboriginal languages do not show linguistic assimilation. Secondly there is no mention of linguistic assimilation as such. On the contrary, it is suggested that English or French speakers would switch to Aboriginal languages: "In 2011, almost 213,400 people reported speaking an Aboriginal language at home. While 82.2% of them reported that same Aboriginal language as their mother tongue, the other 17.8% reported a different language, such as English or French, as mother tongue". These data are astonishing in the light of the situation prior to 2011. Here is what Louis-Jacques Dorais wrote in my book Les langues autochtones du Québec (published in 1992; at that time, the 1991 census data were not yet available):

The comparison between mother tongue and home language makes it possible to calculate the conservation rate of Aboriginal languages (home language / mother tongue). In 1971, this rate was 85.4% among Aboriginals in Quebec. This means that of all Aboriginal speakers, 83.8% spoke their ancestral language at home, 14.7% spoke English, 1.3% spoke French, and 0.2% spoke another language (Bernèche and Normandeau, 1983). The linguistic transfers from Aboriginal languages were therefore massively towards English.

In 1986, the conservation rate of Aboriginal languages (excluding Mohawk) was 95.8%, a figure probably close to that of 1971. That same year, the rate of conservation of Aboriginal languages spoken outside the Montreal area was estimated at 94%. It is also probable that in 1986 linguistic transfers continued to be directed mainly towards English, but probably to a somewhat lesser extent than in 1971, the influence of French having then increased slightly in Aboriginal communities.

Among the Inuit, the Inuktitut conservation rate was 98.6% in 1986, probably the same as in 1981. Few transfers were registered, mainly to English.

Demographers should therefore undertake serious analyses of the 2011 census data on Aboriginal languages.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Presence of French on Store Fronts and Language Attrition

This interesting comment on my preceding post, from That Nerdy Girl Who Is Skinny, seems to have mysteriously disappeared. I hereby reproduce it:

The prominence of French takes another degree of importance when the process of language attrition is taken into account.

Language attrition happens when a speaker becomes more exposed to a language than another or certain words over others. Eventually, the most used language and vocabulary starts affecting the use of the lesser used languages and vocabulary by causing word retrieval problems and structural changes. This happens because the brain is plastic and reorganizes itself to make the most used language and vocabulary easier to access. This happens at the cost of making the lesser used languages and vocabulary harder to access. Language attrition, like language acquisition, is a matter of EXPOSITION and USE.

L1 attrition is often seen in bi(tri, etc)linguals and especially in people who move abroad and don't get to use their L1 often.

The most blatant manifestation of language attrition we can see here is Frenglish speakers. Next time you converse with a Frenglish speaker, ask them to redo the whole sentence in French and watch them struggle to retrieve the proper words even though French is their L1. Frenglish speakers foster Frenglish speakers by increasing and solidifying the EXPOSITION and the USE of English words over their French counterpart. That's aside from the fact that the rules of communication dictate that to be understood, 2 people have to use the same code, which encourages further the use of Frenglish among Frenglish speakers. That's why, dozens of years later, we still use English terminology for all things mechanic and tools. It has become harder to understand what people refer to when they use the French terminology for those things. Again, a matter of exposition.

Over generations, this causes permanent language loss.

So where does French prominence on signs come into play? It's about exposition. French prominence on signs ensures that French is the language the most readily seen and as such, increases the chances that it will be the one used. People want a name for things, they will pick the first thing they see, because people are lazy. That's how we got English speakers to use "Dépanneur" over "Convenience store" ;)

        – That Nerdy Girl Who Is Skinny

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Ups and Downs of English in Montreal

The issue of English increasing its presence on commercial signs in the Montreal area has come periodically to the forefront. French lobbies have been active in filing complaints with the OQLF. In 2009-10, 39.1% of the complaints filed at the OQLF dealt with the language of commercial signs, up from 26.4% in 2008-09 (OQLF, 2010: 70) and 10.5% in 2006-2007 (OQLF, 2007: XIII).

A series of reports on the language of commercial signs in Montreal made public by the OQLF on 1 June 2012 went almost unnoticed, since it was released in the wake of massive student protests and social unrest. It should not come as a surprise that these reports were published at a time when they would pass almost unnoticed. For indeed their findings tend to confirm the apprehensions of those complaining that English is coming back in force in the Montreal area (see testimonies posted on French language advocacy sites such as and

According to this 2012 report, in 1997 and 2010 French was present on respectively 96% and 94% of business names and signs; this means a slight decrease of the presence of French on commercial signs in the whole Montreal area from 1997 to 2010 and it is statistically significant (OQLF, 2012b: 39). In 2010 some 82% of signs posted on shops and businesses were in French only, some 3% were bilingual but with a marked predominance given to French. The OQLF report acknowledges that French is indeed predominant in the linguistic landscape of Montreal; and in some areas it is even the only language used on commercial signs (OQLF, 2012b: 41). However in the West Island area 11% of commercial signs have no French wording (OQLF, 2012b: 44).

The OQLF report also concludes that English is “stable” on commercial signs though its presence went down from 43% in 1997 to 41% in 2010 (OQLF, 2012b: 9-10). The statement that the presence of English is stable is dubious and even misleading considering that from 43% in 1997 it went up to 49% in 1999 and then down to 41% in 2010. The figures rather show that English is far from being stable and suggest that it might indeed be retreating. These figures are not concealed but the report prefers to play down this potential decrease of English on commercial signs. Such behaviour is puzzling and one may wonder why the OQLF prefers not to highlight this relative decrease in the presence of English in a context where this agency is frequently reproached to be weak in its defence of French. The explanation for this behaviour might be that it was not socially and politically acceptable to suggest that English might be less present on commercial signage. Especially at a time when the linguistic insecurity of French-speaking Montrealers ran high and when other reports published simultaneously attested to a decrease in the use of French (see my post on the use of French in attending customers in shops and retail stores). Moreover it should be reminded that the report was published in a pre-electoral climate (elections were called a few weeks later on 1 August 2012) and that English speakers and more generally people who do not have French as their native language constitute the hard core of the Quebec Liberal Party electorate (so much so that political opinion poll data are regularly disaggregated between native speakers of French and native speakers of all other languages). It should therefore not come as a surprise that the then Liberal government (and the sovereignist Official Opposition) would choose to play down this relative decrease in the use of English.

The 2010 survey was updated in 2012 but only for a section of downtown Montreal (St.-Catherine Street between Papineau and Atwater). The scope of this new survey was restricted to business names. The OQLF found that 81.7% of businesses complied with the requirements of Bill 101 while 18.3% did not (OQLF, 2012c: 25). But according to a survey made the same year by Radio-Canada in the same section of downtown Montreal and with the same target, more than 25% of business names did not comply with Bill 101 (Faits et Causes, 2012). It is reasonable to assume that the figures given by the OQLF survey are more accurate owing to the agency legal expertise, whereas the Radio-Canada findings would be more consistent with popular feeling.
For references, see preceding posts.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The Language of Commercial Signs

The language of commercial signs, or more exactly the place of French on commercial signs, is an issue that has been rampant since at least the 1960’s. From 1977 when Bill 101 was passed till 1993, French was the only language to be used on commercial signs (there were exceptions for signs advertizing cultural activities, for ethnic shops, for political or religious messages, etc., see Maurais 1989: 146). This French-only policy was deemed necessary because it was to symbolize, in the eyes of all, that linguistic change was under way and that French was regaining ground.

These provisions were challenged before the courts and in 1993 Québec’s National Assembly passed a new law allowing for bilingual (or multilingual) commercial signs provided that French was given a marked predominance. This concept of a marked predominance of French was suggested and approved of by the Supreme Court of Canada in its 1988 ruling though it did not define it. Neither did the law passed in 1993, which simply states that “Public signs and posters and commercial advertising must be in French. They may also be both in French and in another language provided that French is markedly predominant [...]” (section 58 of R.S.Q., chapter C-11; 1993, c. 40, s. 18). In practice French is deemed markedly predominant when messages in French are twice as numerous or written in characters twice as large as in any other language.

The issue of English increasing its presence on commercial signs in the Montreal area has come periodically to the forefront. French lobbies have been active in filing complaints with the OQLF. In 2009-10, 39.1 % of the complaints filed at the OQLF dealt with the language of commercial signs, up from 26.4 % in 2008-09 (OQLF, 2010: 70) and 10.5% in 2006-2007 (OQLF, 2007: XIII).

To be continued…
Maurais 1989 = Maurais, Jacques (1989), Language Status Planning in Quebec. In Christer Laurén and Marianne Nordman (eds.), Special Language: From Humans Thinking to Thinking Machines. Clevedon UK and Philadelphia USA: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 138-149.
OQLF, 2007 = Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) (2007), Rapport annuel de gestion 2006-2007. Montreal: Office.
OQLF, 2010 = Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) (2010), Rapport annuel de gestion 2009-2010. Montreal: Office.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Some Thoughts on Language Politics and Regional Integration

Michael A. Morris, emeritus professor at Clemson University (South Carolina), has recently published Language Politics of Regional Integration: Cases from the Americas (Palgrave Macmillan US, 2016).

In a world globalising across boundaries and cultures, where economic interdependence increases dramatically, languages may come to be seen as non-tariff barriers to free-trade flow. Assessments need to be made of the measures taken by various states and/or implemented through particular free-trade treaties to manage (be it implicitly or covertly) the relationships between the de facto imperial lingua franca and various national languages not to mention aboriginal languages. Economic forces and, it must be added, also military alliances and intelligence networks (like the so-called Echelon or Five Eyes network which includes only English-speaking states) promote the dominance of English. Inevitably tensions and conflicts arise at various levels and they need be analysed.

In his book Michael A. Morris sets out to rate a number of cases of language politics in the Americas with the help of a multi-level analysis. He compares various North and South American groupings and whenever possible introduces parallels with extra-American groupings (in particular the European Union). His aim is to provide a conciliatory strategy allowing consensus to be forged and tensions lessened. His book is a tool that could help reduce or solve problems arising from a hegemonic lifestyle imposed at the expense of biodiversity and cultural diversity.

Whereas a country like Canada imposes Canadian content quotas on cultural productions (and quotas on the use of French songs on radio), one should be reminded that cultural protectionism is not exclusive to Canada: the US practice of film remakes is a clear example of cultural protectionism favouring the Hollywood film industry. This instance of a covert cultural and linguistic policy shows a lack of respect for cultural diversity. In most countries films in foreign languages are either dubbed or subtitled.

But even greater social forces are at play and jeopardise the promotion of various national languages or even the preservation of most aboriginal languages in a context where parents tend to see the use of the ancestral tongue as hindering social upward mobility.