The “Quality of Language” Issue (Corpus Planning)
The Charter of the French Language stipulates that French is the official language of Quebec (section 1). But it says nothing about which variety of French should form the basis of its norm. It has been commonly assumed that it was the variety described in the most commonly used dictionaries and grammars (former deputy minister Jean-Claude Corbeil, personal communication). At the time the Official Language Law (1972) and the Charter of the French Language (1977) were passed, this meant essentially dictionaries and grammars made by Europeans and published in Europe (Commission des états généraux, 2001: 81). In litigious cases where there was no consensus on which term was to be used in French or when there was no agreement on what the proper translation was for an English term or phrase, Quebec’s language agency, the Régie de la langue française (the name of the language agency from 1972 to 1977), explained in 1976 (Régie, 1976: 9) that it was empowered by the law to officialise a French equivalent and make its use compulsory in certain circumstances (in state documents, in public advertising, in textbooks, etc.).
Nevertheless allowing French to become Quebec’s official, common, and working language has meant an increased preoccupation with social and regional variation. A debate developed on which kind of French should be the official one: was it to be the international standard historically based on Parisian French but increasingly tolerant of local peculiarities (as evidenced by the introduction of many ‘Belgicisms’, ‘Quebecisms’, ‘Africanisms’, etc., in the major dictionaries published in Paris)? Or was Quebec to establish its own standard variety placed at the pinnacle of a series of hierarchised colloquial registers (as proposed by the Conseil de la langue française, 1990: 30 and 50 and in various papers by Cajolet-Laganière and Martel, e.g. 1996)?
For those adhering to the second proposal, Quebec French is considered as an autonomous language variety possessing its own standard, a standard that is said to reflect the linguistic uses of the new French-speaking middle class, which arose after World War II (Gendron, 1986). As linguist Jean-Denis Gendron (1986: 95) adds, this new predominant linguistic standard appears in public and official discourses, both spoken and written. In 1990, the Conseil de la langue française proposed to launch a comprehensive description of Quebec French uses (at times abbreviated as... FUQ ‘français en usage au Québec’), including standard uses. This led to the creation of the Franqus project based at the Université de Sherbrooke; the project has received substantial funding from the state (more than $3 M as of 2005, cf. Meney, 2005).
Others propose to view the linguistic situation of Quebec as diglossical (e.g. Lamonde, 1998: 96-103; Barbaud, 1998; Maurais, 2008a, chapter 1; Meney, 2010). Typically, diglossia means a situation where two language varieties are in contact, each of them having certain spheres of social interaction assigned to it. The relationship between the two language varieties is hierarchical: one has high, the other has low prestige. According to this view, the high variety in Quebec would be ‘international French’, used for example in official, commercial, and scientific communications, while the low variety would be Quebec colloquial French used mainly but not exclusively in non formal circumstances (see the discussion by Meney, 2010: 102-122, esp. p. 106).
There is therefore a two-fold division on the topic of which linguistic norm should be favoured: on the one hand, those who hold that international standard French should be the variety taught in schools; on the other hand, ‘endogenists’ who propose that Quebec should officialise its own linguistic norm. ‘Endogenists’ have maintained for years that there is a consensus among Quebec linguists and the general public on an endo-normative standard (e.g. Commission des états généraux, 2001: 84 and Conseil de la langue française, 1990).
A proposal was sent to the 2008 sovereignist Parti québécois convention asking that ‘the teaching of French should be reoriented toward the acquisition of spoken and written standard Quebec French’ (quoted by Paquot, 2009). Linguist Annette Paquot intervened in the media before the proposal was discussed at the convention (Paquot, 2008). She pointed out that the proposed new standard differs only marginally from the established international norm (mainly easily understandable lexical items) and that even supporters of this new standard write their books and publish their papers in international standard French (Paquot, 2008 and 2009). The Parti Québécois convention finally made no move since promoting a new language standard in schools was clearly not supported by public opinion (this is of course reminiscent of the ‘Oakland Ebonics controversy’ in the USA).
The rejection of the proposal on standard Quebec French by the 2008 Parti Québécois convention shows that there is obviously no consensus on the adoption of an endo-normative standard in the public at large. Moreover many prominent linguists (e.g. Barbaud, Meney, Nemni, Paquot) disagree on the existence of the consensus peremptorily proclaimed in some official reports. Admittedly the opponents just mentioned are foreign-born but many native Quebecers also discourage the establishment of a local norm (for instance opinion leaders Lysiane Gagnon at the daily La Presse and Denise Bombardier at Le Devoir). Also, this raises the issue of the discrimination that a new standard could bring to immigrant citizens, a great number of whom are selected by the Department of Immigration on the criterion that they already have a working knowledge of French – a knowledge usually acquired abroad at school where the only variety of French taught is ‘international French’. This argument was developed by Maurais (2008b) who advised choosing the standard that would create the least discrimination.
The absence of a consensus on a new local linguistic norm is also evidenced by the results of opinion polls: in surveys done in 1998 and 2004 about half the respondents felt that they spoke Québécois while the other half felt that they spoke French (Maurais, 2008a: 19).
On the basis of the opinion poll results published by Maurais (2008a), it has been argued by Paquot (2009) and by Meney (2010) that if there is at all a consensus on the linguistic variety to be taught in Quebec’s schools, it does not tend to support the claim made by the proponents of an autonomous norm. Quite the reverse: 76.8% of respondents (all native French-speakers born in Quebec) think that international French should be the standard variety taught in schools while 88.3% think that it is advisable that reference books used in schools (such as grammars and dictionaries) should be the same in all French-speaking countries.
Despite the above, the OQLF’s Grand Dictionnaire Terminologique (Grand Terminological Dictionary, hereafter GDT) has maintained its new orientation adopted in the early 2000's, which favours the acceptance of colloquial words (including loan-words and loan-translations). The GDT merely tags them with the label “langue courante”, but this is not done systematically. This approach, in its core more lexicographical than terminological, was denounced in a manifesto by 19 former OQLF’s terminologists. These terminologists were supported by more than a hundred other terminologists, translators and copy-editors (Manifesto, 2011; for a critical assessment of the GDT, see Meney, 2010: 405-443).
All in all, the debate over which variety of French should prevail still goes on but supporters of ‘international French’ have made headway and the former chairperson of the Conseil supérieur de la langue française Conrad Ouellon declared his preference for international French (CSLF, 2010: 2).
Barbaud, Philippe (1998), Dissidence du français québécois et évolution dialectale. Revue québécoise de linguistique 26/2, 107-128.
Cajolet-Laganière, Hélène and Pierre Martel (1996), Le français québécois: usages, standard et aménagement. Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval and Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture.
Commission des états généraux (2001), Le français, une langue pour tout le monde.
Conseil de la langue française (1990), L’aménagement de la langue: pour une description du français québécois. Quebec City: Conseil.
CSLF (Conseil supérieur de la langue française) (2010), Rapport annuel de gestion 2009-
2010. Quebec City: Conseil.
Gendron, Jean-Denis (1986), Aperçu historique sur le développement de la conscience linguistique des Québécois, Québec français 61, 82-89.
Lamonde, Diane (1998), Le maquignon et son joual, l’aménagement du français québécois. Montreal: Liber.
Manifesto (2011): Au-delà des mots, les termes, Le Devoir, 12 February 2011 and Le Soleil’s online edition, 14 February 2011.
Maurais, Jacques (2008a), Les Québécois et la norme, l’évaluation par les Québécois de leurs usages linguistiques. Montreal: Office québécois de la langue française.
Maurais, Jacques (2008b), Le français correct plutôt que le français québécois, Le Soleil, Quebec City, 1 November 2008.
Meney, Lionel (2005), Un autre dictionnaire québécois, pourquoi? Le Devoir, 7 January 2005.
Meney, Lionel (2010), Main basse sur la langue, Montreal: Liber.
Paquot, Annette (2008), Non à la ‘langue québécoise standard’, Le Devoir, Montreal, 12 March 2008.
Paquot, Annette (2009), Pourquoi notre langue doit rester le français international, Argument 11/1.
Régie de la langue française (1976), La normalisation terminologique. Montreal: Official Printer of Quebec.