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.

1 comment:

  1. 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" ;)