Magazine article Inroads: A Journal of Opinion

French, a Language in Exile

Magazine article Inroads: A Journal of Opinion

French, a Language in Exile

Article excerpt

"Le francais, une langue en exil," Raisons communes. (Montreal: Boreal, 1995); translated by John Richards.

Making French the language of daily use in North America presents a paradox; one cannot sustain the use of French based simply on its being a "habit" that has survived for several centuries. To do so requires more solid reasons that make sense in terms of social life.

Individuals and societies express themselves using all sorts of signs and symbols spread through daily life and bound up with the most ordinary behaviour. Language is the mobilization of these signs and symbols. It brings them to consciousness. It is not the record, more or less accurate, of what would have taken form without it; it represents the ability to assemble, the creative potential of the individual and of culture. It is an obvious reality to which a group can refer in order to be conscious of itself. There exist other factors of identity: a territory, customs, political power. All these elements suppose, for a collectivity, an exercise in interpreting its condition which affords to language an exceptional status, simultaneously as means for this interpretation and as a guarantee that this interpretation comes from the group itself. Language bears witness to the power of the human imagination and of human signs in social change; to be committed to the defence and promotion of language is not an idealistic diversion. It is not surprising that the matter of language has assumed so much importance in the transformation of contemporary Quebec society...

A language within four walls

The context within which the problem is posed has profoundly changed. Before, for a large fraction of the population, French was a spontaneous part of their intimate being, and they were no more likely to question linguistic survival than to question the legitimacy of their own existence. Now, migration from country to city and other forms of mobility, and the search for social advancement, have rendered the value of French problematic for an ever growing number of francophones. Our former elites elaborated a rationalization for moments of doubt: the French language as guardian of the faith, the nobility and richness of l'esprit francais compared to the pragmatism of the competing language. Who could now seriously take up such arguments, at the end of the century and after the social changes we have undergone? Reread, for example, the famous speech of [Henri] Bourassa at Notre-Dame: one will be moved by a beautiful historical memory, but the demonstration will appear, for today, irrelevant. The question must be posed anew.

Does the question have the same importance as before? Among the apparently more concrete problems which assail us--and despite the language conflicts in recent years--for many of our citizens the question appears somewhat secondary. We know the Ottawa perspective: French is defined as a specific characteristic of individuals; we have the right to speak French if that pleases us and the right to understand, in this idiom, important public sector communications. Moreover, I recently heard an advocate of sovereignty state roughly the following in a speech: "We have chewed over this old language problem sufficiently. So many challenges exist; let us assume our independence and we shall finally be able to talk about something else." I also know people irritated by these discussions of the French language; they detect the stench of old conservative nationalism.

In distinction to the above, I want to emphasize the extent to which the future of our language is at the heart of the obstacles and opportunities of our society. Let me state my thesis simply: not only is the fate of French linked to the process of proletarisation of our collectivity; in a way, the fate of French defines proletarisation.

A French Canadian concerned about his identity leaves the table indignant if, in a restaurant, he is not served in French. …

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