Paths to Post-Nationalism: A Critical Ethnography of Language and Identity

By Monica Heller | Go to book overview

2
Critical Ethnographic Sociolinguistics

2.1 LABELING EXPERIENCE

The title of this chapter is rather grandiose, but the origins of the ideas in it are mundane. I just have happened to be in the right place at the right time: on the margins during a period of social conflict and social change. A lot has been said about marginal people as particularly useful sources of information about communities for social scientists; I suppose my peculiarity is having turned my position into my own work as a social scientist (my son claims it is just a flimsy excuse for my curiosity, but here I will try to make the case that it is more interesting and productive than that).

The city I grew up in, Montreal, is well-known for its ethnolinguistic fragmentation. The fault line between French (Catholic) and English (Protestant) is foundational to the organization of Canadian society, used as it is to legitimize social stratification, and nowhere is the policing of that boundary more evident than in the city that was long the financial center of Canada, where the stakes were high and social practices consequential. It has also long been one of the major places where the boundary is lived, that is, where constructing or contesting it was a matter of the social and linguistic practices of many people in the course of their daily lives.

Various accounts of life in Montreal at the end of the nineteenth century and through the first half of the twentieth reveal the daily work involved in maintaining the economic and social dominance of the anglophone demographic minority. Ethnolinguistic class stratification manifested itself in a number of ways: the francophone servants imported into anglophone houses, the English-speaking bourgeoisie developing (francophone-serviced) tourism in the francophone hinterland, the francophone industrial workers in factories owned and operated by anglophones.1 For the most part, anglophones used monolingualism as a mode of domination; even if they actually spoke some version of French at some times, it was clear that to do so was not an obligation. For anglophones, monolingualism was normal; for francophones, it was a deficit.

Newcomers from outside this dichotomy, this oppositional quasimoiety arrangement, needed to be fit in somehow. The Irish working class had both class and religion in common with the French, language in common with the English; the stories of the Irish show the complicated ways

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