A friendly greeting recently got an unfriendly reception in Quebec, where the legislature passed a resolution against “bonjour hi.”
Linguistic purists in the province, where French is dominant, bristle when shopkeepers in Montreal say hello to customers in a pastiche of French and English. The “bonjour”-only resolution has no legal power, and would be hard to enforce even if it did.
Still, the move highlights both the sensitivity of seemingly innocent phrases and the difficulty of limiting the way people speak.
English and French, both members of the Indo-European language family, have been in close contact for centuries on both sides of the Atlantic. While English is rich in borrowing from many other tongues, it’s drawn heavily from French in particular. Yet even before English became a global lingua franca, Francophones in Canada feared the relegation of their language to second-class status, and they still worry about its erosion even in Quebec. That’s why the province’s laws protect the primacy of French.
French-speakers in Quebec are “a community that is well-aware that their language is vulnerable,” said Tara Fortune, a language-acquisition researcher at the University of Minnesota.
Yet the practical difficulty of keeping two languages apart is evident especially in Montreal, where visitors see signs for “Pont Champlain Bridge” and “Cafe Starbucks Coffee.”
Merchants who say “bonjour hi” no doubt see it less as a bastardization of French than as an attempt to welcome speakers of either language.
Languages can coexist in a variety of ways. In the short term, an individual learning to speak a second language is likely to mash together terms and syntax from the first and second language. After a period of sustained exposure between large groups of people, even unrelated languages can also merge into pidgins, which involve a simplified blend of two languages that, in time, can become a full hybrid language called a creole.
In Montreal, meanwhile, many residents are fluent in both French and English. That gives rise to code-switching — when two people who know the same languages make intentional switches out of communicative want rather than developmental need. “Bonjour hi” can reflect this type of purposeful language-blending.
In an e-mail, Roy Lyster, a professor of second-language education at McGill University, said the Anglo-French phrase could be considered an example of “translanguaging, which involves code-mixing, code-switching, etc., among bilinguals.” The translanguage movement has encouraged students to use their full range of linguistic skills, regardless of what language is standard or dominant.
But operating in multiple languages is fraught with controversy in situations where speakers of one language feel threatened. Language change, like biological evolution, favors some and leaves others by the wayside, especially languages that come in contact with the monolith of English.
When two languages are spoken by the same people, Fortune said, “there is evidence that the language with lower relative status is in greater risk of decline.” Indeed, that dynamic has been bad news for numerous languages, from Hawaiian to Welsh to Navajo, that have come in contact with English.
And while English-speakers in the United States might look askance at Quebec’s fixation on keeping French pure, some Americans also fear other languages — especially Spanish — even though the situation couldn’t be more different.
The history of American immigration indicates that higher-status English is likely to subsume immigrant languages within three or four generations. English, again due to its high status, tends to bulldoze and consume no matter where it’s spoken. Fortune calls it “the Pac-Man of languages.”
Demand for a single language can be an understandable attempt to maintain a vulnerable culture or a xenophobic attempt to keep out unwanted races. “The idea of language purity is a bit of a myth and indeed can be used to discriminate,” Lyster said. But he added that, “an agreed-upon standard language seems very useful for developing strong (and marketable) literacy skills among students.”
But whether and how to draw the lines between standard and nonstandard languages will always be a gut judgment. Everybody in Quebec can understand what “bonjour hi” means. Then again, the same is true for “bonjour.”Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.