31 October 2012

Québécois: a question of prestige

Recently, several of the other blogs I've been reading have mentioned a new book, Le Québécois en  10 Leçons, self-published on Lulu.com by Alexandre Coutu, known on how-to-learn-any-language as Arrekusu.  Now I'm pretty sure I'll be buying this book myself very soon, but right now I'm trying to stop myself as I've got enough on my plate what with a busying teaching schedule and trying to pick up Corsican.

Anyway, so I decided to start looking around to see what other people's opinions were, and I came across one mother of a thread on HTLAL itself...

The thread became kind of derailed when another user, s_allard, objected to the title, suggesting that it should be "le québécois populaire" or "le québécois de rue" or somesuch.

s_allard's position can be summarised thus:
By using the term "québécois" to describe low-status speech, Coutu makes the term "québécois" into a low-status term by association.  Instead, s_allard wants to use the term "québécois" inclusively to include the "standard" language used in higher register situations.  Besides, many of the features Coutu highlights are going out of fashion.

It's a valid viewpoint, but it's one that I don't personally hold.  Rather, I would say that s_allard's position, while not in itself malicious, maintains an unfair distinction where one's intelligence is determined by the language one speaks.  It has been pointed out that middle-class children generally do best in school the world over, but that this is simply a language bias -- school-teachers are middle-class, therefore the school lect is the middle-class sociolect.

We have a choice of action, therefore: change the lect of the children to match that of the school, or change the lect of the school to match that of the children.  Academically, it's mostly agreed that the latter is the option that has proven most effective time and again, but s_allard's standpoint better matches popular opinion, whether you're talking about India, where many children are taught through the foreign medium of English; Scotland, where many say Gaelic shouldn't be taught "because many children can't even speak English properly" (for some undefined notion of "properly") or s_allard's own Canada.

Personally, it's an attitude I'd want to challenge, not least because many of the notions of "proper" English and "proper" French have been well and truly disproven by corpus studies of the language.  (EG. The statistical norm in French is to drop the "ne" particle in the negative, and the statistical norm in English is to say "can", not "may", when asking permission.)

Moreover, there's the issue of words and phrases going out of fashion.  I personally believe the examples s_allard gave are pretty misleading.  He picked English slang words with no real history, that were invented by one generation and dropped by the next.  But the "québécois" that he objects to is a historically attested form, and one that is being lost not simply due to natural language change, but by the constant imposition of the Standard French norm.

One of the books that I'm using to help me learn Corsican, le corse en 23 lettres, puts it very clearly.  The author, Ghjaseppiu Gaggioli, is a descriptivist grammarian, and in the introduction states that he doesn't want anyone to interpret his work as authoritative.  Instead, he wants to inform the reader so that the reader can make an educated choice.  Because, he says, all languages change, but for a language to stay healthy, that change needs to come from within the boundaries of the language itself.  Much of the change in Corsican today is the borrowing of feature after feature from French into the language.  Similarly, much of the change in Scottish Gaelic is the borrowing of feature after feature from English.

And of course, much of the change in Quebec French is the borrowing of feature after feature from School French*.  s_allard's approach leads to us defining "québécois" as something that every day becomes more like School French.  He wants to differentiate the language name, while differentiating the language less and less.

Coutu's approach is more like that Gaggioli.  He wants to bring people's attention to the features that exist in their local tongues, features that they are not themselves aware of.  He mentions in the HTLAL thread that he gets people telling him "I don't talk like that," only to use the exact same word or phrase a sentence or two later.

This is completely and utterly normal, and anyone who has studied linguistics in a modern setting will have experienced a lesson where the teacher will tell them that "everybody really says X" and the student doesn't believe it.  Over the next couple of days/weeks, the student simply can't stop hearing the phrase.

A couple of years ago, I was telling my manager about how us Scottish people hardly ever say "please" -- we go into a shop and say "I'll have a , thanks."  That's "thanks", not "please".  He was having none of it.  He always said please...  Well, that same day he came in from lunch looking shocked.  "You're right," he said, "I just asked for a sandwich, and I didn't say please."

No-one can protect their own language until they recognise it for what it is....

* I'm giving up on the term "Standard X" unless it's a statistically-defined norm-reference.  A standard isn't a standard just because a minority of people say it should be.  "School X" is a far more accurate term.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. So you perceive "standard" as synonymous with "statistically prevalent"? Such interpretation never occurred to me - I always took it to mean "somehow prescribed", possibly but by no means necessarily overlapping with "most usual".

Anonymous said...

The sociolect of underprivileged children isn't inherently grammatically inferior. That would indeed be linguistic ignorance. However, poor children do lack vocabulary needed to understand explanations. Whether they say can or may is irrelevant.

This article makes that point clearly.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more with this post.

Nìall Beag said...

I'm descriptivist at heart, and there are a lot of decent descriptivist grammarians who are cataloguing the genuine features of the language, and they use the term "standard" for their work.

But sadly, most people outside of linguistics use your meaning of the word, which gives an artificially inflated status to a form of language that no-one speaks. "Standard English" is supposed to be "to whom" and "you and I both know", when in reality these are infrequent forms, almost to the point of being non-existant -- most of the teachers don't even speak that way outside of the classroom, and they don't know it, just like Alexandre claims most Québécois believe they speak Standard French, but they don't.

So yes, within a few generations, "standard" will be synonymous with statistical norm, as the current crop of prescriptivists are replaced with people taught grammar descriptively. It's already happening in English departments (even when I was in high school, in the early/mid 90s, I said "try and" do something in a drama exercise with a student teacher, and I explained that I knew that it was wrong/bad grammar, but that I was using it for effect -- her response surprised me: "who says it's wrong?") and hopefully it'll be working it's way into the primary system now too.

Nìall Beag said...

@Anonymous (number 1):
Yes, exactly. Sadly there's something of a tencency to conflate the two issues at the moment, and the cure for weak language skills isn't to teach people "more language" (what you and the article seem to propose) but to teach them "good language" (as though their dialect is inferior).

The liberal set then make the same mistake and don't attempt to teach anything -- "write how you speak!" they say... ignoring the fact that no-one is 100% aware of how they speak, and that there are no punctuation marks in speech!

The end result (in the worst cases) is that the liberally-educated child writes a sentence with poor structure, and the old-school grammarian blames the poor comprehensibility on the "split infinitives" and the "ending a sentence with a preposition" and no-one ever deals with the root of the problem. (But no, not all instances are so bad -- this is something of a charicature.)

Nìall Beag said...

I've just popped in to HTLAL, and it's great to see that s_allard is as rude as ever. It's not the first time he's resorted to "I don't understand" to avoid debating my points, but the response about "the Scottish language" was clearly aimed at me, so why post it somewhere I can't respond, rather than here, where I can?

His point is valid, but it doesn't change what I said.

If we take "the Scottish language" to mean Scots, then we have a situation very similar indeed to Quebec. Scots is an Anglo-saxon derived language and therefore a close cousin or sister to English, just as Québécois is a langue d'oïl and a close cousin to Parisian (aka "Standard") French.

In Scotland, the language used for official purposes is English, just as "Standard" French is used for official purposes in Quebec.

While I dislike the fact that several books teach Doric (one particular dialect) and call themselves "Scots", it's a far better state of affairs than taking a book that teaches "Standard" English and
calling it "Scots".

But there are statistically salient features that all traditional dialects of Scots share that are not present in English (excluding the North-East of England -- Scots developed from the Northumbrian language once spoken from Yorkshire through to Edinburgh).

Any modern Scottish vernacular that doesn't have these features is a mixture of Scots and English, and if we redefine Scots to include these features, we will eventually all speak pure English, but call it Scots.

So if s_allard's theoretical "Scottish language" book refused to teach either of "dae ye nae ken/" (Doric and the north) and "dae ye no ken?" (southern and central) because neither form is universal, and instead taught "Don't you know" as the only shared form, he would fail to teach two important features: the word "ken", and the fact that the negative particle always goes after the subject. And he would be teaching English rather than Scots.

Similarly, there are consistent features that occur near-universally in traditional Québécois dialects, and to dismiss them as mere regionalisms is to do them a great disservice. I'm sure there are probably more than one or two genuine regionalisms in the book, and that can't be helped, as no word is universal. But the grammar and phonology of traditional Québécois is more systematic than I think he gives it credit for. Dismissing that on the grounds of a word or two is very short-sighted.

Anonymous said...

I see, thanks for explaining. I suppose I was misled by the Czech adjective "standartní" which generally implies "related to some official norm" (eg the "standard arrival" of a train is - in Czech - the one in the timetable, even if the train never arrived on time), and by the fact that in Czech we don't talk about eg "standartní francouzština" but about "spisovná francouzština", a word derived from "spis"=a document, file, treatise &c. So the actual idiomatic meaning is "French according to L'Académie française" - and nobody would expect the French to commonly speak like this, because we realize that neither do we speak according to the rules of the similar Czech institution. The approach is more or less "here we have the "spisovná/standard" Czech, which is good for TV newspeakers, teachers in the classroom, politicians &c, and for written communication; and here we have the umpteen dialects, which are good for normal conversation; each would be somewhat out of place in the other context".