« Pasta »… That’s not French!

Foreword: Midterms are now completed (the latest in very poor condition); my reading week began three hours ago. You will find NO comment about the (very) current events in Sciences Po, Twitter fits better for this purpose.
Note: This article is in English (just in case you have not noticed yet…).

Have you heard about the Pastagate? It has been strongly covered by newspapers. The core question is: Is ‘pasta’ a French word? If not, should we use another word to replace it in Quebec?

The caption exaggerates the current situation: eventually, the provincial government claimed that the OQLF went too far.

A prestigious Italian restaurant in Montreal, Buonanotte, was inspected by the OQLF (Office Québécois de la Langue Française) on February 14. The OQLF is the public service which controls that linguistic regulations are enforced (especially about the roles of French and English). In the menu, customers could read pasta, antipasto, and calamari. It is easy to translate these Italian words: pâtes, entrée, calamar. However, the inspectors thought that it was not French enough, and demanded the menus to be reprinted, with French as “main language”: « Other languages can be on the menu, » a spokesman of the OQLF said. « They must not be predominant over French. »

The provincial minister for linguistic policies Diane De Courcy acknowledged that the OQLF’s inspectors have overreacted and have been too zealous in their interpretation. An inquiry will be conducted, De Courcy said.

This case was released, and other manager of restaurants spoke out. The tenant of a French bistro talked about an OQLF’s inspection. The inspector had strict demands: exit (which is a Latin verb) had to be replaced by sortie, on/off by marche/arrêt, steak by bifteck… and WC by toilettes! His remarks are really pertinent: in France, no one would have been shocked (even disturbed) by these ‘English’ words (anglicismes), and they are considered as ‘casual’ French words.

à la fin, l’inspectrice a visité les toilettes. Pour faire parisien, [il] a installé un écriteau «W.-C.» Ce qui signifie «water-closet» et qu’on trouve dans toutes les brasseries françaises.

– Ça ne va pas, ça, monsieur, ce n’est pas français.

– C’est dans toutes les toilettes publiques en France!

– On n’est pas en France.

– C’est dans le Larousse! [a French standard dictionary]

– Ce n’est pas dans notre lexique.

Eventually the inspector allowed WC to remain WC.

The affair highlights broader concerns among Quebec. The provincial government (which is composed by sovereignists) is about to bring in a bill strengthening Quebec’s linguistic regulations (the Loi 101). But since it is a minority government, it has alleviated its draft bill. On the one hand, Anglophones are still angry, because they feel ‘persecuted’ by the Quebec government. On the other hand, orthodox nationalists claim that the government betrayed the “Quebecker cause”. Let’s focus on the postsecondary schools (Cégeps): Anglophone students will be required to take an exam in French proficiency, but the required course load in French will be smaller than what is demanded to Francophone students. Both parties are dissatisfied by this arrangement.

Another anecdote can be brought. Until now, the STM (Société de Transport de Montréal) has provided its services in French: signs are in French, employees must speak French. The minister in charge of Montreal, Jean-François Lisée, proposed to introduce partial bilinguism: if needed, STM employees will be allowed to help customers in either French or English.

Lisée claims that denying understanding English will not make anyone speak French, and that this shift targets tourists and businessmen:

croit-on “que les allophones s’intégreraient davantage au français si les guichetiers de la STM aux métros McGill ou Peel faisaient semblant de ne pas comprendre les mots one ticket, please?”.

I fully agree with him: I did an internship in the public transportation network of Paris (RATP). I was asked to reply in French, English, German and Chinese; and most signs are multilingual (French, English, sometimes Italian and Spanish). But some leaders of his party (e.g. former Premier Jacques Parizeau) and many ‘activists for the defense of the French language’ got angry with Lisée’s plan: again, Lisée is a “betrayer”.

Garnotte in Le Devoir, February 19. Jacques Parizeau (left) is mad about Jean-Francois Lisee’s endorsement for partial bilingualism in the STM.

These arguments are ridiculous. Even if Quebeckers want to maintain the prevalence of French among Quebec, they do not need to be so offensive! Forbidding ‘exit’ in a restaurant or in the metro is not only useless; it is fanatism, as if a “political police” was allowed to operate in Quebec.

Many Quebecker businessmen have raised concerns about the image that Quebec was sending to foreign investors. Francophone editors also found these facts very annoying. The column of François Cardinal in La Presse is really worth reading: Le bon ententisme. However, other comments are less open-minded…

Nevertheless, I keep thinking that most Quebeckers are very nice people. As far as I am concerned, I have NEVER experienced such expressions of hostility: even being a native French-speaker studying in an English university is not perceived as provocative (although I speak French in order to prevent troubles). And I am pretty sure that for most people in Quebec, these linguistic issues are not the first problem which has to be solved.

PW – The Migratory Martlet

Afterword: This has nothing to do with the main topic of the article, but I wanted to mention that. You probably know that Argo received an Academic Award on last Sunday: it is the Best Picture of 2012! This film was directed by Ben Affleck and deals with a shared part of contemporary history of the US and Canada. In 1979, in the aftermaths of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, several American public servants of the US embassy in Teheran were taken in hostage. In order to free some of them, a CIA agent, Tony Mendez, had carried a Canadian identity, entered in Iran as a director who intended to prepare a science fantasy film; he eventually exfiltrated successfully six of them with fake Canadian passports in 1980. At the Oscars ceremony, Ben Affleck shouted: “Thank you Canada!”.

The trailer of ‘Argo’ is there on YouTube.


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