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09.18.2003

Your Canadian Tax Dollars at Work

[In a fit of irony, Idle Words is having Unicode problems, and will be ASCII only for the next several days. Please don't take any missing accents personally]

Laurent at navire.net alerts us to a microscandal at Quebec Urbain, a French-language blog by Francois Vachon. Quebec Urbain is a private site, dedicated to goings-on in that fair city.

Recently Francois received an email from a certain Armand Belanger, a "Frenchifiation counselor" (conseiller de francisation) at the Quebec Office of the French Language (OQLF). The email was apparently written in response to a citizen complaint filed with the office, one of whose responsibilities it is to enforce compliance with Quebec's strict language laws:

...last week, a citizen complained about the fact that you had left the calendar in the upper right hand corner of your home page in English, something that constitutes an infringement of the law. Could I ask you to check this situation, and apply the necessary corrective measures? Moreover, the same petitioner states that there are long excerpts from American journals on your site which are not translated, thereby depriving citizens of necessary information about their city or local area. With short excerpts, this is not a problem, but when the excerpts get too long, one risks losing the majority of users. I wished to inform you of this complaint, being assured of your desire to properly satisfy your clientele. I thank you in advance for your collaboration.

Belanger's email makes it clear that he is aware the site has no affiliation with the city or province of Quebec, and that it is not a commercial site. But he still seems to be implicitly threatening a big fine if that calendar isn't cleaned up, and Vachon is not amused.

He writes back:

I don't have clients, only readers. I spend about $300 per year, and at least an hour a day [on the blog] without any income. So any "clients" I lose don't make me lose income. This site is written for my own pleasure, and is not a commercial undertaking. It is not subsidized by anyone.

So I am impatiently awaiting details from the OLF about your free, 24 hour translation service that can do the work for me in under an hour.

And he explains to his readers:

Had I had the misfortune to earn even a penny with Quebec Urbain, I would have been liable for a fine ranging from $250 - $700 Canadian. Harsh, isn't it?

The readers all agree, and enough of them raise Cain with the appropriate authorities that M. Belanger eventually sends a follow-up email, withdrawing his claim that the site is breaking the law, and suggesting that the matter be downgraded to a 'cordial discussion of how to make more room for French on your site'.

On the one hand, this brouhaha is a master study in ineptitude - it reminds me of the periodic flare-ups over 'deep linking', when besuited professionals proudly demonstrate their complete inability to understand the web. It's especially juicy because the Quebec language police are involved, and the whole system set up to defend Canada from linguistic kudzu is heavy with politics and government meddling. And Mr. Belanger, Defender of Linguistic Purity, doesn't do much to help his case by salting his email with gratuitous typos.

On the other hand, there are some nice surprises in how quickly the whole thing got resolved. Having taken a bold step across the threshold of stupidity, the civil servant manages a retraction, and his boss gives a flat-out apology. After things got cleared up, the whole OQLF office got a memo on their Intranet, alerting them that the 'blog' phenomenon was kosher, and to stop releasing the hounds. And in the interim, everyone on the comment threads, even people ordinarily quite passionate about keeping the language free of corrupting English influences, seemed to agree that the whole issue was a crock.

On the gripping hand, it's not at all clear what the OQLF blog policy is. Their PR man, Gerald Paquette, says that it's fine for a professional consultant or a company to have English on their website - only those pages "advertising a good or a service" are covered by the law. But considering the way more businesses are using blogs, that hardly seems like a clear, bright line. Given how tenacious language barriers are on the Internet, seeing people penalized for quoting posts in another language is really frustrating.

The more I read the Quebecois bloggers, the more I admire them. Maybe it's the heplful latitude - long, cold winters seem to make for good weblogs (says the Vermonter). Maybe it's good old fashioned Canadian wry humor and civility. But I think a big part of it is their ability to navigate the US and French Internet while maintaining their own perspective and critical distance. I'd be curious to hear what my colleagues up North think of all this, and find out if the language wars that turned every burger in Quebec into a 'hambourgeois' are now moving online. If anone cares to post on this in English, or send email, I'd be glad to provide a link.

(Does this site need comments? At times like this, I get sorely tempted to add comments).

And while language is on your mind, you should go read the thread Jason Kottke (my favorite monoglot) recently started on 'code-switching', the grating linguistic term for how people communicate when more than one language is available to them. The comments in that thread are too good to summarize - as you'd expect, we use language in vastly different ways, and when more than one language come into play, things get impossibly subtle and idiosyncratic. At the same time, there are recurring patterns and themes that seem to tie in to the basic biology underpinning language and communication.

Jason's thread doesn't really go into the political side of multilingualism - what happens when one language meets another on an unequal footing. On a continent where an entire branch of human language is going extinct, it's a pretty depressing topic. But that's a whole other post.

---

"What do you call a person who speaks two languages?"

"Bilingual."

"Three languages?"

"Trilingual."

"One language?"

"American."

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