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Montreal: phonetics, purists, and even some terrorists
Wednesday, August 27, 2008   3:59 PM

One of my fellow roadtrippers was friends with a guy from Quebec, so on the second day of our stay in Montreal we met up with him at a local bar, where he taught us the swears (there's a cheatsheet somewhere, but basically Quebec hasn't made the switch from blasphemy to profanity, so tabernac (sp?) is one of the worst things you can say) and answered our other questions about Montreal.

I can't tell you how nice it was to finally find out what those little triangle marks were called: circumflexes. As Fred tells it, to convert French into québécois, you should pronounce every vowel as if it had a circumflex accent.

Who knows if that's correct. Since reading a post on Foreign Place Names over at Linguism, I've been terrified of French phonology:

For instance, of all the forty-odd phonemes of English, and the similar number in French, only two are identical in the two languages (and there may be small differences even here): /f/ and /m/. All the other sounds of the two languages have differences that contribute to the sound of a French accent in English, or an English accent in French.

After drinks (but also before yet more drinks), Fred took us on a walking tour of the city. He paused outside of a Second Cup to show us the tiny type that had made it into a Les cafés Second Cup.

As I understand it, the business name "Second Cup" is permissible under the Charter of the French Language, even if the predominant language on everything inside the building has to be French.

The "Les cafés" was added to some signs in 2000, after the French Self-Defence Brigade (a translation of the official name, I'm sure) attempted to firebomb three franchises in Montreal. And there were protests last year when the chain considered changing the name back to just "Second Cup."

Successful protests, as far as I could tell.

(Check out this post at Fagstein, the blog of a copy editor in Montreal, for a local's take on the Second Cup issue.)

Related: Montreal is also home to a strangely familiar coffeehouse chain called Café Starbucks Coffee.

We may have actually had drinks at McKibbin's, the Irish pub that was cited for decorating its interior with vintage English-only beer ads (my goodness!), but I wasn't paying attention so I can't be sure.

One article on that particular tempest in a teapot had some nice trivia at the end: a list of "other cases over the years that have attracted the interest of the language watchdog or people seeking to protect the French language." Enjoy.

1996: A woman warns the owner of a Quebec pet store she might get in touch with language authorities because Peekaboo, the parrot she wanted to buy, didn't speak French.

1999: The Old Navy chain is asked to rename its stores "La Vieille Rivière." It never happens.

2000: The owner of an Indian restaurant is told he's breaking the law by having coasters for "Double Diamond," a British beer.

2001: Some people express disappointment that race-car driver Jacques Villeneuve calls his restaurant "Newtown."

2005: Language authorities say they will investigate complaints that Montreal Mayor Gerald Tremblay's party used the word "Go" on its posters and pamphlets, as in "Go Montreal."

2007: Imperial Oil says it will keep its Quebec-only "Marché Express" name for its Esso gas stations after protests against a proposal to change the name to "On the Run," as they are known elsewhere in North America.

2007: About 50 people protest outside a Second Cup outlet to demonstrate against the words "Les cafés" being dropped from "Les cafés Second Cup" at some of the chain's outlets.

2007: Language activists decry that callers to many Quebec government offices are told to "press nine" for English before instructions are delivered in French. Some of the departments have since changed the message to put English at the end.

...And that's all I have to say about Canada at the moment. We now return to your regularly scheduled anti-prescriptivism.

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Pronouncing French vowels as if they had a circumflex doesn't make much sense, since it usually doesn't change the pronunciation. The mark typically indicates that the vowel was once followed by an [s] which went silent (compare English forest and French forêt or English castle and French château).

Huh. There seem to be some sound changes associated with the circumflex in French, but the Wikipedia article on the subject is daunting. Money quote: "Some circumflexes appear for no known reason."

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