How English and French co-exist in Montreal to inform the richness of each other’s linguistic identities
Across this great nation of ours, there are approximately 30 million speakers of Canadian English. Typically, when we think of Canadian English, we identify it by what it is not: American English (and sometimes British English). However, right here at home, within our 9,984,670 km2 of space, there is a massive assortment of words we use to describe the same thing, and even when we agree on a single term, the pronunciations we employ are sometimes completely different.
So much so, that it begs the question: What do the words you use say about where you’re from? This week, we’ll try to answer that question by talking to linguistic experts, sharing stories of our own discovery of differences in the language Canadians use and exploring the regional dialects that define us all.
We’re also looking for your feedback on specific terms in your community: Tell us a word that only seems to be used by people in your region here.
Travelling outside of Quebec, it never takes long for a stranger to compliment my English.
It has become such a common occurrence that I’ve stopped explaining how I grew up speaking English at home and how I went to an English-speaking school. I am bilingual, and as such, I navigate personally and professionally in both Canadian official languages. Nevertheless, by most Quebec standards, I am an anglophone.
It’s unclear whether this observation — always intended as a compliment — reflects a misapprehension of the linguistic makeup of Quebec, or if my English somehow betrays where I was raised. According to the 2016 census results, less than 12 per cent of Quebec’s population learn English before French, and less than eight per cent speak English as their mother tongue. So, what does this mean for English-speakers in the province? Or, perhaps the more intriguing question is this: what does that say about the English language in Quebec?
Charles Boberg, an associate professor of linguistics at McGill University and an expert on Canadian English, says the results of the census are very meaningful. He explains that as English in Quebec is a minority language with no official status, it has evolved under different circumstances than the rest of Canada. “Monolingual environments also produce unique dialects,” says Boberg. “But language contact situations produce other types of language phenomena that you don’t find in monolingual communities.”
Language is malleable.
Due to this contact with the French majority language, a unique variety of English has emerged. We witness it most prominently in our vocabulary. Here, in Quebec, English-speakers call corner stores “dépanneurs” or “deps.” An internship is a “stage,” and job training is “formation.” Instead of a studio apartment, we have a “2½.” When ordering a pizza with green peppers, pepperoni and mushrooms, we ask for an “all-dressed” rather than a deluxe. But we also see the French influence in our sentence structures. For instance, we meet friends “on St. Catherine, corner Atwater,” rather than “at the corner of St. Catherine and Atwater.”
Most Montrealers say their unique way of switching from one language to another is called “franglais.” In more academic circles, this would be referred to as code-switching. The term has gained some mainstream appeal in recent years, due in part to the popularity of the NPR podcast Code Switch, which examines race and identity in the United States. Code-switching can be applied to literally switching from French to English, but is also used to describe changing the way you speak at work versus at home with your family.
What’s so special about Montreal’s English is that it has multiple influences that extend beyond our nation’s two official tongues. Read Mordecai Richler, born and raised in Montreal, and you’ll find English, Yiddish and French. Take the infamous line from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, “Because you’re a pusherke. A little Jew-boy on the make.” In Barney’s Version, he describes, “an Italian widow, with boobs out to here, who runs a dépanneur.”
Boberg, who has also done studies on minority groups and the English language in Montreal, notes that, in their minority status, Italians, Greeks and the Jewish community in Montreal have similarly adopted their own variations and phonetic particularities compared to other anglo-speakers.
These linguistic peculiarities are often treated as markers of identity and pride. As the language ebbs and flows, it has evolved to reflect connections to culture and community. There is a deeply held belief that language is malleable. Just as French Canadians are proud of their language, so are the English. Casting aside any real or perceived tensions between linguistic groups, they co-exist to inform and contribute to the richness of each other’s linguistic identities.
In Côte Saint-Luc and on the Main, you’ll find Yiddish mixed in with English. Head North to St. Leonard and a knowledge of Italian will be more helpful than French. You’ll also find people buying their bread at the “pastry” (probably from the Italian pasticcerria), and sentences begin with “Me, I …” Finish this imaginary tour of Montreal on St. Denis, and it wouldn’t be uncommon to overhear a girl gushing over a recent date, “He’s tellement cute.”
The subject of language in Quebec can still be fraught. There are groups who vote and live according to language lines, though that does seem to be fading. In spite of occasional flare-ups in linguistic tensions, younger generations are mostly bilingual, if not trilingual. Particularly in Montreal, language has taken on a fluid and evolving quality that has only contributed to the city’s metropolitan feel. The unique qualities that set French apart from English in Quebec are still a point of pride, but the lines between them are less likely to form two solitudes than they are a chuckle over one’s influence on the other.
Don’t be surprised if, after only a couple of weeks in Quebec, some real Quebec English finds its way into your vocabulary. As a jump-start, here are five easy to remember words that will help you feel right at home in Montreal and the rest of the province:
All Dressed pizza is a direct translation of the French “tout garnie,” and is just a more sartorially inspired way of saying deluxe. This pizza usually includes green peppers, pepperoni and mushrooms
Dépanneur, or if you want to be hip, “dep,” is a French word meaning convenience store.
Guichet is a French word that refers to an ATM. It is among the most commonly used French words for anglophones in Quebec.
Autoroute is often used interchangeably with highway. This is likely due to the fact that in Quebec, official names are rarely translated. No one will know what you are talking about if you refer to the Laurentian autoroute as the Laurentian highway.
Chalet refers to a cottage or country house.