The Breakfast Table

There Ought To Be a Law! Not!

Good morning, Jesse,

The language news today is big: Quebec Superior Court Judge Danielle Cote has struck down as unconstitutional a section of the language law, la Loi 101, that requires French to be predominant on commercial signs. The judge ruled that two antique dealers didn’t violate the law by hanging a sign outside their store with French on one side and English on the other, with lettering that is the same size. La loi 101, passed in 1977, provided that signs could be only in French. That provision was ruled unconstitutional in 1988 and was replaced with a requirement that French have “greater visibility” or “marked predominance” on signs.

The Quebec government argued in this case that French still needs protection in the province, while the judge sided with the defense, holding that French had made great strides and is not threatened. Justice Minister Linda Goupil plans to appeal, while Provincial Liberal leader Jean Charest claimed Quebec’s linguistic peace will be threatened by the new ruling. The defense lawyer said he would fight any appeals all the way to the United Nations.

The application of the Quebec language law to business signs has often been controversial. Government inspectors went around with tape measures to make sure French lettering was larger than English. And the Quebec government complained that Anglophone business owners sought to evade the law by having larger French letters on their signs, but in the faintest of colors so they couldn’t be seen.

I happened to be in Montreal during the 20th anniversary of the passing of Law 101. A young CBC editor assured me that language was a political issue only for the older generation in the city, that the young people, Anglophone and Francophone alike, were all pretty much bilingual and were generally bemused by all the squabbling. In the countryside, of course, everyone spoke French, and there was no language issue there. But older Anglophones assured me they felt constant linguistic pressure, and that many middle-class English speakers had fled the province because their children had been required to attend French schools, and as Anglophones they’d have no economic opportunities in the province after graduation.

When the issue of a Puerto Rican statehood referendum was debated in Congress a couple of years ago, someone wrote to the Washington Post warning that statehood for Puerto Rico would mean creating “our very own Quebec” unless the Commonwealth adopted an official English policy. Quebec is often held up as a warning by supporters of official English. But in fact the Quebecois want to protect French just as supporters of official English want to protect English. The problem is that language legislation frequently creates more problems than it solves. And English in the United States doesn’t need protection.

Even though French maintains its dominance in Quebec, radical Francophones feel threatened. Even though immigrants to the United States are abandoning their first languages for English faster than ever before, to the point where 97 percent of the American population reports speaking English well or very well on the 1990 Census, supporters of official English maintain the language is threatened.

What about the linguistic violence of multilingual communities? you may ask. Where violence does occur, it’s because language rights have been taken away, not because minority languages have been tolerated. Official English in the United States is unnecessary. Non-English-speakers already know how important English is for survival. Furthermore, establishing an official language in this country will drive a wedge between English-speakers and non-Anglophone immigrants, making it harder, rather than easier, for them to assimilate.

Official-English supporters maintain that language is the glue that holds us together. I think there’d better be a whole lot more than language holding this country together. A common language can be a unifying force, but it doesn’t have to be one: Look at the Irish, at the Serbs and Croatians, at the speakers of Hindi and Urdu, at all the peoples of the world separated by a common language.

If Puerto Rico does consider statehood, language will certainly be an issue. But if you want to create “our very own Quebec,” go ahead and pass an official English law. That should really stir things up.