Colby Cosh on the real tension behind Bill 101 and the Pasta Affair

… So it’s OK to eat pasta, but not to name it?


In Sunday’s Montreal Gazette, Don Macpherson offers a convincing argument that Quebec’s pasta-police scandal has been deliberately obfuscated by the Parti Québécois ministry. The Office Québécois de la Langue Française, he suggests, did not misinterpret the law in a fit of “overzealousness”: he figures they probably interpreted it correctly, as written. The main text of Bill 101 specifically insists that menus must be written in French; there are exemptions in the regulations for packaging of “exotic product[s] or foreign specialt[ies]”, but the exemptions don’t make any mention of menus.

Macpherson suggests that, in the great tradition of Westminsterian democracy, some anonymous uncivil servant is being thrown under the proverbial autobus for following through on both the letter and the actual intention of the law. “The point here,” he says, “is not that the names should be illegal, but that in Quebec, they are”—along with, as other reporting has revealed, English-language knick-knacks on restaurant walls and English-language buttons on their telephones and microwave ovens. “Zealous” surveillance of businesses for linguistic purity, after all, isn’t some wacky unintended consequence of Bill 101. It’s the essence of the thing.

But couldn’t this analysis be carried up to another level? The original flashpoint of the scandal was the OQLF’s orders to a restaurant that had the word “pasta” on the menu. Given the premise of cultural protection that justifies the existence of an Office of the French Language, shouldn’t the real objection be to the presence of… the stuff itself? Isn’t Italian cuisine just as much of a homogenizing, globalist cultural intrusion as the English language? Montreal is famous for just about every kind of cooking that’s not authentically Québécois, from French-French food to bagels and smoked meat to Joe Beef’s spaghetti homard. Doesn’t this represent a definitive failure of the PQ’s cultural immune system?

This is perhaps the real tension behind the Pasta Affair. The purpose of Quebec language law is to reinforce the permanent “just visiting” status of every ethnic and cultural group other than French-Canadians, including Montreal Anglos who are hardly less indigenous to the province than its francophones. It is thought unseemly to make this explicit; how much less so to point out that when it comes to a hundred non-language aspects of culture, Montreal is a resplendent machine, possibly unique in the world, of cultural remixing and appropriation and innovation.

One might even say it’s the English language of cities. And, of course, it’s precisely the lack of engineered cultural defence that made the English language so dominant on the globe. (It was carried abroad on a vast military empire, but then, so were Dutch and Mongolian.) But the minute the Parti Québécois accepted that premise, it would have to, in the words of Douglas Adams, vanish in a puff of logic.


Colby Cosh on the real tension behind Bill 101 and the Pasta Affair

  1. “of course, it’s precisely the lack of engineered cultural defence that made the English language so dominant on the globe.”

    Do real science a favour and -never- pretend to be an anthropologist again.

    • Having an opinion about some fact of human history doesn’t make one an anthropologist, any more than being able to type in internet comment threads makes one literate.

    • This comment was deleted.

      • I could have turned a better phrase. The point is that an opinion which is supposed to firm up the piece by the end is awfully iffy to anyone who isn’t a more or less native english speaker.

        The author comes off as saying that the world speaks english because the “anglosphere” lets the rest of the world do it through indifference (a lack of engineered cultural defence). English being in the sun coincides with the advent of mass media in addition the UK-US succession, which makes comparisons to Mongolian or Dutch a bit weak -I would have said Chinese (characters), or latin (romance languages), at least.

        It’s like dropping a bias bomb in a piece that otherwise manages to be more interesting than most of what’s being published about the party of choice of about a third of quebecers’ latest effort to make Quebec a global laughingstock. In effect, it shows that if far too many Quebecers have difficulty looking at things from an outside perspective, the same goes for Mister Cosh.

        • The author comes off as saying that the world speaks english because the “anglosphere” lets the rest of the world do it through indifference (a lack of engineered cultural defence).

          That’s not what he’s saying at all. You’ve missed his point entirely.

          He’s not commenting on the willingness of the anglophone world to “let” people speak English, he’s commenting on the tendency of the English language to absorb bits and pieces from other languages. With their “engineered cultural defense” in Quebec, the PQ takes perfectly good foreign words for various concepts and tries to cobble together a French equivalent in order to “defend” French from the “intrusion” of other languages. In the history of the English language, that almost never happens. That’s why “rendezvous” and “entrepreneur” appear in the OED, for example.

          If you can provide an example of any other language on Earth that so readily incorporates “foreign” terms into its own lexicon I’d like to see it. I’m certain that no such language exists though.

          • Well explained. I guess it wasn’t that hard to understand after all? Either that or you should be the one with the weblog.

          • I’d certainly agree with that last statement.

            I know when LKO shoots me down, I have to really stop and think, because more often than not, he’s the one who’s correct.

            Fortunately, he doesn’t do so that often.

          • That’s just crazy talk.

            You should rethink that.


          • Thanks, that’s sweet (LOL).

            That said, I thought your point was perfectly clear. I think I understood what you were saying right away.

          • Just a hint: disagreeing when you’re demonstrably wrong does not signify your reader is illiterate, either in the first sense of the word or in its secondary senses.

            That English as a second language, and contrary to you and LKO’s ill-informed assertions, as a source of neologisms in most languages exposed to it, has not spread over the globe at least to a considerable degree because of mass media and British and later American hegemony could likely be proven to be remarkably naive. I’d bet on it anyway.

          • Again, I’m sorry but this is the viewpoint of a native english speaker with limited insight into how (at least many) other languages treat english with relation to their own.

            Here’s a short list of words the French (yes, from France) have not only adopted from english or english roots, but entirely redefined according to the english media context through which they were exposed to the word:

            Basket = almost any athletic shoe, nothing to do with… well, baskets

            Footing = jogging

            Freezer = specifically a small, or mini-fridge freezer

            Weekend = .same as in english. Used because the direct translation means end of the week (thursday, friday)

            Have a look at this:

            More “modernly”, all major american fast food chains in France use english words (nuggets, wraps, etc.) -and the broad population has adopted these terms without a hint of reproach.

            Given the omnipresence of english media all over the world, I am very sure that the case of French (yes, in Quebec too, there are merely many hypocrits in quebec who bemoan the fact that their french is “fucké”) is not at all an exception.

          • Do “basket”, “footing”, “freezer” or “weekend” appear in the French equivalent of the OED?

            Even if they do, they, and similar, would be VASTLY outnumbered by the French words used in English.

            ETA: The Wiki list you provided of English words used in French contains ONE word beginning with the letter A. My Wiki list of French words used in English beginning with the letter A has over 390.

          • 1)Yes, they would.

            2) The difference between english to french and french to english is that Norman French speakers were the elite in England for a few cenuries. Also, all western languages pull heavily from Greek and Latin, and English pulls many Latin and Greek words through french –the opposite is considerably more infrequent. Direct comparison is impossible because of reasons like these, but on a daily basis the number of English words used by the French is quite high in France and Quebec (as opposed to say, reconnoitre or abasement, in English).

            Going back to languages other than french, the Japanese have a whole character system devoted to phonetically writing foreign words as close as they can manage to squeeze within their phonetic rules. Still think only English uses foreign words?

          • Here’s a link on how loving french more than those naughty frenchmen love english lead to english being the world trade language.


            Lads, t’was grand.

          • I certainly never suggested that only English uses foreign words. English just does it way more than other languages do, and has been doing so for a LOOOONG time.

            And it’s not just French.

          • Direct comparison is impossible because of reasons like these, but on a daily basis the number of English words used by the French is quite high in France and Quebec (as opposed to say, reconnoitre or abasement, in English).

            Sure, there’s the relative infrequency of reconnoitre or abasement on the one hand, but there’s also chauffeur, or genre, or hors d’œuvre, or liaison, or rapport, or sabotage, or gaffe, or faux pas, or cliche, or bouquet, or communique, or detente, or impasse, or montage, or omelette, or panache, or restaurateur, or silhouette, or venue, or…

        • Have you ever watched people learning different languages? English allows people to communicate with very little technical understanding of the language. It is easily adopted and used as a means of communication. Compared to more structured and precise languages. It is easy to make a fool of yourself talking french or japanese or chinese, where inflection and arcane verb tenses change the meaning.
          There are french words that have no equivalent in english. The odds are that eventually those french words will be commonly used by english speakers. This is a sign of je ne sais quoi, a certain elan in the language. That is one reason why it is commonly used and often when different language groups work together, they use english.

          Has anyone done any count of the number of english people learning mandarin compared to mandarin speakers learning english?

    • Anthropology is not a science

  2. The really pathetic thing about the zealous language police and the laws that empower them is that the French speaking people don’t realize that if their pride in their language and culture were justified the laws wouldn’t be necessary.

  3. What does one even say anymore? I still find it impossible to understand the level of comfort that Quebecers have with this language-policing business.

    I can’t even imagine the Ontario government sending around troops of civil servants into every last public space to belittle other people’s culture and language and decide for them what sort of business practises they will employ, what sort of life they will lead day to day.

    Decades have passed and I feel no more comfortable now than I ever have. It may seem like a small thing to some, but the inherent lack of freedom it represents still chills me to the bone.

    Who are these people to tell others how to live?

    • “Who are these people to tell others how to live?”
      It’s Quebec, it’s what they do! Why do you think Trudeau can get away with comments stating he thinks only Quebecers are fit to run the country?

  4. and here I thought the core of frensh culture was freedom of choice. ironic

  5. You can live in a free country, or you can live in a country with language laws. But not both. Shoot every language minister with a ball of his own shytte, and repeal every language law in the land, and you’d be on the right path.

  6. I’m an ignorant American, but it seems like Quebec Nationalism has worked pretty well economically. Decades ago, I had assumed that all this government effort to make Quebec unpleasant for non-Francophones would hurt Quebec’s economy, but it seems to be doing okay.

    • Just because the Quebec economy is doing okay right now doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be doing much better in the absence of the sovereignty movement. Quite a number of major financial institutions moved to Toronto because of language politics. Lots of new businesses never get started because of concerns with bureaucracy. Refusals to provide information in English has probably hampered the tourism industry. The sovereignty movement has kept rents low, but other than that it hasn’t really been a boon for the economy.

  7. I definitely am not including quebec as my next travel vacation!