In 2013, Quebec's language-enforcement agency made a global fool of itself by attempting to crack down on a Montreal restaurant's failure to translate the names of well-known Italian food items on its menu into French. Thus was born Pastagate, which was so embarrassing that it forced the normally hardline (on language) Parti Québécois government of the moment to rein in the Office québécois de la langue française. The head of the OQLF even lost her job.
Since then, the agency charged with promoting French and applying the dispositions of the province's 40-year-old Charter of the French Language, otherwise known as Bill 101, has kept a low profile. The former PQ government freed it of the obligation of having to investigate every complaint it receives, allowing the agency to use its judgment and, hence, avoid future Pastagates to the best of its ability. This rankles some French purists who think the agency, often referred to derisively by anglophones as the Quebec language police, has been neutered.
The news this week that the OQLF will no longer "systematically" reject the use of widely accepted English terms – forcing businesses to use a French alternative proposed by the OQLF on signage, in advertisements or in the workplace – won't make it any new friends among those who think that opening the door even a crack to les anglicismes is inviting trouble. Purists argue it is the OQLF's job to counter the use of English terms in Quebec French, not countenance it.
Indeed, it was not that long ago that Quebec French was saturated with English terms simply because the local parlance contained no handy alternative. Francophone Quebeckers would trek to their local Canadian Tire to pick up des spark plug, des wiper or un block heater. Before the advent of official bilingualism federally and Bill 101 in Quebec, market forces were such that North American manufacturers and retailers had no incentive to come up with French names for their products.
The OQLF's work to come up with French terms was once described by one former head of the agency as "an enterprise of decolonization." That may be a bit overdramatic. But it did allow francophone Quebeckers, especially unilingual ones, to name their reality with words they actually understood.
It's easy for anglophones to have a blasé attitude toward the introduction of the odd French word into English. They might feel differently if they were confronted with French terms everywhere they turned, if they had to use French expressions to describe everyday occurrences in their lives, because no English ones existed.
But in a world where English is the lingua franca, that's not a problem anglophones generally face. English tends to get the naming rights to every new scientific discovery, invention or social trend. It's not because English is a particularly inventive language. It's just the globe's dominant one. But who knows? With China's rise, that may change.
The OQLF's move to adopt new criteria for determining whether it is acceptable to use a so-called anglicism is simply an acknowledgment of the fact that certain French alternatives will never take hold. Grilled cheese is so ubiquitous, and so universally understood, that it is senseless to force restaurants to replace it with sandwich au fromage fondant on their menus. Besides, that's precisely the kind of overkill that subjects the OQLF to ridicule.
It's much better for the OQLF to focus its scarce resources on creating French neologisms for the hundreds of English technical terms that are introduced every year, particularly in the high-technology sector. That is the OQLF's main 21st-century challenge.
Canada accounts for only 7.2 million of the world's 220 million francophones – though that latter figure includes so-called partial French-speakers, largely in Africa. The point is that, just as British and Canadian English differ in many ways (what we call a truck they call a lorry), Quebec French differs from the French spoken on other continents. The OQLF has been a leader in modernizing the French language and the French themselves have taken note.
"To remain alive, a language must be able to express the modern world in all its diversity and complexity. Each year, thousands of new notions and realities appear that must be understood and named," notes the mission statement of France's Commission d'enrichissement de la langue française, which was created in 1996 and modelled after the OQLF. "The creation of French terms to name today's realities is a necessity."
Vivre le français, libre.