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2010-07-24 »

A bit more language meditation

After the last couple of bits on C++, I thought I would offer something a little more melodramatic: human languages, as experienced in Montreal. Back in 1887.

Old Montreal, 1887, via the McCord Museum's Flickr Feed

Notice anything funny about this picture?

I'll give you a hint: Montreal is a primarily French-speaking city. Looking at the 2006 census, 13% of the population spoke English as a first language, compared to 54% with French as a first language.1



...Yet every single sign in that photo is in English! If you looked at the same street today, you would see every single sign is in French.2

Why? Because of Bill 101 from 1977, informally known as the Quebec "language law." Among other things, that law says any public sign has to be primarily in French; no other language can be "more prominent" than French.

The mere existence of the language law is, itself, fascinating. It's a flagrant violation of the free speech rights guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But Canadians always hedge their bets, so in addition to free speech, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms also has a section called the Notwithstanding Clause.3 That clause basically says the government can enact any laws they want that violate your rights, as long as they comply with a few basic rules, such as refreshing said laws every few years. (Unlike other Canadian laws, rights-violating ones expire automatically.)

As you might imagine, laws that very literally violate human rights can cause a bit of a fuss. This one certainly does - and it has continued to do so since it was first brought in. The need to refresh it every few years guarantees that it gets back into the news every few years, which is both healthy and stressful.

I'm a native English speaker myself, so this law comes down to racism against me. But you know what? I think it's a good law. 54% of Montrealers speak French as a first language; almost all the rest (even me) can speak at least basic French when necessary.

As the story goes, the reason the rule was needed in the first place was this: while almost every French speaker had learned basic English - after all, the people bordering Quebec in every direction are largely anglophone, so there are lots of chances to learn - the much smaller English population didn't bother to learn French. Because if all the French people are willing to speak English anyway, why bother? And if you're making a sign - even if you're a French person making a sign - are you going to make one that 54% of people can understand, or one that 99% of people can understand? That's right. If you're a wise French business owner serving primarily French customers, you'll make your sign in... English.

Those lazy English people have a point. It really is a lot of work to learn French, just so you can speak French in this tiny little enclave of non-English on a whole continent of English. I find it completely believable that English people are so lazy; my own crappy French skills are testament to that. And quite simply, Quebec's French speaking majority called us on it. They demanded justice: they demanded the right to be served in the language of the majority.

And in order to give people that right - a right not guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms - we had to violate another right, namely, the right not to talk to people in French. If it weren't for the magic of the Notwithstanding Clause, the government would be enforcing civil rights... but the wrong ones.

By the way, if you're American, and you come to Montreal and people pretend they can't speak English, you're absolutely right: they are pretending. Because you just rudely jabbed them with hundreds of years of cultural history.4 (Note: it's not a pretense in other parts of Quebec, where people often speak exclusively French. And obviously some people in Montreal really don't speak English, but it's fewer than it seems.)

So what does all this have to do with programming?

Well, about that C or C++ or Java. Do you really use it because it's better? Or because that's the one thing everyone can understand, even though it's not actually the best choice for most people? If someone made a law forcing everyone to write stuff in a particular language - say, Objective C - in order to prevent the oppression that is, say, Flash - is that a violation of your freedoms or is someone out there actually protecting you?

Okay. It's a stretch.


1 I tried to look at the 1861 census (okay, it's a few years off, but whatever), but the statistics defeated me. They weren't surveying people's mother tongue at the time, though they did survey people's birthplaces. At least 48% of the population at the time was of "Canadian - French origin" birth, with about 26% from Britain/Ireland/United States. However, that doesn't account for an additional 25% of "Canadian - Not of French Origin." How much of that is anglophone? I don't know. Perhaps there were more anglophones than francophones in Montreal back in 1861? I don't know. How did it change by 1887? I don't know. This is the sort of information I would like to retrieve from Wolfram Alpha if only it weren't a useless piece of junk.

2 You would also notice that Montreal's winter road conditions are about the same as ever.

3 There's also the "Limitations Clause," which says the government can violate your rights, but only if they're consistent and there's a good reason. And don't do it any more than necessary ("minimal impairment"). From the outside, it's hard to believe weird stuff like this works, but the emphasis on using power responsibly instead of blindly following the letter of the law is what Canada is all about.

4 Tip: I warn my American friends who visit Montreal that one simple change in behaviour will make your experience vastly more enjoyable. When you start a conversation, any conversation, just saying hi in a store or ordering in a restaurant - do your utmost to start it in French. You know, Bonjour, parlez-vous anglais, mispronouncing stuff off the French side of the menu, whatever. It doesn't matter if you suck at French. You probably won't get more than 5 words out before the person switches to flawless English. Why? Because you acknowledged that they have rights. Imagine if some people from France flew to New York, walked into a restaurant, and refused to speak anything but French. Would you think that was cute? Acceptable? Remotely reasonable? Of course not. You'd think they were idiots. But if you know some French, and they came in and tried their best at English, but had a terrible accent and awful grammar, you'd switch to French as a favour to them. Because they're not being idiots, and you're a nice person. Etiquette really is that easy.

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