French as an Emergent Property

In a previous blog entry, I described various solar system simulations I played around with in high school. These were perhaps more properly termed "gravity simulations" since what I simulated was not a solar system per se but rather Newton's laws of gravity and motion as applied to a bunch of swirling rocks, which would produce a solar system if the conditions were set up correctly. The orbits that you saw in these programs appeared naturally out of the math, as emergent properties of the equations - they were not explicitly programmed.

This is a key feature of the simulation; I did not start out by assuming that the orbit would be an ellipse, or that there would even be an orbit at all. Rather, I started from the basics: the laws of gravity and motion, and saw what came out of them.

I think this is an excellent way to program simulations since you are not imposing your will on the results and, as a result, the results may surprise you. In general, the less assumptions you have about how the results will look the better, since you never know if the results look that way because you assumed they would or because they actually do. Often your assumptions affect the result and this is a bad thing.

I originally wrote my blog entry on simulations with the intention of incorporating my views on Quebec society (well, society in general really, especially with respect to what should and shouldn't be enshrined in law), but I found that the entry was getting long enough as it is, and anyway I found that it was independently interesting (if you like that sort of thing), so I decided to cut it short and make it a separate posting. But there was a deeper purpose there. I think that emergent properties are a good way to think about traits that we normally attribute to a society, especially its language, culture, and general ambiance.

Bill 101 and Linguistic Shorthands

I live in Quebec, and we have a law termed Bill 101 - otherwise known as the Charter of the French Language. Nominally, it defines French as the "official language" of Quebec. This sounds fairly innocuous, but like other terms revolving around touchy political subjects (think "privatization", or "free trade" or "freedom" or "rights"), the term "official language" can mean different things to different people.

In many ways Bill 101, in declaring French as Quebec's only official language, has had the results you'd expect i.e. French is now the language of Quebec's governmental and legal system. By extension, since the government also funds the school system, this has certain implications for the language used in Quebec's educational institutions, the most obvious one being that if you want a public education in Quebec, with few exceptions, you will have to get it in French.

If that's where it ended, with French being declared Quebec's official "language of bureaucracy", I wouldn't be writing this (or, at least, I'd be writing something different). Since it is obviously impractical to translate every government document into every language under the sun, one needs to choose a small number of "interface languages" between the government and its citizens. And since the majority of Quebec's citizens speak French, it makes sense to choose French in this capacity. Even forcing children to get their education in French could be justifiable considering that the government is footing the bill (this is just one of the many issues that crop up when you fund a school system with public money - many taxpayers are English speaking after all - but that's another conversation).

(One could argue, of course, that English should also be one of Quebec's "official languages", since the province sports a sizable 20% anglophone population and is in any case part of a wider, mostly English speaking country, but I digress. The government of Quebec is within its rights to pick a single, everyday language of government, and they've chosen French, which isn't an insensible choice. This is fine as far as it goes).

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the architects of Bill 101 seemed to have a more ... open-ended? ... pervasive? ... all-inclusive? ... idea of "official language" in mind when they crafted this law. Judging by Bill 101's near unanimous support in this province (amongst francophones, anyway), it appears that most people here agree with the more all-encompassing concept.

It begins with French being defined as the "official language of commerce" in Quebec. This is, apparently, part of what it means to be an "official language". Declaring French the "official language of commerce" in Quebec means:

  • businesses with more than a certain number of employees must operate in French (unfortunately I don't recall the exact number but I believe it's between 50-100). This entails, among other things, holding meetings in French, keeping all documentation in French, and answering the phones in French.

  • employees in a company with more than a certain number of employees must demonstrate a sufficient knowledge of the French language.

  • the use of French is required on all commercial signs and must be "markedly predominant" over anything non-French.

This last one, by the way, was a concession. The original law stated that French was the only language allowed on commercial signs, but this ran afoul of the Supreme Court, which judged that it was unconstitutional. The response in Quebec was to invoke the notwithstanding clause (i.e. "We know it's unconstitutional, but we don't care") until a compromise could be worked out. The "French must be the predominant language on the sign" law is the compromise.

Is any of this a big deal? Doesn't it make sense, for example, to require employees to be sufficiently fluent in the majority language of the province where they work? Doesn't it make sense to require that commercial signs be in a language that the majority of the population can understand? The reality is that, statistically speaking, Quebec is predominantly French. Shouldn't the laws reflect this fact?

I suspect this family of arguments is how most Bill 101 supporters justify the law in their heads. An (anglophone) acquaintance of mine, for example, tried to spin Bill 101 as nothing more sinister than an anthropological statement of Quebec's nature as a French speaking province. Or to put it another way: he seemed to view it as sort of a passive acknowledgement of a cultural reality in this province.

Another (francophone) acquaintance of mine, being somewhat more honest with himself I think, justified Bill 101 with a certain amount of paranoia: without the Charter, the "ethnics" would take over and we'd all be liable to walk into a brothel innocently thinking it was a bakery (because, of course, the sign out front wouldn't be in French, and brothels apparently look like bakeries from the outside). I didn't push him on the topic, but I suspect if he had been pressed for a deeper justification of his views he would have come up with the same sort of rhetoric as my other friend: Quebec is French, Bill 101 is simply the recognition of that fact, there would be chaos otherwise, and the rest of you non-French people just have to deal.

Top off the rhetoric with an unspoken but implicit cry of "This is our province" and I think you've pretty much summarized the mindset of a typical francophone Quebecer with respect to the language laws. And aside from the ease with which this can descend into full-blown nativism, I suppose the problem I have with this kind of thinking boils down to this: at best these laws are useless and at worst these laws are autocratic.

It's not hard to make an accurate anthropological statement concerning the French language in Quebec. All you have to do is say "French is the language spoken by the majority of Quebec's citizens" and you're done. No need to pass a law. No need to involve the government at all. This would be a passive way of acknowledging a cultural reality.

No, Bill 101 is the quite active means by which the powers that be in this province ensure that French remains the dominant language. Its enforcement is analogous to the assumption that your solar system simulation will always display an elliptical orbit. Once you make that assumption, it colours the way you construct the simulation. You begin to expect an ellipse on your monitor and if you don't get one, or the math doesn't seem to be cooperating, you don't ask yourself why. You don't ask if there might be a good or interesting reason why, for example, you seem to be getting a parabola instead. You don't ask why you think an ellipse should be the right answer in the first place. Rather you start trying to force an ellipse out of the simulation by fudging the numbers - because, of course, an ellipse is the right answer and if you're not getting one, then your numbers must be wrong, right?

The lawmakers in Quebec seem to have the same attitude. Quebec is French; this is the "correct answer", and they must do everything in their power to maintain the correct answer, right? And if they find certain artifacts that seem to question the correct answer, things like the existence of largely non-French areas of Quebec, well those are anomalies and they must be dealt with as such - because we all know what the correct answer is supposed to look like.

Part of the problem here is the very idea of a province speaking a language. It's fundamentally incoherent. Provinces don't speak languages, people do, though one can, of course, come up with various ways to make the two concepts fit. One can assert, for example, that Quebec speaks French if more than 50% of its citizens speak French - but such contortions, while useful as linguistic shorthands, run into theoretical difficulties when you take them literally. What does it mean, for example, to say that "Quebec is French" and yet to note that Montreal is approximately 20% anglophone? It's trivial to reconcile the two statements as long as you remember that when we say "Quebec is French" we don't really mean that the province speaks a language, or that it acts in a certain way that might possibly be construed as "French".

This all sounds silly and obvious, I know, but I think alot of people have trouble seeing past this, sometimes on a subconscious level. It all hinges on the ordering of cause and effect. When we say something straightforward like "Quebec is French because more than 50% of its citizens speak French", we note first that "more than 50% of Quebec's citizens speak French", and then note that because of this, as a consequence, we can rightly say that "Quebec is French", if such a designation is deemed necessary. Bill 101 supporters, on the other hand, have it backwards. They start with the statement "Quebec is French", and rather than treat this as a linguistic convenience, a simple summary of the demographics of their province, they instead treat it, on some level, as a kind of literal fact, with various implications for what kind of social policy should be implemented.

If you insist on doing this you're faced with several dilemmas. Quebec is French - except, of course, for the people who aren't. What should your attitude be toward the people who aren't French? If all your citizens already speak French then Bill 101 is useless. But if a significant segment of your population is non-French, how would you justify imposing your language on them? How would you justify it, except to say that Quebec is French, in a manner that is somehow independent of the language and culture its citizens?

What are you supposed to do about the boundary problems that will inevitably crop up? Quebec is a big province, both geographically and culturally, and saying that 60% of the population is francophone tells you exactly nothing about the demographics of any particular area. There are some towns in Quebec that are almost 100% "pur laine" Quebecois and there are some that are not. Montreal is a partly-French, partly English, and partly everything else. Within the company where I work, you have some teams that operate almost purely in French and some that operate almost purely in English - and some that occasionally operate in Spanish. It's hard to pick a social unit that's small enough to guarantee the sort of unity of culture and language that would make its codification an indifferent proposition.

None of this is really an issue if you treat statements like "Quebec is French" as nothing more than a demographic/historical summary, with no real implications for governmental social policy. One simply looks at the statistics and sees that, for various reasons, there are several communities in Quebec that don't speak French, especially in the urban centres, and one leaves it at that. One doesn't see the existence of these communities as a threat to some sort of pre-existing, disembodied, entrenched, all-pervasive provincial Frenchness, because there isn't any. The Frenchness of Quebec, if it exists, is derived from these communities - but only if they actually speak French. French isn't meant to be imposed on them.

And one would see that, once you leave the urban centres, you start to find areas that are almost 100% French and that in these areas, Bill 101 is laughable. Longueuil is French, not because of Bill 101, but simply because this happens to be the language of the majority. Rimouski and Lac Saint Jean are French, for the same reasons. Would things change for these communities if Bill 101 wasn't around? It's not uncommon to see commercial signs in these towns displaying only French, to the exclusion of all other languages.

And that's fine. This isn't a rant about fairness. French-only signs are a common sight in Longueuil, and would be irrespective of government fiat, simply because of its demographics. I would not demand otherwise. They are common for the very good reason that most Longueuil residents speak only French. So why should West Islanders, the majority of whom speak something other than French as their native language, be forced to use French on their store fronts? Why should any company, if the majority of its employees speak something other than French, be forced to do so?

The language of a geographical area or social unit, if you wish to define such a thing, shouldn't be defined from on high with the expectation that the people in question will simply obey. Rather, it should be a natural offshoot of the language the people already speak. It should be an emergent property of the interactions of your citizens. The language of your province should simply "fall out of the math" of your associated social fabric.