Cal O'Donnabhain highlights the similarities between the French and Irish language's lives.
The feeling in my stomach was unshiftable that morning. Not quite nervousness, not quite excitement. A sense of unknowing filled me. This would be the first time that I would venture outside of the safe arms of the European Union, the first time that I would have to endure the wait at Customs in any airport, in Montréal, Quebéc’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport on the 1st of June 2017 in my 21st year.
What had inspired me to go to Quebéc, straying from the clichéd summer in Vancouver or the J1 south of the nearby border? The French language mainly, and not for the reasons that one would assume.
Despite seeing myself as a geography fanatic of sorts and priding myself on learning about minorities and hidden cultures, I still couldn’t grasp the fact that there was a province in North America in which French was predominantly spoken in place of the English we have come to expect in these parts. The thought that just north of the mainly English speaking state of Vermont is a land where the new-American influence, the French colonisation of Quebéc’s influence and the English colonisation’s influence would come together to provide a culturally diverse home to over 8 million inhabitants
Hailing from the Republic of Ireland, I am all-too-familiar with the concept of conserving endangered languages, hundreds of years of occupation at the hands of our British neighbours who attempted, and failed, to eradicate the island of its Irish-speakers and to introduce their own cultures and traditions allowing me to witness first-hand the struggle to keep the flame of a language lit and to proudly say that I have contributed to it also.
As an Irish speaker and a student of an Ghaeilge at university, I understand how easily a language can escape you, how a person can simply revert to English in search of a universal term and I identified instantly when I arrived in Montréal that the people of La Metropole were facing a lingual-challenge of their own.
Bold white letters sprawled on green road signs, Cente-Ville, Lachine, the unilingual banners directing the road users to their destinations, written proudly in French and catering not to the Anglophone, as they are so quick to dub you if you show even the slightest of hesitation when conversing in their native tongue.
There is a great sense of pride in Montréal and Quebéc as a whole, an unchallengeable sense of identity that they are so certain of. Few will tell you that they consider themselves Canadian, but rather as ‘Quebécois(e)’, mirroring that of the Catalonian people, despite the nearly 6000km separating the two regions. I couldn’t help but admire the people here, so welcoming but at the same time so insistent that you adapt to their means of living, rather than the reverse.
On one occasion I recall playfully debating with a friend over a beer, me (knowingly) pushing her buttons by calling her Canadian. “I’m Quebécer” she answered, cutely. “But what passport do you have?”, I asked again. “Canadian”, she uttered, ”But that’s just my passport. I’m Quebécer”. Unchallengeable certainty.
In Ireland, with the attempted rebirth of the Irish language in an athbhreith (renaissance), the population of the island have been introduced to the concept of using the cúpla focal (couple of words) in day-to-day life.
Due to being used as a primary language in very remote regions on the already petit island, the first time many people encounter Irish is in the education system. Luckily, I managed to receive all of my education through the medium of Irish and like to think that my English hasn’t suffered, but with few places available in these Gaelscoileanna, most are forced to seek English tuition. This means that it is seen as a school subject by most, rather than a language and the core of our identity as Irish people.
During my time in Montréal I noticed that I too was slipping into the cúpla focal, or quelques mots as I dubbed it, as my confidence grew and grew in my French that I had spent six years passively learning. First to the shop clerks, to the taxi drivers, the night porter, then came the search for a job. I started as a busboy in a restaurant and soon became comfortable switching between the two languages and answering basic questions, yet I was still stunned one day when asked "Est-ce que les sauces sont végétaliennes?” or “Are the sauces vegan?”.
Time and time again, I found that I was drawing up comparisons, however, between the French-Canadian identity crisis, at the hand of the English speaking world, and the Irish revolution that we’ve been led to believe is in full swing. I found that I was being unfair though, as there is just no comparing the amount of daily speakers each language has, with the Central Statistics Office in Ireland stating that there were 73,803 daily Irish-speakers on the island, compared to the 6.2 million boasted by Statistics Canada in 2011. This proves that Irish is far less accessible than French is, with fewer mediums for budding speakers to polish their knowledge, but the fight is the same and the oppressor is the same.
In French, it’s referred to as Franglais, in Irish it’s Béarlachas. The ever-present, ever-popular English language and its influence on its fellow European tongues is evident. I heard it in Montréal, with locals boycotting the use of the word ‘stationnement’ for the most part and settling for the English equivalent ‘parking’. “Je cherche une place de parking”, they would say, despite ‘STATIONNEMENT’ being written on each of the signs standing or hanging outside the many, many parking lots sprinkled across the city. In Ireland you hear it mostly in the west, with locals in the ‘Gaeltacht’, or Irish-speaking areas, using ‘ball’ instead of the word ‘liathróid’, and it’s odd to notice this happening on each side of the Atlantic Ocean.
But is this a sign of these languages coming to terms with their Anglo-fate, accepting that the push from the English-speaking world is too great for the few French-speakers in eastern Canada and the fewer Irish-speakers in Ireland? Or is it that they are evolving, with words being borrowed and substituted until we reach the point where we have a new, hybrid language like that of the Afrikaans with obvious Dutch and English roots?
The shared identity crisis between the Irish-speakers and French-speakers of Quebéc isn’t quite as under-threat as one would have you believe. They are two languages which have been challenged for hundreds of years and have managed to alter themselves in a way that saw them remain relevant.
Although English is changing these languages as we know them, sufficient preservation methods are being used to keep both alive and the occasional use of an alien word isn’t a sign of their demises, respectively.
The Irish language and French have much more in common than meets the eye and their shared efforts to sustain themselves and the identity that follows is a sign of their mutual characteristics. Survival is what links them and immense pride concretes this; the French and the Irish people having endured so much together throughout history. Whether you are going to l’église or an Eaglais (the church), speaking to a garçon or garsún (boy), we can see traces of every language in our beloved tongues and to reject these changes would unequivocally lead to the loss of our identity, be it as a Quebécer or as a Gaeilgeoir.