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The Quebec Board of the French Language (#337)

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If you are from Québec, if you are Francophone elsewhere in Canada, or if you have studied French to any of the advanced levels in Canada, the chances are very likely that you are well aware of the Québec Board of the French Language.

The French name is the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF).

In media circles, the OQLF is sometimes known by it’s sensationalized nick-name,“the language police”.  In my opinion, such a nickname is a bit “unfair”, and you’ll soon see why.

The OQLF is a provincial government agency, and has had a mission since the mid-1960s to counter a degradation of the quality of French used in day-to-day life.

I’ll give you the perfect example of what I mean

In some of the French videos I made myself for this blog (here and here for example), you’ll notice I have a little “habit” of slipping in the English word anyway into French sentences (as do many Francophones in Québec and around Canada).  “Anyway” has become almost part of casual, colloquial everyday vocabulary.

Letting slip the odd little English word from time-to-time certainly is not the end of the world, nor should it be considered the end of the world.  In such cases, it is as natural to do so in French as it is to say “Rendez-vous”, “resumé” (instead of C.V.), or “déjà vu” in English.  Everyone does it (however, in French, I probably say “alors” or “bon” much more than I say “anyway” – since they are the French equivalents).

Yet, from what I’m told, the situation of inserting English words into English used to be much worse 55 years ago at the time the OQLF was founded.  It was so bad in fact, that it was feared that French in Québec (and in Canada) would soon reach a point of no return in the sense that there were fears it could morph into a new dialect – a hybrid French/English dialect.

Don’t get me wrong, we were not at the point of French not becoming some strange new way of speaking, but things looked like they could have eventually gone in that direction if there was not an organization to concentrate on the the public quality of French used.

The OQLF’s mission was simply to prevent this from happening, and to “support and encourage” the use of proper French in spheres where French was expected to be used.

This meant the OQLF’s role was to reinforce language quality and use in institutionalized settings, such as schools, hospitals, government offices, and areas of life regulated by government regulations.

And the efforts seem to have paid off.

The OQLF cannot tell you what you can or cannot verbally say (that would not be cool! – and it would be highly illegal).  But they can encourage you to use proper French in institutionalized settings – and hey, why not?  I’m game!

The bureau does so by providing resources and tools (such as one of the best and most comprehensive online French and French-English dictionaries in the world), public reminders, and assistance to individuals and enterprises who are working in French-language settings.

This is why, right from the beginning, in schools students know what correct terms to use, and society’s general quality and use of French has been enhanced.

This is also why, on an “institutionalized” or “formalized” level, French in Canada does not use anglicisms (or relatively very few) in higher level French (ie: in advertisements, in government or formal publications, etc).

Quite surprisingly, France does find it acceptable to use English words in formal settings and publications.

At an institutionalized level, you will find in France, one will use “weekend”, “email”, “shopping”, “parking”, etc.

However, in Québec, and Canada (as a result of guidance from the OQLF), we say “fin de semaine”, “couriel”, “magasinage”, and “stationnement”. 

(Note:  The OQLF’s influence is felt elsewhere in Canada as well.  Thus Francophones and those learning French in other provinces also look to the OQLF’s guidance, and thus it has influence and a “standardizing” effect across the country – not just in Québec).

For lack of a better term, the OQLF is the “public promoter for the correct use and implication of French in the public sphere”.   The “public sphere” is different than the “private sphere”.  But of course there is a natural a spill-over effect from the public sector to the private sector (hence why I probably subconsciously say “alors” much more often than “anyway” when I’m having informal, private conversations with friends).

So as you can see, the OQLF is not some baton-waving cop who is foaming at the mouth to beat you over the head.  They simply are a great resource and public reminder for ways in which to properly speak and use French.

But…

Where the OQLF does derive its nickname “the language police” is from the agency’s “active involvement” in public signage and workplace language of administration (applicable to companies over a certain size or which deal with the public).   Québec has a law which states that French much be the dominant signage in the public sphere (while allowing English to also appear, but at half the size of French).   If there is breach in the law, the OQLF is the agency mandated to deal with it.  The OQLF will issue guidance, then warnings, then in very rare cases, a possible fine.

Again, such cases are very rare, and this is only one part of the OQLF’s overall mission.  But when it happens, the person on the receiving end sometimes gets their nose very out of joint, makes a huge deal of it, gets the media involved, and the whole thing blows up.

That’s not to say that the OQLF hasn’t been a little overzealous on occasion also.  You may recall a couple of years ago, a rogue employee at the OQLF told someone they could not use the word “pasta” on their menu because it is not a “French” word.   Well, if that didn’t blow up like a nuclear test in the South Pacific!!  After a huge public backlash, I think some heads probably rolled at some level within the OQLF.

Fortunately, such cases are very few and far between.  Most people in Québec still view the OQLF in their role as a positve resource and language-support agency rather than in their capacity as a workplace-enforcement agency (yet elsewhere in Canada, it is only the latter which disproportionately and unfairly gets all the attention).

Check out the OQLF’s online resources.  They are comprehensive, informative, and well organized.

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