Friday, September 16, 2011

Language Politics Writ Small

For months, I have been mildly amused about a poster in the men's room near my McGill office.  The poster, put up in response to the flu threat a year or two ago, instructs people how to wash their hands.  The funny thing is that it is in French, as McGill's language of instruction is almost entirely English.  While many McGill students and faculty are bilingual, some are not so much.  Anyhow, I felt it was strange that the sign had no English on it, although the pictures made it clear what was being instructed.

Still, it bothered someone enough to write on the sign, demanding that it should be in English.  This graffiti has been up there for a few weeks, when someone else continued the conversation, demanding:
"Apprennez français calis!"   
Which means: Learn French, Chalice!  I think.  That is, it means Learn French and then I think uses the Quebec word for Chalice, as Quebeckers have taken words from the Catholic Church and turned them into curse words.  I would be surer if the person was using another Quebec-ism such as Tabernac, which I have heard far more often on frisbee fields.

This graffiti conversation is interesting to me, both because it shows the linguistic politics in Montreal, and because it illustrates the on-going Quebec conflict over religion, given the calis interpretation that I think is correct.

Of course, given that the poster shows how to wash hands (and that there is now a second poster in the same bathroom, but in English [with "francais svp" written all over it]), and given these kinds of posters are always ignored anyway since we wash our hands like we always have, this is really the epitome of a tempest in a teapot.

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