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Linguistic Chaos in Montreal. Northern Entry to the Continent. Orig. Iroquois settlement called Hochelaga “Discovered” in 1535 by Jacques Cartier. Settlement of Montreal. Orig. Iroquois settlement called Hochelaga “Discovered” in 1535 by Jacques Cartier

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Linguistic Chaos in Montreal

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Linguistic Chaos in Montreal

Northern Entry to the Continent

  • Orig. Iroquois settlement called Hochelaga

  • “Discovered” in 1535 by Jacques Cartier

Settlement of Montreal

  • Orig. Iroquois settlement called Hochelaga

  • “Discovered” in 1535 by Jacques Cartier

  • Ville Marie founded 1642 (Iroquois gone)

  • Defensible and accessible site

  • Center of French settlement & fur trade for 120 yrs.

  • Center of English commerce & industry after 1760

Settlement of Montreal

Settlement of Montreal

  • Orig. Iroquois settlement called Hochelaga

  • “Discovered” in 1535 by Jacques Cartier

  • Ville Marie founded 1642 (Iroquois gone)

  • Defensible and accessible site

  • Center of French settlement & fur trade for 120 yrs.

  • Center of English commerce & industry after 1760

  • Canal de Lachine creates industrial axis & immigration magnet

  • Golden Square Mile 1850-1930: 70% of Canada’s wealth

  • St. Lawrence Seaway 1959

Montreal Today

Montreal Today

Population Density


Canal de Lachine

The Order of Chaos

  • Bilingualism

    • below 40% outside Montreal

    • 40-100% on Island of Montreal

  • Political tension around language

    • Canada officially bilingual, mostly Anglophone

    • Quebec officially monolingual

    • language choice is politicized in Montreal

    • impacts of politicization may be contradictory and counter-intuitive

  • Complicated linguistic geography

Schematic Diagram of Montreal’s Linguistic Geography

French and English mix

  • many words like cool, gang, show, and “tripper” have found their way into French

  • a few words like metro, dépanneur, CEGEP, and “confessional” (denominational) have found their way into Montreal English

  • conversations flip-flop as bilingual friends with different mother tongues converse

  • sentences flip-flop: “These shoes hurt here et juste en arriere” (overheard on street) “C’est pour ça que I’ve been wanting to talk to you” (overheard in café)

Language Politics

  • As suggested above, the language games resemble a dance, a promiscuous mingling of languages

  • People take delight in shifting from language to language at whim

  • Nevertheless, language is a locus of heart-felt struggle in Quebec and in Montreal

The dance of English and French is less chaotic than it appears.

Language Games

  • Mr. Smith starts in French to show that he accepts that French is the official language of Quebec

  • Mr. Tremblay switches to (almost perfect) English to show his good will and/or to avoid confusion

  • If Smith does not acknowledge this good will by abandoning his attempt to speak French, this will be taken as a sign that Tremblay’s English is not good enough (a snub) and a sign of stupidity and/or vanity because Smith overestimates his (undoubtedly flawed) French

  • However, if Jones becomes complacent and uses English first, he will encounter “incomprehension” or somewhat surly use of English

Axes of Variation in Language Games

  • Time

    • centuries (???)

    • decades

    • months

  • Space

    • East Island vs. West Island

    • on island vs. off island

    • public vs. private space

    • Francophone vs. Anglophone establishments

      • e.g. donut shop vs. pastry shop

  • Ethnicity

    • Anglophones are not necessarily Anglos!

    • Many Italians, Greeks, Arabs, etc.

    • Jewish population predominantly Anglophone

Political Context

  • a linguistic island “six millions de francophones perdus dans un océan d’anglophones”

  • linguistic peculiarity increasing through out-migration and in-migration

  • Open conflict

    • two failed referenda on sovereignty

    • several unresolved constitutional battles

    • rise of the nationalist Parti Québécois

    • a spate of laws supporting “Francisation”

1995 Referendum


No Way.

What is the meaning of the “sovereignty” movement?

  • To redress historical wrongs

  • To earn recognition as a “distinct society”

  • To achieve autonomy in areas like media regulation and immigration policy

  • To perpetuate French culture in North America

Law 101, of 1977

  • most famous of many language laws signed into law under the P.Q.

  • had three objectives:

    • restrict outdoor signage to French

    • designate French as the official language of all workplaces in Quebec

    • ensure that children of immigrants to Quebec will be educated in French

  • was softened by constitutional challenges, but remains largely intact

Three signs in the Montreal area, one controversy





Regulation of Signage

  • General perception of Francophones: a worthwhile project

  • General perception by Anglophones: vindictive and pointless regulation

    • confusing eradication of the apostrophe: Joe’s  Joes

    • confusing bilingual signs: “Av. Sherbrooke Ave.”

  • Richard Y. Bourhis (Psychology, UQAM)

    • linguistic landscape is the strongest predictor of people’s perceptions of ethnolinguistic vitality

    • so the sign law serves a purpose, whether or not it’s a purpose the Anglophones understand or support

The only English signs are relics of an earlier era

Immigrant zones are key sites of linguistic struggle

Other signs of ethnic division in the Montreal urban landscape

  • French: dense, urban, stone/brick/concrete, sociable, prioritizes chance encounters and the sense of community

  • English: serene, suburban (lawns), dignified, prioritizes the protection of personal and familial privacy

  • Other ethnicities: conforms to English or French standard, though Italians have a special style

French districts: e.g. Plateau-Mont-Royal

English districts:

e.g. a street in Westmount

Italian row houses in Lasalle

A quiet, civilized afternoon,

lawn bowling in Westmount

A less civilized pass-time,

shopping at Marché Jean-Talon

The Zone of Linguistic Confusion (Z.L.C.)

Virtually all of Montreal’s tourist zone, plus the contact zone between East Island & West Island

nominally Francophone


nominally Anglophone

The zone of linguistic confusion(Place d’Armes)

The zone of linguistic confusion(la Vieux Porte)

The zone of linguistic confusion(Gare Central)

The zone of linguistic confusion(the Métro and Parc Mont Royal)

The zone of linguistic confusion(Sherbrooke St. to The Village)


  • Montreal’s linguistic landscape can feel chaotic to a visitor, particularly since the tourist zones are in the Z.L.C.

  • This chaos reflects history and geography

    • Rise, fall, and resurrection of French control of Quebec

    • Montreal as an island in an island (linguistically speaking)

    • centripetal and centrifugal forces

  • “Allophone” populations add to the complexity

  • Political struggle over language adds to the tension

Nevertheless, most Montrealers wouldn’t want to live anywhere else

What accounts for the magic of this city?

Why do people fall in love with it?

Concluding Thoughts

  • The key may lie in the role played by Montreal’s abundant public spaces

    • pedestrian streets

    • greenspace

    • parks

    • squares

    • “underground city”

  • The “Other” can never be truly a stranger in this kind of city


Great Greenspaces

  • Parc Mont Royal: 494 acres

    (just over half the size of Central Park, NY, but bigger than Zilker Park)

  • Île St. Hélène: 336 acres (1/2 = fill)

  • Parc Angrignon: 200 acres

  • Île Notre Dame, Parc Maisonneuve, Botanical Gardens, banks of the Canal de Lachine, banks of the St. Lawrence, etc.

  • includes 67 miles of bike paths

Underground City

  • 18 miles of interconnected spaces

  • linked via the Métro

  • provides access to:

    • shopping

    • office buildings

    • indoor skating rink

    • hotels

    • restaurants & cafés

    • four universities

    • Montreal’s main performing arts center

Underground City

The dense urban fabric encourages communication across political lines

Could these spaces be the “glue” that holds it all together?

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