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Culture : Quebecers Accused of French-Frying the Language : New dictionary sets off le free for all among critics. They hate the Anglicisms and joual slang.

February 16, 1993|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTREAL — Over the years, countless French-speaking Americans have traveled to this, the world's second-largest Francophone city, and come away puzzled and disappointed because they could scarcely understand a word the locals said.

The reason: joual .

Joual (pronounced zhoo-AHL) is the unique slang spoken on the streets of urban Quebec, especially in Montreal. The word itself is a corruption of the French word cheval , for horse, and it suggests the way Quebecers, having been out of close contact with their motherland for centuries, have taken up new pronunciations of standard French words or, in many cases, coined whole new words of their own.

Over time, joual has come to be many things to many people: For poets and playwrights, it is a literary device, good for conveying earthiness; for the working man, it is a mere habit; for Quebec nationalists, it is a precious repository of the province's linguistic heritage.

But for educators, strict parents and some linguistic purists, joual is a menace.

" Joual is the lowest common denominator of urban, spoken French in the underprivileged part of Quebec," says Ed Bantey, a bilingual Montreal writer. "It's what people are trying to get away from."

To Quebecers like Bantey, the latest outrage is a new dictionary published by the elite French publishing house Dictionnaires le Robert.

Le Robert , as the publisher's leading dictionary is known, is considered one of the great literary documents of the French-speaking world--the equivalent of Oxford University Press' definitive, 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary. Stuffed as it is with citations from the great French authors, Le Robert is the ultimate authority on correct, literary, Parisian French.

But the newest addition to Robert's family of dictionaries is far from a monument to the French of Moliere and Corneille. Instead, Le Dictionnaire Quebecois d'Aujourd'hui , or The Dictionary of Quebec French Today, is packed with joual expressions and the ear-bending anglicismes that pepper the French spoken in the mean streets of Montreal's East End.

Jean-Claude Boulanger, a lexicographer at the Universite Laval in Quebec City and the new dictionary's editorial director, estimates that about 90% of the work's words are standard, international French. The rest are unique to Quebec.

"These words exist; people use these words," he says in the dictionary's defense. "And as a lexicographer, I must describe these words."

All around Boulanger, the battle rages. Some Quebecers say the new dictionary denigrates them and their speaking style. "It marginalizes Quebec," says Bantey. "To say that they're reflecting a social reality is so contemptuous!"

Still other critics worry that by consecrating all that is lowbrow about Quebec French, the prestigious French publishing house is doing irreparable damage to the core element of the province's distinct culture: its language.

"If we don't speak our language correctly, then we'll eventually be assimilated culturally," warns Andre Major, a prize-winning Quebec novelist. "We will move toward Louisianisation."

There aren't too many places on Earth where a dry reference work could become the topic of cocktail-party chatter. But in Quebec, the question of language is never very far from people's minds.

"You Anglo-Saxons don't have any problem with (language)," says Richard Gigere, a professor of literature at the University of Sherbrooke. "But in Quebec, when you touch the language, you touch a nerve. It's like picking up an iron and dropping it on your toe."

Thus Boulanger, the editor, says he isn't at all surprised at the way his dictionary--which he estimates consumed seven man-years of labor--is being attacked.

"All the discussions, all the debates, are about more than the dictionary itself," he says. "People are using the dictionary as a pretext to discuss the whole language question. This is a lot of weight on the shoulders of Robert."

The prevailing view here has it that Quebec is like a tiny island of French language and culture. Storms are battering the shores, in the form of American satellite and cable TV shows, English-language radio broadcasts and music, American books and magazines in the stores and an unconscious tendency to borrow words from English.

Quebecers are generally eager to protect their language from this onslaught, and the provincial government has taken many unusual steps to keep English at bay. It has, for instance, banned the use of English on outdoor commercial signs, placed strict restrictions on who can send their children to English-language schools and passed laws requiring all but the tiniest businesses to conduct their affairs in French.

The government even runs telephone hot lines offering quick tips on how to avoid saying things like le shopping , the way people do in France. Le magasinage is the correct term in Quebec.

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