What ever happened to the Apostrophe?

December 21, 2009

In the days after the adoption of  la Loi 101, the law which recognized French as the (only) official language of  Québec,  the hardcore anglophone faction in the Montréal region announced the imminent arrival of the Apocalypse.  Repression was sure to be nigh:  the English speaking minority would be marginalized in a geopolitical entity which would itself be marginalized in the North American continent.  Even worse, despite years of British rule, we could not depend on the natives having assimilated the principle of  fair play.

If we were to believe a segment of the anglophone press, one of the nastiest manifestations of this apparent lack of a sense of anglo-saxon fair play was manifested  in the application of the new language law to the domain of  affichage.  A particularly notable example of this putative linguistic repression was thought to be found at the well-known (and now departed) department store Eaton’s.  French language nationalists had long considered  Eaton’s a symbol of anglophone arrogance, since it was widely believed that the company’s flagship establishment  in downtown Montréal deliberately hired unilingual anglophones in order to deny francophones  adequate service en  français.

One of the provisions of la  Loi 101 was the prescribed dominance of  French on commercial signage.   Since the genitive is not indicated by the use of the apostrophe in French, Eaton’s first became Eatons and then eventually Eaton.  The vanishing apostrophe of Eaton’s was subsequently infused with a new symbolic value.  So, in a rebondissement which would rejoice Derrideans among us, a vanishing grammatical mark  became a symbol of French language tyranny.

Camille Laurin,  a psychiatrist who became  minister responsible for cultural development in the first Parti Québécois government, was painted as a “language Nazi ” whose supposed psychological manipulation of the population was considered more diabolical and dangerous than la Terreur de 1793 .  After all, for the hyper sensitive English speaker, the suppression of the Eaton’s apostrophe could only lead to  a serious loss of identity and concomitant decrease of self-esteem.

Those familiar with Canadian politics understand that the sign skirmish was only a short chapter in a linguistic melodrama which is part and parcel of  the history of Québec.  In fact, it took more than 200 years to generate this tepid revenge against the English language.  Having been sheltered by British rule, the Québécois never assimilated the vigor of  republican ideals.  In short, sending the ruling class to the guillotine was never an option here.

Many years have passed since the promulgation of official uniligualism in  Québec.  Signage in the Montréal area has survived, actually improved and become very creative. ( Take, for example,  the name for the warehousing company  Securespace , a particularly felicitous use of surreptitious bilingualism.)  In the spirit of internationalism, the use of pictogrammes has flourished, actually alleviating the burden of having to read anything at all.   Most of the pricklier anglophone population has departed to points west or reluctantly resigned itself to the status quo.  For the rest of us,  it’s life as usual.

I certainly understood the unhappiness of Québec nationalists with the barbaric nature of some of the pre-Parti Québécois bilingual signage.  My friend and thesis advisor , the late  André Belleau,  once commented on the possibility of a francophone growing up thinking that the sign Pont Jacques-Cartier Bridge meant that the structure in question was named after a Monsieur J. C. Bridge.

Of course, it may be that I have always paid abnormal attention to banal commercial signs.  After all, I did live in apartments above family-run grocery stores for the first thirteen years of my life.  But, ironically, one of my favorite commercial signs was not really commercial at all.  A graduate school friend and colleague,  the legendary Michael Edesess, and I sometimes ate breakfast at a diner (in Evanston, Illinois) which had no apparent name.  The diner’s only marking during the business day was a simple cardboard sign on its front door: OPEN.  Of course, we ended naming the diner The Open.  And since it was sometimes closed, we found the name especially amusing.  But even novice topologists understand that the concepts of open and closed are not really mutually exclusive :  so much for math grad students’ humor and appreciation of fine restaurants.

After the language controversy in the 1970’s in Québec,  the spelling, syntax and grammar on signs actually improved.  However, some years later the initial francophone pride in the election of the PQ government abated.  Then  both the language used on signs and the level of  language used in public discourse seemed to decline.  I wondered if this decline in public use of language was simply a local phenomenon, possibly the result of  a French language letdown, a lowering of educational standards, or even the increased cross pollination  of languages in a city as cosmopolitan as  Montréal.  So, when I was in the United States,  I began to examine commercial signs a little more carefully.  To my chagrin, I found my U.S. compatriots were not operating at a much better level.  The geographically closest example was a restaurant in Champlain, New York whose large principal sign proudly  announced Home Made Pie’s. I could have said that the banished Eaton’s apostrophe did not have to travel far to find a home.

Unfortunately, since then I have often encountered the use of the apostrophe in the formation of the plural of a noun: for example, the web site of the Turbo Grips company (a bowling product supplier with which I am familiar) announces Video’s and Events. On the other hand, sometimes genitive constructions  lack the apostrophe:  e.g. the Giants roster.  It may be that there has been a grammatical and orthographical revolution which, in my relative isolation,  I have missed.  It could possibly have  occurred one summer when I was busy listening to the New York Yankee’s on the radio.

Seeing too many spelling, syntactical and  and grammatical mistakes on written material destined for the public is certainly annoying.  It obviously denotes a lack of respect for the minimal standards of communication.  But it also says something about the intelligence, pride and sense of rigor of the authors of that material.  Without entering into the type of cultural critique  found in Susan Jacoby’s  The Age of American Unreason (2008),  I would say that it might be pertinent to question the reason for the decline of certain fundamental skills that we previously  took for granted: elementary language skills that constitute basic literacy, basic mathematical skills that allow us to understand elementary science and participate in simple commercial exchanges, maybe even spatial orientation (i. e. geometrical) skills which permit us to adapt to the basic geography around us.  Should we fully depend on word processing software, the calculator and the GPS?  In a supposedly sophisticated society, it seems unreasonable that we have high school (and even college) graduates  who may not know how to distinguish the grammatical pieces of a sentence, how to calculate averages and percentages,  how to make change in a store, how to find a large and well-known civic building without programming the GPS?

It is possible that mankind has advanced to the point where none of the basic skills mentioned above are necessary for survival or commerce with other humans.  Those whose interests lie in selling  technologically sophisticated “gadgets”   would have us believe that emphasis on the mastery of basic skills is antediluvian.  Yet it may be time to once again insist on the Kantian maxim which reminds us that Aufklärung is the act by which we detach ourselves from the inability to use reason without depending on others.  In exercising intelligence, we would possibly then begin to better understand the complex relations between technology, international capitalism and human freedom.

At any rate,  without expressing an embarrassing type of New Age linguistic holism,  I would like to suggest it may be desirable that the exiled English language apostrophe once again find its appropriate place in its own linguistic milieu.  As far as the language situation in Québec goes,  let’s worry more about the correctness of the French on signs and less about the extraneous consequences of an overdue chapter of historical evolution. And, of course, don’t think about asking the person selling you a GPS about the relativistic principles guaranteeing its correct functioning.

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