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Showing posts with label English in Quebec. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English in Quebec. Show all posts

Sunday, 13 December 2020

The Politics of Adjectives

"If corn oil is made from corn, and vegetable oil is made from vegetables, what is baby oil made from? "
 
                                                                anonymous

"The Great Canadian . . . . whatever"

Have you ever noticed how many Canadian businesses and organizations brand themselves as "The Great Canadian . . ." something or other?  Ever wonder why?  In a brief article in the Catholic magazine Commonweal in 1929, Harvard Professor of Literature, Douglas Bush, asked the question "Is There a Canadian Literature?"  His answer was that in order for a Canadian literature to exist it must produce evidence of greatness, a great novel or poem or play--something great enough to be included in the established canon of great literature.  The sardonic response has been that in order for anything to be "Canadian" it must also be "great"; ergo, "The Great Canadian Bagel," "The Great Canadian Restaurant," "The Great Canadian Theatre Company," etc, etc. 

 

Canadian Nationalism:  An oxymoron?

During my enthusiastic Canadian nationalist phase in the mid-to-late seventies, I naively imagined that most Canadians would be eager to embrace Canadian literature, performance and art.  To my shock, Canadians, who would claim admiration for Dutch painting, Italian opera, Swedish cinema, German theatre, and English or American literature, reacted with outrage at the thought of having anything described as "Canadian" "shoved down their throats."  (The violence of this expression always took me aback.)   For the intelligentsia and literati inside Canada, "Canadian" invariably implied "parochial," "tribal," and that famously misunderstood expression "a garrison mentality."

 Does Canada even exist?

I must admit, I have long suspected that the name "Canada" came from Portuguese map-makers who labelled the topography of my homeland "ca nada" meaning "here nothing."  (See Pure Laine Québécois)  Frank Davey,  who is routinely described as “a leading authority on Canadian literature,” is quoted as saying that “Canada does not exist except as a political arrangement for the convenience of individuals accidentally happening to live within its arbitrary area.” Hugh MacLennan, author of what, for some time, was consider the quintessential Canadian novel, Two Solitudes, was also categorical that "there is no Canadian literature." Eventually, we came around to admitting that Canada does exist as a nation, a state, an imagined community of people and diverse peoples, a big piece of real estate with borders and a quirky history, and it was okay to call something Canadian because we had a flag and a beaver and a constitution and a police force mounted on horseback, and Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dionne and hundreds of thousands of other names worth mentioning.

 Is There an Anglo-Québécois Literature?

Always a glutton for punishment, as an English professor in Quebec, I went from defending the adjective "Canadian" to promulgating the modifier "Anglo-Québécois."  Reactions tended to be a rolling of the eyes rather than the visceral "shoved down our throats" response.  However, resistance to "Anglo-Québécois" was similar to what I had earlier witnessed in reaction to "Canadian." 

Josée Legault, in her book, L’invention d’une minorité : Les Anglo-Québécois, is adamant that   "s'il est indéniable qu'un certain nombre d'anglophones résidaient bel et bien au Québec, on ne pouvait toutefois parler de l'existence d'une 'communauté' anglo-québécoise"  ["even if it is undeniable that a certain number of Anglophones do in fact reside in Quebec, one can still not talk of the existence of an Anglo-Québécois 'community'."]  In an essay entitled  “Neil Bissoondath disait . . . .,” professor of literary studies Gilles Marcotte was equally adamant that “Il n’existe évidemment pas telle chose qu’une littérature anglo-québécoise [ . . .]."  ["There obviously exists no such thing as an Anglo-Québécois literature . . . ."] 

What the experts say

Just as professors, critics and authors who would seem to have a vested interest in the recognition of Canadian literature resisted the idea, English professors, critics and authors in Quebec, typically repudiated the notion of an Anglo-Québécois literature.  Jason Camelot is a professor of English at Montreal's Concordia University and the co-editor of a collection of essays entitled Language Acts: Anglo Quebec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century.   In his introduction to a special issue of the journal Canadian Poetry on Anglo Quebec,  Camelot agrees with Marcotte that “there is no such thing as Anglo-Quebec literature in the sense that there is now Can Lit and la littérature québécoise."  More surprising still, Linda Leith, author, editor and impresario, who has done more for and about English literature in Quebec than anyone, has avoided the expression Anglo-Québécois to describe her work and interests.

Thinking inside the box 

 I know we are all supposed to admire people who "think outside the box" but, really, I wish there were more people (like me) who could think inside the box.  I may not agree with Professor Marcotte, but I understand his logic.  For Marcotte, Québécois literature is by definition French.  Québécois literature in English, for Marcotte, would be the equivalent of a married bachelor.

The term "Québécois" only became the politically correct designation of a citizen of the province of Quebec in the late 60s and throughout the 70s.  Earlier, "Québécois" was understood to mean a resident of Quebec City. With "French Canadian" now signalling Francophones outside Quebec, inside my symmetrically-inclined, Canadian box, Anglo Québécois seemed all the more legitimate as a designation for Anglophones living inside Quebec.

The difference between a wine glass and a glass of wine

I must confess that when I began writing this post, a discouragingly long time ago, it was with exactly the opposite intention of what I have written here.  I intended to maintain my obsessive conviction that "grammatical mistake" should be "a mistake in grammar," and "comparative literature" should be "studies of literature in a comparative context." Any composition manual will tell you that placing an adjective in front of a noun is more succinct and elegant than following a noun with an awkward clause or phrase.  Additionally, an adjective in front of a noun has the potential of becoming the next big thing:  "post modernism" versus the more informative "modernism after 1965," "oral literature"  (a contradiction in terms since "literature" means what is written) versus "written representations of orality," and "block chain" versus "a chain of blocks"--this latter phrase at least gives an inkling of how this technology works.  Nothing whets the appetite of an academic more than the possibility of coining the next big thing, the next viral catchphrase.

Clearly, many of the phrases we accept are, to use one of my favourite academic expressions, "sites of debate." The problem I see is when we accept without debate. I still wonder why, when the Americas comprise two continents and 35 countries, the adjective "American" is typically, exclusively applied to the USA.  I spent four years studying the works of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce as "English" literature, barely noticing that these authors were all Irish. Politics matters.

I recognize that the appellation  "Canadian literature" means something more than and different from "literature in Canada," or "literature about Canada," or "literature by Canadians."  But I also see that when all these things have been happening for some time, the political decision to use the adjective this way makes sense, even if we might pause and stumble over exactly what the adjective "Canadian" might mean in this case.

 

Friday, 6 December 2019

Who Needs English Grammar? Part II


English Grammar and Social Class

The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class.  Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, "in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes"--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar.  With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar).  David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs:  one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely).  (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry and literature, by the way.)

With grammar, as with everything else in life:  there are choices to be made.  A pop icon or populist president might discover advantages in gainsaying the grammar of standard English in favour of a local dialect or patois.  On the other hand, scrupulous attention to the rules of prescriptive grammar might be the kind of branding with which you as an individual or your company or institution might want to be identified.


Beyond Fashion and branding, who does need English grammar?

Let us not be too quick to turn up our noses at branding and fashion.  In liberal, egalitarian societies, codes for dress as well as for language are invariably a source of protest. However, linguistic knowledge is stereotypically taken as a sign of general knowledge and intelligence (even if unwarranted).  Passing up the opportunity for respect, confidence and admiration which your grammar might impart (or undermine) isn't a wise decision--unless you are already a pop star or a president. Beyond fashion and making a good impression, there are practical reasons for knowing the grammar of the language which you speak.

Learning a foreign language

One of the strongest reasons for a native speaker to know the grammar of English is that it will facilitate the learning of a foreign language.  This is strictly anecdotal (not empirical evidence) but, having taught grammar to both native speakers and second-language learners, I noted that some native speakers were understandably reluctant to accept and even disbelieving that there were "rules" for something they had done naturally all their lives.  Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker both argue that language is innate, even genetic and instinctive, and that there is a universal grammar of all languages.  However, knowing the distinctive grammatical features of your first language is a huge advantage,  giving you parameters and a framework, as you take on a foreign language and can note its differences.  Conversely, I would add that you really don't know your own language until you have been required to learn another one.

Redundancy and entropy

The principle purpose of most grammar rules is to create redundancy.  Basic communication theory indicates that the greater the redundancy in a message the greater its clarity.  In oral communication, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures to reinforce the message.  In written communication we depend on grammatical features, subject-verb agreement, correct syntax, agreement between adverbs of time and the tense of the verb, and correct word type (see "What Is English Grammar?) to be doubly sure that our message will be clearly understood.  Consider some simple examples:

"I stopped there yesterday."  Here the past tense of the verb and the word "yesterday" are transmitting the same information; i.e., there is redundancy in the sentence.  The adverb "yesterday" makes it clear that the action was in the past.  The rules of grammar, which require the past tense of the verb plus the word "yesterday,  make it redundantly clear that the action was in the past. "I stop there yesterday," though ungrammatical, gets the message across.

"He is here."  The agreement between the third person subject "he" and the third person of the verb "is" is basically redundant.  "He are here" would transmit the same message but, in the absence of redundancy, with a touch of ambiguity.


When the message matters, the grammar matters

Legal documents are notoriously tedious to read.  They use more nouns than most writing, and avoid varying vocabulary, action verbs, adverbs and intensifiers.  In other words, they avoid all the features that make writing interesting.  They will also tend to be repetitive and redundant, strictly following the rules of grammar.  When clarity is of the utmost importance, grammar becomes important, even if (or because) it creates redundancy.


Grammar can change the message

As I pointed out in Part I, I am not partial to the "you're shit" versus "your shit" distinction as grounds for knowing English grammar.  However, there are subtle, refined distinctions in English messages that are transmitted through grammar.  Consider these pairs of sentences:

1. The less people know about us the better.

2. The fewer people know about us the better.

In #1 "less" applies to an uncountable abstract, the implied knowledge.

In #2 "fewer" applies to the countable "people."

1.  I'm going to see her tomorrow.

2.  I'll see her tomorrow.

In #1 "going to" implies a previous arrangement or understanding.

In #2 "will" does not carry the implication of an arrangement, and can be a spontaneous decision.

1.  I've seen that movie.

2.  I saw that movie.

In #1 "I've seen" (the present perfect tense) implies some effect on the present (i.e., "I don't want to see it again").

In #2 "saw" is past tense and neutral about the present. (see The Truth about English Verb Tenses)


Who needs English grammar?

Most English speakers will use these grammatical variations correctly without being aware or able to explain them.  I began these posts on "Who needs English grammar?" by pointing out that we impose grammar most on people who need it least.  At some point in the learning process, language learners will benefit from instruction in grammar, but that point is late in the process (See The Ball of String Theory).





My own rule of thumb for when to teach grammar in an ESL or EFL context was whenever a student asked a question about grammar.  Teachers of English need to know the grammar.  I'll go one step further and say that anyone who teaches anything in English needs to know English grammar.


"Yes, no, toaster"

I still remember watching a documentary series in Quebec entitled Yes, No, Toaster.  The expression "yes, no, toaster" was a typical comedic response from a young Quebec francophone to the question "Do you speak English?"  The documentary, which investigated the relative ineffectiveness of English language instruction in Quebec, was provoked by Audrey de Montingy, a finalist in Canadian Idol in 2003, who confessed that she couldn't understand a word of what people were saying to her during the show, even though she had had six years of ESL instruction.  The Yes, No, Toaster  series took cameras into various English-language-instruction settings.  The one that sticks with me (sticks in my craw, I should say) was an advanced class in which a student asked her teacher "What's the difference between 'will" and 'going to'?"  The teacher not only refused to answer but used the occasion to mock the student by saying "You're not ready for that level yet?"




The Moral of the story

The moral of the story I've been telling is that we should ensure that the right people are being criticized, and the right people are doing the criticizing.  Teachers mocking inquiring students; unilinguals criticizing polyglots--these are just plain wrong.

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