BEING ENGLISH IN FRENCH-CANADA: STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND
Being a native English-speaker in the province of Québec, which is the biggest French-speaking part of Canada, never ceases to amaze me. Never mind that I was born and brought up here and that I’m half of French-Canadian extraction myself. When people call me on the phone for surveys and want to know about my ethno-linguistic identity, and I try and hedge by saying I’m half and half, they end up forcing me to take sides and spill the beans, divulging which language is more preponderant. Whereupon I’m compelled to say ‘English’, with a sense of having a part of my identity stolen from me in the process.
I’m always mulling over in my head the various comparisons and contrasts that exist between the slang and idiomatic expressions of both languages. For example, when something is expensive, in Québec French we say ‘ça coute un bras’, or, ‘it costs an arm’, whereas in English, things are distinctly more expensive, costing you an arm and a leg. I guess we blokes were always more obsessed with capitalism, since we’re the ones that invented it, right?
In another vein, nodding off in front of the TV in Québec can be something of an occupational hazard, and quite painful at that, since it involves banging in nails with your head. This is the Québec equivalent for ‘nodding off’ : ‘Plantez des clous’, or literally to ‘hammer nails’.
We are also told in proper Québec parlance, when nobody is occupying the premises, that there are no cats present, literally ‘Y’a pas un chat’, or ‘there is not a cat’. When we try, despite ourselves to do something, with very little or no success, we are in fact pulling the Devil by the tail, or literally, ‘tiré le Diable par la queue.’
Upon entering a dead end road, we are informed that we have just entered the bum of the bag, or literally, ‘cul-de-sac’.
When we are suddenly startled by someone or something, we immediately have a dog, (actually, a female one, the word I won’t use here), which is in contrast to the distinctly more bovine beast that we have in English when we are frightened. IE, ‘I had a cow’, as opposed to ‘j’ai eu la chienne’, (‘I had the dog’.)
And lastly, when something or someone is finished, and there’s no more hope for them, we say that they’re ‘toast’, or ‘toasted’, or they got ‘burned’, whereas someone in Québec who’s finished and had enough of everything and everyone promptly says that he or she doesn’t really care at all, toasted on both sides, as in the famous line from the Québec television program where the actor says ‘j’men ostie toasté des deux bord’.
In any case, there’s no shortage of colourful slang to keep bilingual factoid freaks like me busy. In the meantime, I think I’ll go to bed now, because I’m starting to hammer down some nails into my keyboard with my head, and there’s not a single cat in sight to remind me to that I have to go to work tomorrow. I wouldn’t want to wake up tomorrow morning and look at my watch and have a dog all over the place, knowing I’d slept right through my alarm clock!!!