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This article was published 7/6/2012 (2851 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
MONTREAL — The language critic of the Parti Québécois is "very worried" about the latest sign Montreal is being overrun by English.
The head of the government's language watchdog agency, the Office Québécois de la langue franßaise, sees it as at least a possible "irritant."
And the minister of culture in the Liberal government is "concerned."
So what is the problem against which these people have united?
That's it. That's the problem — that informal little English word hi, when it's used to greet customers in downtown Montreal businesses.
And not even when it's used instead of bonjour.
No, the people who are in charge of Quebec's language policy, or might soon be, are concerned even when it's used in addition to bonjour, as in "Bonjour/hi."
That's the greeting that, in Montreal's unique linguistic etiquette, is intended to let the customer know he or she can be served in either French or English.
A new report, one of five published by the OQLF last Friday, shows an apparent rapid increase in the extending of this courtesy.
The agency hired a private firm to send observers into 398 retail businesses in downtown Montreal this year, pretending to be ordinary French-speaking customers.
These undercover shoppers, or "mystery customers" as the report calls them, dutifully noted the languages in which they were greeted and served as well as those of all the signs, even the smallest ones. Their observations were then compared to those made in visits to the same businesses in 2010.
The OQLF reports it received 4,067 complaints last year about alleged infractions of the language law, an astonishing one-year increase of 46 per cent, mainly about commercial signs. That's one reason its head, Louise Marchand, said the agency will soon send out its intrepid inspectors into downtown Montreal to search out infractions "street by street, business by business."
But such a dramatic increase can be due to the efforts of a few zealots. For example, in April, three individuals filed a total of 850 complaints.
Also, the OQLF's report contradicts a widespread impression the use of French in downtown Montreal is in decline.
It says the observers found 18 per cent of the businesses they visited to be breaking the sign rules.
But that could mean all the signs but one in any given business were legal.
And of the businesses breaking the rules, 63 per cent were violating an obscure 19-year-old regulation on business names the OQLF itself ignored until recently. It requires a business to add a description in French to its signs if its name is a federally registered trademark in another language.
Compare the consequences of that relatively small rate of non-compliance with those of what the government's auto-insurance corporation says is a majority of Quebec drivers who endanger lives by exceeding the speed limit.
The OQLF's observers also reported that even in downtown Montreal, French was available in 95 per cent of the businesses they visited, if customers requested it (which, another of the OQLF's reports showed, only 57 per cent of French-speaking consumers did).
There had been a slight increase in the proportion of businesses where they were greeted in English only, from 10 per cent two years ago to 13 per cent this year.
But — aha! — the proportion where they were greeted in French and English (bonjour/hi) had jumped from a suspiciously low one per cent only two years ago to 13 per cent this year.
That is, in 87 per cent of businesses in downtown Montreal, customers were greeted in French.
And as the head of the OQLF admits, it's always been legal under the 35-year-old language law to greet them in English as well.
But apparently it's preferable the customer be ignored than greeted with the courteous "Bonjour/hi" the head of the OQLF finds so potentially irritating to French ears.
Because apparently even when it follows respectfully behind bonjour, the word hi sends the wrong messages.
It says Montreal is becoming "anglicized" — a myth, since the proportion of Montreal Island residents who most often speak English at home has remained stable at about 25 per cent.
And it says it's still OK to use English in public in Quebec — behaviour that is apparently to be discouraged.
Don Macpherson is a columnist for the Montreal Gazette.
— Postmedia News