In the Moncton area of New Brunswick where I’ve lived all my life, we Acadians say it is practically unnecessary to learn English because we catch it effortlessly, like a common cold. If I happen to be listening to songs or reading a book in English, it is natural for me to keep thinking in English for hours, sometimes days, afterwards. Living where English is the majority language, I am constantly making micro-decisions to revert back to French, thereby asserting my cultural origins. But my code-switching apparatus does get tired, and at times the easy way out becomes the only way out. And the easy way out is very often English.
For instance, it made perfect sense to me to write this essay in English rather than French since I am primarily addressing myself to an English readership, but I am certain that if I had written on this subject in French, my starting point and my approach would have been different. This is only natural, I think.
This constant movement between French and English is like the flutter of emotions one may experience on any given day: the emotions may be somewhat annoying or exhausting, or somewhat pleasurable, and within a certain range they are no cause for worry. There is a tipping point, however. There is the comfort zone, and there is the discomfort zone.
For decades now, I have been trying to understand the role of language, the impact it had and has on life, on evolution. I am past the point of accepting expedient or superficial explanations. I do not adhere to the notion that one’s native language – or ‘mother tongue’, as we say in French – is some kind of Rock of Gibraltar, creating an equivalent Mediterranean pool in which one’s heart, mind and soul swim as gracefully as dolphins, drawing some inextinguishable force from this primeval basin so old and deep that this identity can never be shaken. In fact, I’ve rather come to suspect that our relationship to our mother tongue is not primarily sentimental or emotional, but deeply physiological and that constant and untimely disruptions and repetitive stresses induced by changing language and cultural channels cause what could be called a linguistic neurosis. I have no way to prove this of course, but I certainly wish someone would.
The notion of linguistic neurosis has probably never occurred to anyone who has not had to function, in any important way, in a language other than their mother tongue. To them, the concept would probably be summed up as being ‘just a fuss’. Of course, this perception only serves to feed the neurosis instead of soothe it.
Neurosis usually implies some form of rigidity and as much as I dislike rigid attitudes, I have also come to embody them. For example, I very much like the idea of wordless books, especially for children who cannot yet read. My attention was recently drawn to such a book: Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith. Praise for this book was such that I purchased a few copies to give to young families I knew, plus one copy to keep as a coffee-table book in our own home. The only problem is the title, which is in English.
Growing up, it was a family principle to always offer birthday, Christmas and other types of greeting cards in French and where one could buy such French cards in Moncton became a real problem, because the vast majority of stores selling English cards did not bother to carry any in French. For many Acadians, it became a mission to persist in asking to have an assortment of cards in French. Many similar demands were expressed concurrently during the 1960s and 1970s, from greeting cards, books and magazines to catalogues, flyers, telephone services and various official documents. Slowly but surely, an expanding number of Acadians started reminding everyone around them of their existence and their specific language needs – needs which eventually morphed into rights. French schools and colleges, hospitals and many other public services came to embody the extent to which the authorities acknowledged the French Acadian culture.
The publication and production of Antonine Maillet’s series of dramatic monologues La Sagouine (The Charwoman) in 1971 marked a turning point for Acadian French. And in 1979, when Madame Maillet went on to win the Goncourt for her novel Pélagie-la-Charrette, it certainly made a lot of us feel acclaimed and recognized, finally, in a big way. And so, literature saves us after all.
Why am I telling you all this? Because to this day, I feel uncomfortable displaying an English-titled book on our coffee table.
The truth: the three copies bought haven’t moved from the shelf where I deposited them on the day they were delivered, for even though it is a wordless book, the title sends the wrong message. The wrong message? The message to young children and their parents that it is okay and normal to read English books. The good message is to put a French storybook on the table, even if it has no words in it. So there it is: yes, I am a pusher of French. And in view of the Acadians’ habit, perhaps born of necessity at first, of accommodating the English authorities, the fact of standing up for the French language is very often viewed as uncompromising, or rigid.
At the outset of the Seven Years War (1756−1763), Acadia, with its 10,000 inhabitants, was one of the five territories grouped and known as New France. The other four were Canada (55,000 inhabitants), Louisiana (4,000 inhabitants), Hudson Bay and Newfoundland. Acadia was comprised of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island), Île Royale (Cape Breton) and Gaspesia. As the British Empire was gaining control over North American territories then under French rule, the Acadian settlements, which mostly dotted the Bay of Fundy area, came to be viewed first as an annoyance, and then, when these French descendants asked the British conqueror to exempt them from swearing an oath of allegiance to the Crown of Great Britain for fear of having to take arms against their own in other settlements, a threat. The English suspected that the situation would become unmanageable and a better solution to the problem was found: the forced removal of Acadians from Grand-Pré and the Minas Basin of Nova Scotia, a large area including south-eastern New Brunswick today.
The Great Upheaval (known as la Déportation or le Grand Dérangement) was intended to disperse the Acadians in port cities along the New England coast as far as New Orleans, in order to discourage them from regrouping and forming any sort of legitimate identity. And so they were boarded onto ships and their houses, barns and fields set on fire behind them, so as to dampen their desire to ever return. The Great Upheaval was, to put it mildly, disastrous for the Acadians; their population was decimated and their way of life irreparably damaged through shipwrecks, disease, poverty and displacement.