A Tool to Protect the French Language in Quebec

The Office Québécois de la Langue Française (OQLF) has been fighting to maintain French as the "normal and usual language" in the province of Quebec since 1961. The organization strives to keep out English words and annually updates a dictionary containing three million French terms. France-Amérique talked with the OQLF spokesperson in Montreal, Jean-Pierre Le Blanc, to find out more.
© Adrien Olichon

France-Amérique: What is the core mission of the Office Québécois de la Langue Française?

Jean-Pierre Le Blanc: Our mission is to oversee the application of the French Language Charter. This document was signed in 1977 and ensures that French – the official language of the province – remains the language of work, commerce, communications, and business. The percentage of Quebecers who speak French at home has dropped from 80.9% in 1996 to 77.1% in 2016. The government is unable to regulate the use of French in the private sphere, but it can in the public sphere. This is why we developed the charter, which applies to all administrations, companies, and schools. It regulates public displays, street names and storefronts, advertisements and user manuals, job postings and administrative letters. The law can also issue fines in cases where the charter is not respected.

Does the OQLF have the power to sanction offenders?

There have been instances of companies receiving warnings. If there is no response to this warning, the case is transferred to the Director of Criminal and Penal Proceedings, a service overseen by the Quebec Ministry of Justice. Between April 1, 2016, and March 31, 2017, the OQLF recorded 2,973 complaints for breaches of “the language of commercial documentation” (39% of cases), “the language of public and commercial displays” (20%), and “the language of services” (18%). Only ten of these complaints led to a conviction. Last December, the wholesaler Johnvince Foods was sentenced to pay a fine of 3,000 dollars for having refused to “use French in a commercial publication,” on its website.

This approach has drawn much criticism. It has been described as “severe,” “authoritarian,” and even “abusive.”

There is no obligation to use the terms created by the OQLF – our Grand dictionnaire terminologique is prescriptive. Our role is to remind people of the appropriate French terms in existence, and to suggest neologisms to replace words borrowed from other languages. French is a modern language capable of describing the world just as well as English. In an attempt to avoid “hashtag,” our terminologists have come up with mot clic; neutralité d’internet has replaced “net neutrality,” and travailleur plurifonction is used instead of “slash worker.” However, we are not completely averse to borrowed words. For example, we recently accepted “cocktail,” “grilled cheese,” “baby boom,” “softball,” “parking,” “leader,” and “toast.”

The introduction of English words has long been seen as a threat to Quebecer culture. Is this still the case?

Some 80% of Quebecers speak French at home, along with 20% of Canadians, and 2% of Americans. The regions bordering Quebec are all English-speaking, and they continuously export their cultural and consumer products. In an effort to preserve French and ensure it remains a living language, we need to encourage its use. People migrating to Quebec are required to take 11 weeks of French classes, and Anglophone brands are obliged to use French in their public signage. For example, the chain of office accessories stores, Staples, was renamed Bureau en Gros, while Starbucks is now Café Starbucks, and KFC has become PFK, or Poulet Frit à la Kentucky.