sociolinguistics laboratory

An English "Like No Other"?: Language Contact and Change in Quebec

Principal Investigator: Shana Poplack
Co-Investigator: James A. Walker

Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada
Research Grant #410-2002-0941 [2002-2005]

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The unparalleled success of Quebec‘s language laws has fundamentally altered the relationship of English and French in the province. The received wisdom is that English, in its minority-language guise, has undergone language change induced by contact with French. But this inference has never been supported empirically.

Our objective in this research is to scientifically test the claim that Quebec English is undergoing change as a result of contact with French. In contrast with previous work, our focus will be on the spoken language, specifically on the variable tense/aspect structures contained therein. Our approach is three-pronged. We will investigate the inference of change over (apparent) time by comparing the speech of "extant" anglophones (here defined as those who acquired their vernacular prior to the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s and remained in situ) with that of younger generations. Contact-induced change, if it has occurred, should be most evident among those who acquired English after the passage of Bill 101 (1977) and ensuing language laws. Second, to rule out the possibility that (eventual) distinctions between the English of extant and younger anglophones are simply the result of independent internal evolution, we supplement the temporal comparison with a sociodemographic component. We compare the English spoken in three urban centres in which the proportion of English mother-tongue claimants varies widely: Quebec City, Montreal and, as a control, Oshawa. If hospitality to contact-induced change is a function of minority status, as many claim, its effects should be most apparent in Quebec City, where native anglophones have constituted a minority at both the provincial and local levels since at least 1850. Finally, making use of the variationist framework for sociolinguistic analysis and the comparative methods we have pioneered and successfully applied to other areas of bilingualism and language contact, we will adduce the existence and directionality of change by comparing linguistic structure first, among the contact varieties, and then with that of the putative source, French. The linguistic focus will be on English grammatical structures with apparent counterparts in French, as instantiated in the variable expression of present, past, and future temporal reference. Such structures are said to be prime candidates for transfer.

Results will contribute not only to elucidating the mechanisms of contact-induced change in a variety of sociodemographic situations, but also, more generally, to characterizing Canadian English, a national variety which has been lamented as highly “underdescribed.”

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