I spent last weekend in Montreal, where I had to attend and report on a medical meeting. It had been 17 years since I’d last set foot in the city where I grew up. Strolling along my old stomping grounds put me in mind of the strong separatist winds that stirred Montreal in the 1980s. The so-called French language police was in full force at the time, industriously taking down the apostrophes and s’s on the “Eaton’s” and “Cantor’s bakery” signs to meet the requirements of Bill 101.
Had they simply waited about thirty years, they could have spared themselves all those trips up and down ladders. The apostrophe has all but died out, especially on store signs. As I walked past the corner of de Maisonneuve Ave. and Stanley St. I came upon a store simply called Mens. If a man plus a man plus a man equals men, does men plus men plus men equal mens? Never mind, that’s too logical. The hockey player who founded the iconic chain of donut shops wasn’t called Tim Hortons, and yet that’s what his store signs now read. Apparently the postmodern brain can’t handle possessives.
Which got me thinking, as I continued my stroll, about a book I’d read long ago, called Language Change: Progress or Decay? (If that doesn’t qualify me as a grammar geek, I don’t know what does.) It seems to me that most spontaneous shifts in language usage move things away from complex, precise arrangements toward sloppier ones, much as entropy decreases order. In the fullness of time we’ve evolved from the majesty of Latin, with its rigorous declensions that make word order moot, to LOL and mens. Do we really need to ask if this constitutes progress or decay?
On the bright side, Montreal has grown up into a truly bilingual city. The Francophones have gotten over their early militancy and now go out of their way to speak English if they think it will make life easier for their interlocutors. The Anglos, meanwhile, are finally mastering French conjugations and Joual. Exchanges with storekeepers filled my ears with the sweet music of Franglais – the impromptu mishmash of English and French that more and more people are using, sometimes in the same sentence. When I encountered a sign that read “La Clinic,” I had to smile. I’ll take my progress where I can find it.