Your restaurant is called “El Taco”? I`m sorry, this is a serious violation of provincial law. You must reverse the E and the L so that your restaurant is called “LE Taco”. There, that`s much better!
As the province that`s home to most of Canada`s Francophone minority, Quebec sees it as its mission to protect the French language and Francophone culture in Canada. Quebec has enacted numerous provincial laws to protect the French language, one of them being the notorious “sign law” which has caused a lot of controversy and has been the butt of a lot of jokes in Canada.
Between 1977 and 1993, Quebec tried to enforce laws requiring outdoor commercial signs to be entirely in French. That means that if you ran a Mexican restaurant and called it “El Taco” (Spanish), you would be breaking the law and would have to change the name to “Le Taco” (because the definitive article in French is “le” rather than “el”). The law was black and white in those days – your commercial signs had to be entirely in French. That doesn`t mean that there was 100% compliance or 100% enforcement. The police wouldn`t come to your shop and arrest you, but instead you would have to put up with inspectors from the Office québécois de la langue française, who would tell try to twist your arm into complying under threat of heavy fines.
It was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court that Quebec ban all non-French commercial signs, and after a verbal spanking by the United Nations in 1993 Quebec started to allow other languages on signs. The catch, though, is that French must still be the most prominent language on the signage, with the standard normally being 3 times larger than any other languages. And inside shops, all printed materials are still required to be written in primarily French.
The enforcement of these laws often borders on the ridiculous. While the “El Taco” example was fictional (as far as I know!) it is completely plausible. An Italian coffee shop in Quebec was fined for spelling the word “cafe” (which is the same in both French and English) as “caffe” (as it`s spelled in Italian). He reasonably argued that an Italian spelling on his sign helped to create an authentic atmosphere for an Italian coffee shop, but the OQLF wasn`t listening. He was fined $1900, and required to change his signs.
Another ridiculous case happened inside a different Italian restaurant. The OQLF ordered the restaurant to remove the Italian word “pasta” from its menu and replace it with the French word “pâtes”. The incident was mocked so far and wide that it became notoriously known as “pastagate”. Would such an incident ever happen in France? Never.
There have been countless reports of OQLF inspectors using tape measures to make sure that French lettering is 3 times the size of other languages, and making shop owners` lives difficult by going for the jugular over minor technicalities.
First the mom and pop shops, and then global brands
Because these laws were in the past not generally enforced against big trademarked brand names with established signage and logos, it was mostly the little guy who had to deal with these headaches. But that changed in 2012 after the pro-separation Parti Quebecois took office, and now huge world famous brands are now expected to either change their names and signage to French, to make their names and signage bilingual, or to add a French tagline or description to the trademarked name.
Changing the signage of established brands is a huge headache, because big brands have put big money into split-testing their signs and logos and all of their different variables that go into them, including size and spacing. When Quebec suddenly told these established brands about their intention to start enforcing the law differently, they were thrown into a panic.
Some companies have complied by making their storefront names bilingual:
Others have added a tagline or description in French, or changed their tagline to French and used it within the logo:
Others have gone for a full-on translation or approximation of their brand name in French. Does this font and logo style look familiar?
It says “Bureau en gros” which translates as “Office Wholesale”. The tagline says “Articles de bureau * Bas prix d`entrepôt” which translates as “Office goods * Low warehouse prices”.
It`s Staples. Staples is called Bureau en Gros in Quebec. What do you think it`s called in France? It`s called Staples!
I`m sure you`ll get this one right away, based on the design which is beyond famous. Yes, that`s right, KFC (Kentucky Friend Chicken) is called PFK (Poulet Frit Kentucky) in Quebec. What do you think the name of KFC is in France, by the way? It`s KFC!
Other big businesses held out and took the Quebec government to court over the issue. This includes a few powerhouse brands like Walmart, Costco, and Best Buy. Last year a superior court judge ruled against the Office Quebecois de la langue francaise, asserting that trademarks are exempt from the law.
Are Quebec`s sign laws reasonable?
I`m a student of the French language and I love the French language, so I`m all for the promotion and celebration of the French language. I`m not, however, a big fan of government meddling and bureaucracy that micromanages the public. I believe in freedom to do whatever you want, and that includes to freedom to run your business as you see fit, and let the market decide to support you or not. That includes the freedom to speak and write whatever language you want without government interference.
Seeking to “protect” languages is something that always results in a lot of conflict because it is done out of fear and a feeling a scarcity. That results in a lot of aggressive maneuvers that polarize people, and turn people against the language. Instead of trying to protect the language out of fear of losing it, why not promote the language because it`s beautiful? Rather than sending out language police to meddle in business owners` private affairs, why doesn`t the Office quebecois de la langue francaise redirect that effort into promoting French language arts? Giving grants to Anglophone schools that do a great job of teaching French? Building more cultural ties and exchange between Quebec and France and the rest of the francophone world? I see the focus on private businesses, especially mom-and-pop businesses, as such a marginal factor in strengthening the language (does a sign make people want to stop speaking their native language?). I actually see it as something harmful to the language because it turns people off.
All over the world there are signs written in English, and there are local business names written in roman characters in countries where different scripts are predominant. If you go to Japan, you see lots of signs written in (often nonsensical) English; when you go to Egypt, you see lots of English; in Malaysia, you see lots of English. It doesn`t make the local people any less able to speak or read their own languages.
I think that the only difference in Quebec is a psychological one. Because of the history of how Canada was founded, francophone Canada feels threatened by anglophone Canada, and think they`re in danger of being usurped, and maybe that`s understandable. But acting from a place of fear is rarely productive and frequently destructive. Too many Canadians currently associate the French language with being forced to do something against their will, and with being chastised. I would much rather see the Quebec government promote and love the French language to death rather than chastise people for not using it enough. Make Canadians associate the French language with enthusiasm and deep appreciation. How can you do that? By presenting it with enthusiasm and deep appreciation.