Write me une lettre if you plait…

There are bilingual countries, and then there are bilingual cities, and then there is Ottawa. (Canada.)

Writing in Canadian English - or Frech

Writing, reading and speaking in Ottawa, Canada is a muddle of French and English. Bonne luck…

Even though it’s situated in Ontario, just (a predominantly English-speaking province but with Québec just across the river), being the federal capital and therefore holier than thou, everything in Ottawa happens in both English and French.

All the same, Ottawa is surprisingly unstuffy. It’s a small city with a hyperactive centre of markets, cafés, street theatre, rock and jazz buskers, restaurants, heavy traffic, tourists, more tourists and street corner stalls selling “beaver tails” … to swoon for if you like more sugar in one serving than in the whole of Cadbury’s central US depot.

French and in English in Ottawa

Ottawa: skating to work on the Rideau Canal

Come the winter everything, including hell, freezes over and you can skate to work if the Rideau Canal is on your commute.

Contrary to snowflakey England, several feet of snowflakes in Ottawa do not cause anyone to turn a hair and life goes on as normal even in temperatures low enough to freeze alcohol. This city is not for wimps: it’s Canada, eh?

Ottawa never lets you forget it’s bilingual

Every road sign and street sign in Ottawa is painstakingly written in French and English. Toilet signs are in both languages. Business names are translated respectfully, often painfully, even though everyone from locals to Cambodian tourists know exactly what they mean.

Bilingual Ottawa

In case a French speaker doesn’t know what “stop” means…

You do not get a job as a road sweeper in Ottawa unless you are fluent in both languages. Most civil servants, if they are not perfectly bilingual to start with, are sent off on year-long intensive language courses where they go from school-kid to high business level in speech, reading and writing of the language concerned – or else.

What a written mix-up, n’est ce pas?

As often happens in bi or multi lingual cultures, the end result is nobody speaks or writes any one language properly. Thus you get lovely signage in the folksier hostelries inviting you to “help yourself to notre buffet froid,” or “dégustez nos hot dogs in buns” or even “wait to be seated SVP.”

One of the biggest challenges for the linguistically uninitiated is conversations in Ottawa. Whether you’re in a shop, at a party, in a meeting or shooting the breeze around a water cooler sentences begin in one language, transfer to the other for the mid section, and go back to the first for the punch line.

Written communications are no better

Parliament Hill Ottawa

Ottawa’s Parliament … where have we seen this building before?

I’m reliably informed that even civil servants and those working on “The Hill” – the country’s parliament buildings one of which is an almost exact replica of the UK’s Palace of Westminster – write emails that suffer the same fate with alternating phrases in French and English that would horrify the purists of either language.

Then there are the dialects … the “argots” many of which reach back to the French spoken in Brittany and Normandy inthe 17th century. Indeed, this was the French spoken everywhere in Canada until the latter part of the 20th century when “Parisian French” was established in schools.

Canadian Horse

***A superb example of my favourite breed of horse, the Canadien – with many thanks for the loan of the image to Cherry Creek Canadians.

I remember researching about a Canadian breed of horse years ago and trying to understand a letter written to me by a wonderfully ancient horse farmer near Ottawa…neither I nor my late mother, a francophone Belgian so Euro-French perfect, could understand a word.

And then there is Gatineau.

Gatineau used to be called Hull until the Québecois became antsy because Hull doesn’t look like a French word and certainly doesn’t sound like one when pronounced with a French accent.

Gatineau-Hull is Ottawa’s twin city, rather like St Paul to Minneapolis or Buda to Pest. Up here in Canada we don’t have the Mississippi or the Danube, but we do have the mighty Ottawa River and crossing the Macdonald-Cartier bridge is very scenic.

It’s also a very popular journey for newly-birthdayed 18 year olds to have their first legal alcohol: the boozing age is from 19 in Ontario, but from 18 in Québec.

Gatineau: if you don’t speak and read French, tough

Unlike friendly Ottawa where even the fortune cookies are written in both languages, in Gatineau every sign, notice, menu, instruction and more is in French. No English.

Gatineau sign

Demerdez-vous in Gatineau-Hull

If you stop for gas and speak to the attendant in English (admittedly they still do have the occasional gas stations with paid filler-uppers) he or she will grunt back at you in French and then hold a hand out for a tip.

Si vous ne parlez pas le français, je m’en fou. Demerdez vous vous-mème.

Mind you, I’m being a little cruel here. When I’ve asked why the average Québecois near the border with Ontario has a face like a slapped *rse and grunts in monosyllables, I’m told they still feel the pioneering spirit very strongly. And the winter cold makes them tough…

Vive the difference…eh?

What experience do you have of working/socialising in Otawa?

Please share!

***Having shamefully stolen a photo from a website, please ensure you visit it – with many thanks to Cherry Creek Canadians for their unwitting loan of this magnificent photo, and equally magnificent horse.