The Montreal Gazette
Wednesday, June 18, 1997

Absurdity language of choice on Net

by Matthew Friedman,

It's sometimes hard to take the provincial government seriously. Quebec's anal-retentive language laws are enforced by inspectors who run around the province like Keystone Kops with rulers, measuring the relative size and prominence of English words on signs, investigating whether washrooms have rampantly bilingual labels, and checking whether computer keyboards have "scroll lock" and "print screen" keys.

The Office de la Langue Française has even provided an Internet lexicon on its Web site, so we can all surf in French. In Quebec, a Web browser is a "fureteur", and a hacker is a "bidouilleur", or a "mordu de l'informatique",

Some terms, like "bavardoir" for an Internet chat room, have a nice ring to them, but you have to wonder if the government has anything better to do than surf the Net searching for rampant English neologisms.

Psychologists might charitably call this behaviour obsessive-compulsive, and it would all be funny -- in a tasteless, village idiot sort of way -- if it wasn't paid for out of our tax dollars and didn't affect the livelihoods of Quebec's businesspeople. Indeed, the latest salvo in the OLF's crusade for linguistic purity, is almost mind-boggling in its absurdity.

On June 2, Microbytes, a computer dealer in Pointe Claire, received a mise-en-demure from the OLF, threatening legal action if it did not comply with the provincial-language charter within thirty days. The problem wasn't the store's signs or print advertisements -- the OLF has found something new to get upset about. The problem was that Microbytes' Web site wasn't completely bilingual.

The province's language guardians have been getting their knickers in a twist over high technology for a couple of years now. Microsoft felt their full fury when the Quebec release of the French version of Windows 95 was delayed for a few weeks almost two years ago, and since then, computers and the Internet have been one of the hottest linguistic topics -- next to school reform and Howard Galganov -- on the Grande Allée. What makes the Microbytes case so absurd is that the company's Web site is almost completely bilingual. "When we first heard from the OLF in February, we were 75- to 80-per-cent bilingual, with every intention of translating the whole site", said Microbytes owner Morty Grauer. "If I can sell more computers with a bilingual Web site, then that's what I'll do. What bugs me, though, is that I'm trying to be a good corporate citizen, and they pick on me."

For the OLF, however, the issue is typically cut-and-dried. While it's unlikely that cyber-inspectors will be surfing the Net for language violations, OLF spokesman Gerald Paquette said that the companies with francization certificates will be required to report on their online activities in every triennial report. "We've just updated the questionnaire with questions relative to Web sites", he said. "Businesses have to comply with section 52 of the charter. Whether it's paper or electronic, it's the same rule."

The funny thing is that the charter doesn't mention electronic documents or Web sites. Article 52 refers to "catalogues, brochures, commercial directories, and other publications of that nature", but not Web sites. Article 58, the section of the charter actually cited in the complaint against Microbytes, refers to signs. While these regulations can certainly be interpreted to include electronic media, the OLF's job is enforcement, not interpretation. If they find the law inadequate, they should ask the National Assembly to change it.

The Net is a new and exciting medium in which users, businesses, and governments alike are still trying to find their footing. Grauer wonders why the OLF doesn't do something positive for a change and, instead of lowering the legal boom on mainly-but-not-completely bilingual sites, offer to help translate them. "Instead of language inspectors, they could have advisers come in and work with you", he said.

It's a good question, but if you look for the answer on the OLF's own Web site, you'll be out of luck unless you speak French. Unlike Microbytes, the OLF maintains a unilingual Web site. What's sauce for the goose is evidently not sauce for the gander. Paquette argues that the agency is under no obligation to provide services in English. "The official language of public administration in Quebec is French", he said. "If there are some services in English, it's because there are special laws that provide for that."

According to Paquette, the philosophy is to have as much English in Quebec as there is French in Ontario.

Too Busy Surfing

It's worth noting, then, that the Web sites maintained by the government of Ontario and the government of New Brunswick have far more bilingual content than Quebec's. Indeed, New Brunswick's online presence is almost completely bilingual. On the Internet, the government of Quebec can't even keep up with its own rules!

Maybe the OLF is too busy surfing the Net and trying to translate words like spam and virtual reality. While they're at it, they should come up with a French equivalent for "Keystone Kops."

Copyright © 1997 by Matthew Friedman. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.