01/04/2012 05:47 EST | Updated 03/05/2012 05:12 EST

Why "Happy Hour" is not French

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I don't usually buy the Journal de Montréal newspaper, for a wide variety of reasons, but gave in when faced with a blaring headline: "Let's Party... (en anglais seulement)." Inside, the paper reported on a dozen or so downtown Montreal nightclubs advertising their New Year's Eve festivities in English only. Quebec's language laws require that public advertising be in French only, of course, but venues like l'Olympia et les Bains Douches had put out banners or signs featuring phrases like "Champagne Toast at Midnight" or "Open Bar."

Skirmishes over language erupted all through 2011 in Montreal, most notably around the appointment of unilingual Anglophone Randy Cunneyworth as head coach of the Montreal Canadiens. The outrage was easy to understand in this case, given hockey's centrality within Quebec culture and the long history of linguistic slights that have surrounded the sport. The language issue has always been messier, however, when it has involved the bars, nightclubs and music venues of downtown Montreal. A year ago, the movie Funkytown, set within Montreal's lively disco culture of the 1970s, got flack for showing roughly equal numbers of disco patrons speaking English, in what some claimed was a distorted vision of Montreal nightlife during the period. (Having been briefly part of that scene, I can testify to its linguistic parity.)

Like the film, the controversy over Funkytown faded quickly, but it raised the longstanding question of which languages and linguistic groups can lay claim to downtown Montreal and its culture. In April of last year, one of the first screenings of a documentary film on the city's original punk scene, MTL Punk: The First Wave, provoked heated arguments over what some saw as its Anglo-centric version of Montreal punk. Longtime cultural journalist and blogger Brendan Kelly has traced the twists and turns in the relationship between Quebec's musical establishment (with its prizes and festivals) and international stars Arcade Fire, whose "Quebecness" has somehow never seemed clear.

French is still the dominant language of Montreal's nightlife, but a student population attracted by two large English-language universities has given the city's music scenes a particular linguistic flavour one might easily see as distorted. Likewise, the bars singled out by the Journal de Montreal's article on English advertising argued that their clientele for New Year's Eve would consist overwhelming of Anglophone tourists and reassured the newspaper's reporter that they could still guarantee bar service in the French language. In any event, the terminology of global nightlife, like that of computers systems, has been pulled towards English. Nowhere is the term "Happy Hour" more popular, it seems, than in Paris.

A prominent Francophone journalist once tried to convince me that Anglophones are the inhabitants of Montreal most devoted to their city. It is the Anglos, he argued, who fight to protect the city's architectural heritage, relish its public culture of restaurants and bars, and cling to the romance of the city's age-old image as a centre of sinful excess. Francophones, this same journalist suggested, can't wait to move to the suburbs.

I've repeated this theory to Francophone friends, most of whom are quick to reject it. These friends remind me that it was precisely the difficulty of being served in French in downtown Montreal that spurred legislation to protect the French language. Large numbers of Anglophone Quebecers sometimes argue that downtown Montreal is somehow different, that it deserves special dispensation from the language laws that apply elsewhere in the province. For the most committed defenders of these laws, however, downtown Montreal remains the central battlefield in the struggle over the future of French in Quebec.