*Picture is from the ABSOLUTELY perfect example of Montreal Franglais : Balconville by David Fennario.
I love writing slang. I love writing Frenglish too. I loved Gabino Iglesias’s Zero Saints because it mixed English and Spanish flawlessly.
These transitions in language come naturally to me. As someone who was raised in a city where you can easily switch between two or three languages at any moment in any discussion. Montreal has it’s own slang, it’s own language. We grew up part Québécois, part Canadian, watched American television and mixed everything and anything from Spanish, to Creole to Greek and more recently, Arabic in the daily language of things. The specific language here is known as “Joual”, and “Frenglish” or “Franglais” which are slightly different interpretations of a similar thing and used frequently.
Writing Slang is a very “oral” issue. You have to get that feel for the moments where people switch “naturally” between one language or another. I noticed similar patterns between Iglesias’ work and my own which lead me to believe there might be similarities in the pacing and tempo.
Writing slang is also very hard and it comes with a problem: You want to have that “legitimate” local flavour but you might not want to alienate every reader out there. There are two ways you can go about his :
1 – write the entire story in slang and make it a “local” piece of literary work that people might be interested in IF they are interested in that local culture.
2- Integrate enough of it to get that “reality” in the story while allowing the reader to stay in the story.
The bottom line is that it has to ring true. I’ve decided to include some Joual in every or my works. It becomes a hard balancing act that I’d like to think I’ve managed to pull off over the years.
Below is a deli scene from my upcoming novel : “Down With the Underdogs.”
I find delis, in Montreal at least, is the absolute best place to ring true to both Frenglish and the working class, so if you’re looking to write slang, this could be an example for you.
Excerpt from the upcoming novel Down With the Underdogs.
“Good! That’s good for you. What can I get for the boss then,”
“Two hot-dogs, mayo, and a coke.”
“Alright,” Vincent said. He turned to some kid over at the counter. He was busy on his cellphone. “Hey. Michael. Two steamé avec mayo.”
“Add a fry to that.”
“Avec une fritte!” he added. The kid wasn’t moving. Vincent sighed. I laughed.
“Coming up,” the kid said in English with a thick Quebecois accent but only after finishing his text.
Vincent looked to us. “Eh! I’m gonna have to get rid of that kid.”
“Doesn’t work much?”
“He’s got a girl on his mind that one, I tell you,” he said as he ran a towel over his counter.
“Don’t we all?”
“I mean. I’m no brain surgeon. But he’s not going to school, he’s not really working. I got him here part time and as far as I know he’s got nothing else going.” He nodded his head. “C’est ben’ triste quand tu y’ penses.” He added in French. “I don’t know. Maybe I don’t know anything, but he’s not looking to learn the job, you know? This is a subtle business.”
“A diner is subtle business?” Phil asked.
“Of course it is? Are you kidding me?”
The waitress came around, “Vince’,” she said, “deux poutines ‘pis une rondelle su’a’ trois.”
Vincent shouted the order in Frenglish to his cook and leaned back on his counter. “It’s like in the morning, he makes the eggs and half the damn egg is sticking there, burnt to the plate. Une croute ça d’épaisse, osti. And I tell him, ‘Jesus Christ that’s my profit you’re burning over there.’ And I’m not even talking about the time we’ll waste cleaning this mess up. Ciboire! Où l’autre jour,” he sighed. “I mean we get some of those fruit flies in the garbage back there, ‘tsé! Ta-bernak! Some mess that was. So I go out and they sell me this powder to put in the bottom of the bags and this kid he sees the powder and he doesn’t ask about it and the bag’s empty and he just changes it. No wonder I’m losing my shirt over this place.”
We all thought is was funny. We all smiled and had a good time. The guy was probably just as broke has he was saying he was. There’s no way there was any real money in food services. But it was the way he turned all of it into a grandiose story of life and death.
I liked it. I liked it a lot.
“He doesn’t get it,” Vincent continued. “Y’ comprends pas,” he repeated in French. “You got to count everything. Every bag, every egg, every bun, everything, Ostie! Otherwise you’re eating your profit, ‘tsé.” The deli’s phone rang. Vicent picked it up and shouted “yeah?” He paused for a second and then started speaking Greek. He looked back at us and switched to French and English gain, “Heille ça s’en viens là, guys! Alright? Deux minutes, OK?” before going right back to shouting in Greek on the phone.
There was no other way to say it: I fucking loved this city.
Here’s another one of those guest posts I did for my blog tour. The experience was disappointing in terms of reach and sales. But I had put my heart into these posts, so I’m taking them back (*FTW*).
Globalized Culture: How Our Languages Are Changing.
One issue that came up when we were editing A Teenage Suicide was the language I used. It was something that had come up also when I was still in college, workshopping stories and chapters. I come from Montreal. I was born there. I was raised there and it is as “problematic” as it is interesting. (I would also argue it’s part of the city’s appeal)
I was born a francophone but grew up pretty much bilingually. Like most (young) people in this city, I speak two to three languages and try to pick up a little bit of everything as I meet people from around the world. That includes a bit of Spanish, Japanese and I even became friends with a Persian women who speaks Farsi. That means that my English (and French, it is true) is deeply “tainted” by the other languages I encountered all my life.
It’s a well-known fact that languages in Montreal have a specific flavour. Think of it as the difference when you hear someone from New-Orleans or Dublin speak. If they are doing it right, you should know exactly where they are (or aren’t) from. Montreal is just the same in both French and English: you can hear it.
If you look at the history of immigration to Montreal, the story is similar to that of the Eastern US. The first nations were there, settlers from Europe came in and took the best lands. Of course, we had French settlers first and the US had British and Dutch settlers, but once that seven-year war was done, Britain shipped as many Irish and Scotts to Canada as they did the Us. Then came the Italians, the Portuguese, the Jews, Germans and Poles. A lot of escaped slaves settled in Canada, including Montreal, the same way a lot of them settled in the Northern states. Of course, you add to that the wave of Haitian immigrants and the more recent ”global” waves of Asian, African and Latino immigrants, I think we have diversity pretty much nailed.
What that means is that Montreal is a breeding ground for mixing language and I believe it is a laboratory for the globalisation of languages. I have heard the term “Hybridity” in college quite a few times. When you mix so many heritages together, what comes out has the potential to become a new language entirely, a lot like what Creole is to French. If I hear two Haitians speaking in Creole, I will understand a lot of what they say, but not everything. It has become another language over time. This will also happen to English as the cultures of the world collide. Languages will continue to influence one another, expand their vocabulary, change their syntax and integrate regional slangs.
It is probably true that my English could “feel” strange but I don’t see it that way and I know most people in Montreal don’t see it that way either. As far as using “Montreal English” to write a novel, some people hate it, some people love it. The bottom line is that the way I write represent where I live and I certainly am not the first author to do so (I could cite David Fennario and Mordecai Richler as influences)
On my island, the important thing is not necessarily to speak or write “properly” in general grammar terms, but to be understood within a large diversity of accents and languages. For example, when I play in the park with my daughter, there are parents there who are Scottish, Irish, Québécois and British (the “original” four) but also more and more Latinos, French (from France, which is no longer the same as Québécois in terms of language), People from all regions of Europe, Algerians, Tunisians and of course, Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese and Torontonians…
We all pretty much speak French and English and somehow we all understand each other at the end of the day. I think that says something about the future of cultural relations in the world. Of course it is complex, but it is also interesting and if you have any respect for mankind, you know that the human brain is capable of figuring it all out if you train it a little, there’s plenty of hope for the future.
While it’s still true that most Irish are in the south-west, most Italians are in the East, most Haitians are in the North, the Jews are in Outremont (center) etc… the linguistic divide that used to exist in the city is no longer real and it’s incredibly interesting. In Montreal you can meet a girl named Laurie Murphy who dosen’t speak English and a girl named Sarah Deshaies who’s an Anglo journalist. The fringe festival even seriously considers putting a “Montreal Franglais” category next year. Language hybridity is a significant movement, and again, it is incredibly interesting.
I live this on a daily basis and it influences the way I write. Some of my sentences may seem odd to some readers but I didn’t want to take out this “flavor.” I didn’t want to make the novel generic so that more people could feel “comfortable” reading it. It wouldn’t have helped the story and it wouldn’t have felt truthful to me.
The bottom line is this, that whole “globalisation of cultures” thing ain’t going anywhere so you might as well get used to it right away.
Love it or don’t, it’s up to you but to be honest, I’m not gonna change the way I write in the end.
Thanks for reading,