Quebec Studies

La langue est gardienne: Language and Identity in Franco-American Literature

Quebec Studies (2012), 53, (1), 45–61.

Abstract

45 La langue est gardienne: Language and Identity in FrancoAmerican Literature Susan Pinette University of Maine, Orono Despite the increasing dominance of English, the ability to speak French remains an important touchstone of Franco-American identity.1 Proximity to home and relative ease of travel ensured that many Franco-Americans remained connected to Québec long after migration (Leblanc, Richard) and many among the Franco-American elite remained committed to tradition­ alist discourses of French Canadian nationalism (Leblanc, Roby). Despite shifts and changes in these discourses, language in many Franco-American communities, like Québec, remains intimately tied to identity.2 Unlike Québec, however, French does not delineate public space for many FrancoAmericans, and although it continues to articulate a private, familial space for a significant number,3 the majority of younger Franco-Americans are heritage language speakers or monolingual Anglophones (Fox). Despite this steep decline of language proficiency among younger generations, speaking French remains a principal marker of authenticity. The centrality of this marker is easy to understand in older Franco-Americans, the majority of whom are francophone and grew up speaking French.4 Yet the importance of French for Franco-American identity is also apparent among younger, anglophone generations. Many middle-aged Franco-Americans articulate their ethnic identity by claiming a connection to French, irrespec­ tive of language skills. Even if they never spoke French, learning French is often conceived as the reacquisition of a language lost, not as a new language that needs to be learned from scratch.5 The correlation between language and identity is harder to discern in younger monolingual Franco-Ameri­ cans, but it is their continued allegiance to the equation of language and ethnic identity that prevents many of them from self-identifying as FrancoAmerican. Many younger Franco-Americans willingly categorize their rel­ atives as "French" but without French language skills, they no longer feel that they are or can be.6 While Franco-Americans may or may not be fran­ cophone, many nonetheless seem committed to the idea that speaking French is intimately tied to Franco-American identity. Franco-American lit­ erary production exists in this domain, heavily laden with cultural codes deeply rooted in French-speaking Québec. This article will argue that even though French may no longer be the lingua franca of Franco America, it nevertheless retains its social significance within Franco-American commu­ nities, functioning as an important signifier of ethnic identity. I will ex­ amine the role of French in two recently published Bildungsromane by Franco-American authors: Le petit mangeur de fleurs by Norman Beaupré and American Ghosts by David Plante. Even though one text is written in French and the other in English, both authors use French to construct a Franco-American subject. Québec Studies, Volume 53, Spring/Summer 2012

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Pinette, Susan