“I feel fine”

February 17th, 2011

The French language has an emotional intensity far beyond that of English. When you accidentally bump into someone in a supermarket you are not sorry, but desolated. The play you went to last night was not good or great, but formidable. French ploughs the emotional extremes, as shown by the love affair with the subjunctive mood that French people seem to have. They would never use such a benign word as ‘nice’ to describe anything.

But that’s the French, as in those for whom France is called home. In the last couple of weeks in Quebec I have heard a response to the question ‘ça va?’ (‘how are you?’) that one would never hear in France; I know this because a couple of Parisian friends have told me so. Whereas French people usually define how they feel in the most expressive terms, Quebecers often define themselves by what they are not. ‘Pas si pire’, they say. ‘Not so bad’. Defining how you are by how you are not is not very French and sounds odd and quirky when done in the French language. If anything, it’s a very Irish thing to do – a relic of a time when the closest thing to going to a mental health therapist was confession.

So why would Quebecers respond to ‘how are you?’ by saying ‘not so bad’? I have a theory.

Like the Irish, Canadians are defined internationally and, to a lesser extent, domestically by what they are not. Canadians are not Americans, and the Irish (well, most of them) are not British. As if to prove the point, a good chunk of Canadians sow a little maple leaf flag onto their luggage when travelling. ‘Yank I ain’t!’, screams the square inch of cotton (and probably with good reason). Canadians and Americans might share a continent, but they don’t necessarily share a mindset.

Zooming in a little more, Quebecers don’t necessarily share a mindset with either Americans or fellow Canadians or even with themselves. Emotions? They’re for wrapping up with lashings of tape and stuffing somewhere between your heart and your mouth, never to be heard. And you know that famous ‘gift of the gab’ that Irish people are so famous for? It’s only there to avoid talking about actual feelings. Emotions? Lock ‘em up and throw away the key while you tell us another story about your uncle. Defining what you are by what you are not is not exclusive to identity – it can also influence the use of language.

As many as 40% of French-speaking Quebecers have Irish ancestry on at least one side of the family. So here is my theory: ‘pas si pire’ is a direct translation of ‘not so bad’ that began with the Irish in Quebec using an intensely outwardly emotional language with a way of thinking that was introverted and secretive. Thoughts? Perhaps you’re too secretive to comment . . .

  • Tu sais, Hugo, t’as peut-etre raison … tu etais toujours assez malin. Bisous!