Bonjour 'tongue troopers,' au revoir apostrophe

The apostrophe is a thing of the past in Montreal. On the brownstone of what used to be Ogilvy's Department Store, the apostrophe and the ''s'' are gone from the shiny brass name. All that remains of English grammar is the silhouette of the possessive form etched into the stone by years of wear around the spot where these now illegal shapes once were stuck. The language police are vigilant; not an apostrophe misses their Gallic eye.

This is but one of the effects of Bill 101, the language legislation brought in by the separatist Parti Quebecois government to preserve French, to make Quebec a safe island in the North American Anglo sea. To some the idea of ''tongue troopers'' busily checking signs is almost comically absurd.

Walking along de Maisonneuve, formerly Burnside, one sees a big blue-and-white sign outside the most popular all-night delicatessen in Montreal. In the late '60s it was filled with night people, reporters from the late shift, show people still caked with makeup. The sign outside read ''Ben's,'' and that's how everyone knew it. Not Ben's Delicatessen, but Ben's. But now that is against the law, so the sign just says ''Bens.'' That is OK - only the apostrophe need be banished.

Name changing has a long tradition in Montreal. Mountain Street became Rue de la Montagne, even though it was named after Bishop Mountain, the first Anglican bishop of Montreal. That is as cavalier as changing Mayor Jean Drapeau's name to Johnny Flag would be.

In the past the English have been guilty of name changing, too. But many of the streets and places in Montreal and southern Quebec that did or still have English names have them because the English settled them. French-speaking Canadians did not settle all the area that is now Quebec.

In the mid-19th century more than half the population of Montreal was English-speaking. In World War I an influx of French-speaking people from the countryside tipped the balance the other way.

Montreal has always been the battleground between the two language groups in Canada, because it is where they met. In almost all other parts of Quebec, except for small areas south of Montreal near the United States border and in the Gaspe Peninsula, the French was so dominant that language was not an issue. But in Montreal, language became everything.

The English were in a position of strength because they dominated business. With few exceptions they refused to learn French. Indeed, it is still possible to live your entire life in Montreal without having to speak French. This upset many of the French, especially the professional and intellectual classes. But not because they themselves could not speak English. Some of the best English in Canada is spoken by upper-class French Canadians who studied at Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge.

The French network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, for example, has an Oxford-educated correspondent named Madelaine Poulin working in Europe. Her command of the English language would put most English Canadians to shame. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau is of the same school, as are many members of the separatist Quebec Cabinet.

The Parti Quebecois has brought in its new language rules in stages. The final bits become law next January. They go beyond shop signs: Companies, municipalities, and any other public body will not be allowed to send internal communications in English, including memos from one English-speaking person to another.

This has spurred the exodus of major businesses from Quebec. The Royal Bank of Canada just moved some of its computer people to Toronto because the language legislation is making life difficult. There has been a steady migration from the province ever since the Parti Quebecois came to power.

This is not likely to go on forever. The Parti Quebecois is lagging behind the Liberal Party by two to one in the latest opinion poll. Although the next election could be two years away, it appears likely the Parti Quebecois will lose. The Liberals say they will change parts of the language law if they gain power - but not all of it, because it is popular with the majority of French-speaking Quebeckers. But the apostrophe will probably remain a thing of the past.

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