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Inflecting punishment | Marcel Strigberger

Friday, December 04, 2020 @ 2:38 PM | By Marcel Strigberger

Marcel Strigberger %>
Marcel Strigberger
“Mr. Gambini, are you mocking me with that outfit?” This was the question Judge Chamberlain Haller posed to Vinny Gambini in My Cousin Vinny, that iconic legal comedy film when lawyer Vinny (Joe Pesci) appeared in that rural Alabama court wearing a flashy multi-coloured tuxedo. Well, now mocking an accent at work in France can land you in jail for three years. 

A group of provincial politicians from outside Paris pushed through a law, claiming they and others felt mocked and discriminated against, as they did not speak with a Parisian accent. My concern is that this fear of being language mocked might spread across the globe, like you know what, leading to even tougher and more draconian language legislation.

We already have Quebec’s Bill 101 mandating that in Quebec the French language is numero uno. And to ensure compliance, the language police aren’t too far behind. What if they were to expand the laws to ban perceived mockery of French? I grew up in Montreal and I am bilingual. I can say however it is not hard to use many Quebecois common words and expressions which would make a Parisian’s hair rise higher than le Tour Eiffel. For example, although so far these phrases have routinely passed unchecked, I might soon have to be careful when going to a gas station when my air gauge is low and not say, “Checkez mes tires.” That could be construed as crass mockery. 

And what if you get hungry? You’d have to think twice before going to the deli and asking for “un sandwich de smoked meat.” Mockery big time. (Takeout orders only these days. Sorry.) Nor would you dare go to a chip wagon and order “une hot dog; all dress.” You’ve just butchered the king’s French; egad! Or rather, égad!

When I think of accents and diction, what readily comes to mind is My Fair Lady. I am talking about that scene where professor Higgins tries to teach Eliza Doolittle “proper English.” If a strain of that French law would cross the pond, or rather the Channel, and spread into England, that sequence might play itself out differently.

(A loud knock on the door). 

VOICE: Open up. Scotland Yard.

(Enter a cluster of police officers)

OFFICER: I’m Inspector Loxley, language mockery division.

HIGGINS: What’s this all about inspector?

OFFICER: We heard you making fun of the lady’s English. The “rine in spine” isn’t it?

HIGGINS: Uh, that wasn’t me. It was him over there. Pickering.  

I’m sure it would not bode well for either of them. The Tower of London awaits.

Then again, the British do have some odd ways of saying things. Why for example do they call a truck a lorry? Or an elevator a lift? Or a trunk a boot? For now, we can still laugh at them without fear of getting sent to Australia. For that matter, that part of the world down under is a whole planet unto itself. All I will say about it is, “G’dye.” If the French type laws migrate there, what would they do? Banish offenders to England?

I’ll admit I myself have been guilty of mocking foreign expressions. I speak of Ontario English. When I emigrated from Montreal to Toronto, I saw local restaurant menus offering sandwiches on a “kaiser.” I had a no clue what a kaiser was until a fellow ex-pat explained to me that in Montreal, we called it a Vienna roll. Vienna roll made sense to me. When I look at that round tasty bun, I instantly visualize that city’s famous Prater ferris wheel. But kaiser? Ah uh. I couldn’t resist having some fun for a while, going into Toronto bakeries, and asking for a half-dozen Wilhelms. (These days, alas, I don’t even go into a bakery. The kaiser has abdicated). Alas!  

The Americans of course have their First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech. So far. Should however drastic language laws infect the legislation, I’d say we would have to think twice before snowbirding in our cars and if stopped by a state trooper in Georgia, after showing him your Canadian driver’s licence, addressing him as “y’all.” You don’t want him drawing his gun and shouting, “Are y’all mocking me?”

At least, generally speaking we Canadians are easy going, not readily rattled by anybody calling out our verbiage. It’s true, eh?

Marcel Strigberger retired from his Greater Toronto Area litigation practice and continues the more serious business of humorous author and speaker. Visit Follow him @MarcelsHumour.

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