Leatherworkers and Their Networks: Historical and Linguistic Components of Linguistic Interaction and Social and Geographical Mobility in Montreal, 1760–1861

Joanne Burgess (Université du Québec à Montréal), France Martineau (Université d’Ottawa) et Wim Remysen (Université de Sherbrooke)

Joanne Burgess, France Martineau, and Wim Remysen are undertaking a microanalysis of individual and family trajectories over a period of several decades. Their study can shed new light on the social, economic, and geographic mobility of a group of craftspeople; the effects of linguistic interaction on the city’s sociolinguistic fabric; and the emergence of a Montreal linguistic identity in the Quebec context between 1780 and 1861.

Using a data set compiled by J. Burgess for her thesis on leather workers in Montreal (“Work, Family and Community: Montreal Leather Craftsmen, 1790–1831,” UQAM, History, 1987), the team aims to analyze the mobility of members of this social group, as well as other individuals linked to it through matrimonial, commercial, or neighbourhood relationships.

Separate components of the study address two key forms of geographic mobility. First, an analysis of migration from the countryside focuses on the arrival in Montreal of both apprentices and already trained adult craftspeople. Were they successful in entering the urban workforce or did they end up leaving the city? A second component explores the circumstances under which relationships based on community, social mobility, and geography developed and emerged within Montreal.

From a historical point of view, the study can provide a better understanding of the world inhabited by Montreal craftspeople, with an eye to how this world was changing with the onset of industrialization. This requires examining the migration dynamics that fuelled the strong growth experienced by the city and its leather trades during the period of study. The proposed research also requires updating and enhancing a substantial body of data first compiled in the 1980s, thereby making it possible to address emerging questions on migration patterns and processes.

From a linguistic perspective, the study involves reconstructing patterns of geographic and social mobility, and of interaction among individuals from diverse backgrounds, with the aim of developing hypotheses on the development of Montreal French (and bridging the gap between research on this period and subsequent ones).

Although the period of study has received little attention from scholars interested in the history of Quebec French, it most likely corresponds to the decades during which its characteristics took shape. Contact with France was especially limited during the first half of the nineteenth century, with the departure of many inhabitants of the former French colony in the wake of the British conquest and limited immigration from France from that moment onward. Meanwhile, French-speaking Montrealers had much closer contact with English in the workplace, through signage, and through marriage alliances involving linguistically mixed couples. Furthermore, population movements from the countryside to the city were also helping transform the city’s social and linguistic fabric. These various factors led members of the French-Canadian elite to begin taking public positions on language in newspaper columns, starting in the second half of the nineteenth century.

We hypothesize that two major changes that occurred during the first half of the nineteenth century shaped how, with the emergence of a French-Canadian bourgeoisie, wealthy Montrealers sought to redefine their relationship with more popular forms of French. On the one hand, by developing new ways of speaking after the French Revolution, the bourgeoisie of France was able not only to eschew the language of the nobility but also to further distinguish itself from more modest social classes (i.e., craftspeople and the provincial petite bourgeoisie). As the French-Canadian bourgeoisie, which had been partially cut off from France, reconnected with the former mother country, it sought to adopt these new idioms and expressions. They progressively challenged the more conservative ways of speaking rooted in the Ancien Régime that continued to characterize the French spoken by lower social classes. On the other hand, the French-Canadian bourgeoisie, like its counterpart in France and especially Paris, sought to set itself apart from the large numbers of rural people arriving in the city. As a result, the discourse on language and the changes taking place within the bourgeoisie cannot be understood without addressing the latter’s reaction to Montreal’s emergence as the focal point of bourgeois socio-economic and cultural life in Quebec.

Initially, Montreal French was defined in terms of the language spoken by rural groups migrating to the city. Studying marriage alliances and social mobility within one group of craftspeople can  foster a better understanding of how certain linguistic traits were repressed or gained prominence.

It is important to note that many of the earliest major dialectological surveys conducted in Quebec avoided Montreal as a field of inquiry (except for the surveys conducted by the Société du parler français au Canada). Instead, researchers collected data from multiple other regions or focused on a specific area of Quebec outside Montreal. How can the results of these surveys conducted in the early twentieth century best inform an analysis of opinion pieces from chroniclers on Quebec French and population movements in the province? And does this study provide an opportunity to nuance a very homogenous picture of the French-Canadian population by highlighting the importance of the city as a context for interactions between various linguistic groups?