Funny, you don’t look like a mechanic: the mysterious art of identifying language preference

Picture source: thejumpingfrog.com.
Picture source: thejumpingfrog.com.

There’s something about the French-speaking parts of Canada that has always amazed me.  In any French Canadian city that I’ve been in, there’s always a substantial English-speaking minority.  If you watch a cashier with a line of people in front of them, you’ll see the following.  As each person gets up to the cash register, the cashier looks at them for a split second, and then greets them–either in French, or in English.  The customer will almost always answer them in the same language.  I can’t begin to imagine how they know which one to use.  I asked my cousin about it the other day.  She grew up here, and works in customer service.  She says that she has no idea how she does it, but that she almost never gets it wrong–she can tell which language you speak by looking at you.  (Like a typical Québécoise immigrant of her generation, she speaks three languages–in her case, Italian, English, and French.)  If you have any insight into how this works, perhaps you could tell us in the Comments section?

A Quebecois convenience store. Picture source: http://www.promenadeshm.ca/fr/commerces/c/depanneur.
A Quebecois convenience store. Picture source: http://www.promenadeshm.ca/fr/commerces/c/depanneur.

There are countless books about the French language of Quebec–I saw several in every bookstore that I went into in this city.  Stereotypical Quebequisms abound, but the one that struck me as most salient doesn’t show up in any of the obvious places, like on T-shirts.  You might remember the word le dépanneur from a previous post (it showed up in an incredibly stupid French movie that I watched).  Normally, it means a mechanic.  In Quebec, however, it is a convenience store.  I haven’t seen a single 7-11, but I saw stores labelled dépanneur all over the place–mystifying, until I looked it up.

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