Television, language, culture, place (by Kathleen Green)

Not long ago, I got hooked on a television show called 19-2 (that’s pronounced dix-neuf deux – an important detail for this post). For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it’s a French-language drama about the police officers working in a fictional police station in Montreal. The show is now over, after three addictive seasons. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, don’t worry, I won’t give away any important details that would ruin the experience of watching it for yourself.

19-2 dvd

From the beginning, I always watched the show with my partner, whose first language is French, and for the first season, we would have to pause the show every couple of minutes for her to catch me up on something I’d missed, or to explain the meaning of an expression (most of them vulgar or insulting). Watching the show taught me A LOT of new expressions, many of which I’ll probably never use. I’d often take notes while watching the show – especially at the beginning, when I was feeling more overwhelmed by the onslaught of unfamiliar vocabulary. This unfamiliar vocabulary ranged from the benign “branche toé” (meaning “make a decision”) to the endless forms and combinations of crisse, ostie, and calisse. I would often find myself pausing the show and saying things like, “did she just call him her uncle?” To which my partner would reply, “non, c’etait pas ‘mon oncle.’ Elle l’a appelé un ‘mononc’. C’est une insulte.” This would often turn into a conversation about the subtle meanings of the word, who uses it, about whom, mixed with confused comments from me about why calling someone a “myuncle” would develop a pejorative meaning. I found it fascinating that after 3 years in Montreal, during which time I thought my French had expanded greatly, there was still so much local language and culture that escaped me. I learned my French mostly in school (in New Brunswick), and they did NOT teach me this stuff.

19-2 FR

Another aspect of the show that I enjoyed was that it seemed more real, or relevant, or something, because it’s so clearly set in Montreal. Most of the television that I’ve watched in my life has been set in big American cities or Toronto. There’s something special about watching a show and recognizing specific locations or neighbourhoods. Noticeable product placement in TV shows usually makes me cringe, but there was something enjoyably amusing about seeing the main characters pull up to a Tim Hortons and order a coffee. Especially if I could tell which Montreal Tim Horton’s it was.

All of this is connected, I think, to the comfort I felt in finding that the way that people speak in the show (even when it’s not particularly easy for me to understand) sounds familiar. It’s the way that my neighbours speak. It’s what I hear on the street and at the grocery store and in cafés. Now, I certainly don’t mean to give the impression here that everyone in the show speaks French and only French and that that’s my understanding of how Montreal functions, linguistically. In fact, one of the things that I enjoyed from the beginning of the show was the smattering of languages other than French heard in each episode. One of the two main characters (played by Réal Bossé) has Bulgarian family and is often seen and heard speaking Bulgarian, on the job and off (hello, importance and usefulness of heritage languages in a linguistically diverse city like Montreal). And, of course, there’s some English. As expected, these fictional Montreal police officers sometimes need to speak English to get their jobs done. There are also the interjections of “English” phrases one would expect from naturally occurring “French” conversations in Montreal (I use quotation marks around “English” and “French” here because I think that the boundaries around these languages are quite fluid in the show, as in life). There are also many instances of “English” that I didn’t expect. I actually laughed out loud the first time I heard them shout out “drop ton gun!!” when confronted with someone holding a gun. Eventually, I got used to it, because that’s the way they ALWAYS say it. Just like that. Drop ton gun (with a French “r” on “drop”). Love it.

A few months ago, I learned that an English version of the show had been (and is being) made. The English version is also set in Montreal and contains the same characters (with some differences, of course). One character is even played by the same actor in both versions. It’s called 19-2 (to be pronounced, I assume, nineteen two).

19-2 EN

When I made this discovery, I was excited and curious and hesitant all at once. Would it be as good? Would the characters be as lovable? How would they deal with the language dynamics of Montreal? How would they “translate” everything that they packed in there? So far, I’ve only seen one episode of the new version all the way through, and a few scenes from other episodes, so I can’t speak authoritatively on this. But, overall, I was disappointed.

At first, I thought that it was just that the acting was unconvincing. But I think that there’s a lot more to it than that, and I think that lots of it has to do with the show being only in English. It’s like this new version is depicting a linguistic fantasy world, where everything happens in English, all the time. Before watching, I wondered how they would “deal with” the language issue – whether they would sometimes speak French, or make references to their language practices or those of the people around them. But it seems that they didn’t deal with it at all. They ignored it. They pretended that speaking English, all the time, at work in a Montreal police station and with the public, is not something to be commented on. While I heard English in the “French” show, I didn’t hear any French in the “English” show. And the Bulgarian-speaking main character from the French version, Nicolaï Berrof, becomes unilingual anglophone Nick Barron in the English version. Disappointing.

Maybe I’m just being silly by thinking that the linguistic world of a TV show is worth commenting on at all. Of course television is fantasy and is not going to be like the real world in many important ways. But one of the things that I love about Montreal is its linguistic and sociolinguistic idiosyncrasies. That’s part of what makes it special. That’s part of what makes it fun to watch a show that’s set here. The show I got hooked on didn’t represent it perfectly, but at least it hinted at that beautiful complexity.

That’s my take, anyway. I’m curious to know what others think about this, whether you’ve seen 19-2 (whichever version), or not.

Photo references (in order):

Retrieved from http://www.archambault.ca/podz(daniel-grou)-192-saison-1-ACH002990397-fr-pr

Retrieved from http://www.eyeoncanada.ca/film/details/19-2

The Province (January 28, 2014). Jared Keeso (left) and Adrian Holmes get their game faces on for the Bravo TV cop drama 19-2. Retrieved from http://blogs.theprovince.com/2014/01/28/actor-pals-adrian-holmes-and-jared-keeso-mix-it-up-for-tv-cop-drama-19-2/

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2 thoughts on “Television, language, culture, place (by Kathleen Green)

  1. So, wait a minute. This is so much like what happens with hip-hop here in Montreal. When rap is made in French (or in “French”), it’s NOT made just in French, but in a joyful mix that reflects the way people speak. When the SAME rappers decide to put out something in English, it’s ONLY in English, because they hope the American labels will pick it up (and if there’s anything in it they can’t understand, they won’t, apparently, what with bilingualism being such a bogeyman on the other side of that particular border). Is someone hoping that Nineteen-Two will be picked up by an American network? Not worrying about how you are going to sell something sure frees you up to create…

    The other thing I thought of was an old police miniseries that aired on TVA, called Jasmine. I think I have the whole thing on VHS tapes, because my ex (a Québécois de souche) and I were addicted to it one whole summer. I just looked it up. 1996. “Jasmine Rocheleau, jeune femme mulâtre est une nouvelle recrue de la police de Montréal. Elle débute sa carrière policière au moment où une histoire de brutalité policière fait les manchettes soit « L’Affaire Casimir », un jeune noir abattu par un policier lors d’une opération policière. La jeune recrue doit faire face à la pression de la part des policiers et de la communauté noire.” It was about race (or “race”) and gender, because Jasmine was a young female cop. Her dad was a white Québécois cop and her mom was Haitian. I remember that we loved it, and argued ferociously about it, and HAD to tape it for two reasons: so we could watch it when the kids (then 8 and 10) were in bed, and so we could rewind the dialogue about every four sentences to let me re-hear, have translated, and with any luck, learn another not-taught-in-Core-French (in my case, the Toronto version) chunk of language!

    I think I might have to go re-watch “Bon Cop Bad Cop…”

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    1. Mela,

      I’m fascinated by the link between linguistic practices in Montreal hip-hop and Montreal television. Interestingly enough, the “French” version of the show has done better than the English version – at least as far as I can tell. It (the “French” version) was recently added to Netflix – complete with subtitles in English and French. I wondered, when I first saw that the show had been remade in English, why they hadn’t just subtitled it in English for English-speaking Canada. Do people (outside of Netflix) watch subtitled TV? I think that what is available on Netflix depends on where you are in the world, so I don’t know if American Netflix viewers can watch the show or not. I wonder. The people who make these decisions for Netflix (or any television network) would probably have a lot of interesting sociolinguistic insights to share with us, from a selling-stuff perspective.

      I’m going to do my best to track down a copy of Jasmine (since I don’t own a VHS player, or a television set). If I do, I’ll report back.

      Apple

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