Language, class and consumption at the neighbourhood level: how gentrification and new consumption spaces are transforming Montréal’s language divide
Montreal is a peculiar city with respect to language, one where multilingualism superimposes itself onto a bilingual and bicultural pattern that has long resonated with social conflict and cultural resentment. Yet as some scholars have noted, that linguistic conflict the city is infamous for has lost importance in the last decades, at least at the local level. Several causes have been identified for that decline, but one has been overlooked so far: gentrification. In this presentation, using both statistics and empirical evidence from a two-year field study in one inner-city neighbourhood, I argue that the residential and social dynamics associated with gentrification have led, respectively, to a blurring of the language frontier and to an overall pacification of the linguistic debate. Overall, what economic historian Mark Levine called the city’s « linguistic division of labour » between an Anglo-Scottish bourgeoisie and a predominantly French-speaking labour force is gradually being replaced by a new consumption landscape for the middle class, where money and lifestyles – rather than language – act as the main social divide. In this new landscape, neighbourhood stores and cafés often target an overwhelmingly bi- or multilingual population of young educated Montrealers born after the onset of 1970s language legislation, who see languages and linguistic identities with considerable flexibility, rather than as a stable social marker. These new consumption spaces and the online social networking increasingly associated to them (blogs, Facebook pages, twitter accounts) are becoming key social institutions for this new generation. Ability to switch between and cultural familiarity with both « official languages » is seen and portrayed in a very favourable light, as a positive feature distinguishing Montreal from other North American metropolises and partially compensating for its rather marginal status as a global city.