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Wordsleuth (2007, vol. 4, 2): Rule Britannia

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 2, 2007, page 41)

Canadians often state categorically to me that Canadian English is closer to British English than to American English. They fervently believe this, in spite of the numerous differences of accent and vocabulary between Canadian and British English. Do "court" and "caught" sound the same to us? Do we put nappies on our babies and buy packets of crisps?

What they are thinking of, of course, is spelling.

One day at my local supermarket I had the enlightening experience of witnessing a linguistic debate carried out on the sign over the plants and potting soil. The unfortunate who had written the sign called his department a Garden Center. Some zealot had come along with a black felt marker, crossed this out and replaced it with Centre, accompanied by the adjuration "Spell Canadian!" The horticultural manager stood his ground, however, and wrote a note to the effect that this WAS Canadian spelling. It is true that on the whole, British spellings are more common in Canada, but there are some notable exceptions. We buy automotive supplies at the Canadian Tire (not tyre) store and park our cars at the curb (not kerb). All the same, if a Canadian talks about "Canadian spelling," you can be sure that they are talking about spelling colour with an -our ending.

One thing that unites almost all Canadians is the desire to show the world that we are most emphatically NOT AMERICANS! And what could be a simpler, more effective way to do this than to write colour with a u and traveller with two l’s? That’ll show those Yankees!!

Because we so fervently believe that Canadian English is closer to British English, some of us get our shirts in a knot (if we really spoke British English we would instead get our knickers in a twist) about how to spell words like organize. Some Canadians mistakenly believe that the -ise spelling for this suffix is the "Canadian" spelling because they are aware that Americans use only the -ize variant and that the British prefer the -ise variant. However, this British preference is only recent, and -ize has always been the preference of Oxford University Press and until recently The Times of London, the justification being that this suffix is ultimately derived from a Greek and Latin spelling in which z rather than s is used. The vast majority of Canadians who do use the -ize spellings are therefore not traitors to Canadian identity. They are following, not American practice, but former British practice and long-standing Canadian practice.

It is time for Canadians to assert that we use not British or U.S. spelling but something we could call Canadian spelling, without looking over our shoulders to either imperial power. This is a blend of both spelling conventions, with the odd (or perhaps I should say occasional!) uniquely Canadian variant such as yogourt. This, it would seem, arose as a result of bilingual labelling laws. The spelling yogourt has the advantage of working in both Canadian English and Canadian French (where the word is preferred over the continental French yaourt), and thus the yogourt manufacturers have to print it only once on the tubs of their product. Another uniquely Canadian spelling phenomenon is that we are more likely to use the American spelling plow for literal uses ("the streets hadn’t been plowed yet") but the British plough for figurative uses ("I’ve got a ton of papers to plough through").

Apart from spelling, however, there are indeed some words that Canadians share with the British (and often other Commonwealth countries) but not with Americans. They make up a much smaller part of our vocabulary than the words we share with Americans. Over 5,000 words in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary are labelled "North American," compared to fewer than 500 words labelled "Canadian and British." Predictably, parliamentary institutions and the law (including policing) account for many of these. But others we use every day, and it is quite surprising to learn that Americans don’t. Most of us know that Americans don’t call the last letter of the alphabet zed, but are baffled to learn they never say ginormous, kerfuffle or mat leave. They recoil in perplexed horror upon hearing that Canadian (and British) theatres would love nothing better than to have bums in seats (to them bum means a homeless or despicable person, not the buttocks). How can little Americans make it through childhood without playing king of the castle or snakes and ladders, or getting the bumps on their birthdays? Why do Americans never feel hard done by?

Even if we stopped spelling colour with a u tomorrow, we would still reveal our long-standing British connection through our language.