December brings you Canadian English on the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Our first guest post comes from Sherry Noik, an editor and writer at a Canadian media chain. Sherry tweets here and blogs at SherryGrammarian.
There was another, far less paparazzi-filled, marriage that also took place in London. This one was the blessed union of two languages, as decreed by Queen Victoria in 1867, when she gave royal assent to the newly formed Dominion of Canada.
And right there, in that very declaration, was the birth of CanE (Canadian English). Did you catch it?
The founders favoured the word dominion to describe this self-governing colony – the first time the term was used in reference to a country. And while they revered the Queen, they tipped their stovepipes to our neighbours to the south in the formation of our government, itself a merger of Britain and America: constitutional monarchy.
Once you know CanE is the offspring of a queen and a cowboy, there is a kind of logic that informs what at first blush seems a strange hybrid language.
Because our legal system follows that of the Empire, we write defence and licence rather than defense and license. But the proximity of America’s once-dominant auto industry has given us spellings like tire and curb instead of tyre and kerb. We also store gasoline in the trunk of our truck, not petrol in the boot of our lorry.
With any commingling of souls, however, there is bound to be strife, and it doesn’t even have to be a whole word. Sometimes a single letter can be contentious. Take, for example, the song “YYZ” by Canadian band Rush. Millions of head-bangers from Toronto to Tavistock to Tasmania know it is pronounced “why-why-zed,” while in Topeka and Tucson, the misguided youth slap da bass to “Why-Why-Zee.”
Then there is the pesky u, which in our various literary labours we staunchly retain for colour, flavour and humour. (It pops up again in dialogue and its analogues.)
Guardian readers have lately complained of too many “Americanisms” creeping into the paper. Well, imagine how we feel. Only constant vigilance and a refusal to transpose our r’s and e’s (centre, theatre) has allowed us to retain our distinct Canadianism.
Still, we are a deferential people, so other concessions had to be made, if only to ensure the uninterrupted beaming of Seinfeld and The Simpsons into our homes above the 49th parallel. We organize and get with the program and eat take-out. Pounds are a unit for measuring weight; chips are those crunchy crisps that come in a noisy bag; and shag is a type of carpeting. Thankfully, though, in this country tea party still means to enjoy a steeped beverage with scones.
Delicious Britishisms like gobsmacked and shambolic never made it across the Atlantic, and we are poorer for it. But Canada’s multicultural mix, probably the most diverse in the world, has enriched our everyday vernacular with foreign phrases like tabernac and dépanneur (French), schlep and kibbitz (Yiddish), siesta (Spanish), namaste (Hindi), inukshuk (Inuktitut, or Inuit) and craptacular (Bart Simpson).
And if you’ve stuck with me this long, you may have noticed … We may write like the Queen, but we punctuate like the cowboy: single quotation marks inside double quotes, periods and commas tucked inside them (never outside).Email this Post