Canadian English: offspring of a queen and a cowboy

Posted by on December 07, 2010

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.

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Subjects across the Empire are enthralled by the announcement of pending nuptials for William and Kate.

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).

You can see how this tying-the-knot of two Englishes can tie some writers up in knots. I, for one, give my full consent. It’s what keeps us editors married to our work.

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Comments (12)
  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michelle Mire, Lynne Murphy and Tyson Seburn, Macmillan Dictionary. Macmillan Dictionary said: It's Canadian English month and our first fantastic guest post is up – http://bit.ly/h1V90W […]

    Posted by Tweets that mention Canadian English: offspring of a queen and a cowboy | Macmillan -- Topsy.com on 7th December, 2010
  • I truly love the way our language got stuck somewhere in between the UK and US. In a way it is like being raised in a bilingual family – you get the best of both and can comprehend and use the very slight differences to your benefit (even though we are speaking in cultural terms now).

    Posted by Julie K. on 7th December, 2010
  • How about Loonies and Toonies? Monetary units or animated cartoon series (Looney Tunes)?

    Posted by Laura Payne on 8th December, 2010
  • Totally agree, Julie – the best of both worlds. But surprising how much CanE trips up native writers. I must correct 5 “color”s and 3 “neighbor”s a day.

    Laura, for discussion of loonies and toonies, I’d refer you to my regular blog…but I see you’ve already found it. 🙂 I wrote a post earlier this year called “How to speak Canadian.”

    Posted by Sherry Noik on 9th December, 2010
  • I just know that there’s Canadian English. Commonly I hear US and UK. But it’s interesting though to know other kinds of English.

    Posted by Jane on 9th December, 2010
  • I wonder how long our Canadian English will last, stuck as were are next to an elephant. Was it not Pierre Elliot Trudeau who mused about the elephant and the mouse with the mouse being in danger even when the elephant wanted to make love?

    In my lifetime I’ve seen two divergent themes in Canadian English, the rise of Canadian spelling (in spite of most people not knowing how to enable Canadian spell check in Ms Word) and the demise of certain Canadianisms and pronunciations. How many Canadians now say ‘slippy’ for ‘slippery’, or ‘chesterfield’ for ‘sofa’? How many young Canadians pronounce ‘schedule’ with a soft ‘sch’, or know that ‘khaki’ rhymes with ‘car key’? When I mention such to my Canadian-born students, I am met with bemused smiles often reserved for the gently senile.

    I think the solution is to dig a large trench filled with mad beavers, block all TV and internet signals from the US, and remember who really won the War of 1812.

    Posted by John Donald Redmond on 9th December, 2010
  • Yes, Jane, Canadian English really IS a thing. I hope I’ve demonstrated that…

    Posted by Sherry Noik on 10th December, 2010
  • John, wasn’t it also Trudeau who said “Canada is not a country for the cold of heart or the cold of feet.”? But I digress…

    I don’t know whether or not CanE will continue to be a distinct variation, especially now that writing for the (worldwide) Web is such a key consideration. In any event, we’ll always have our Canadianisms, like hoser and two-four and double-double, eh?

    Posted by Sherry Noik on 10th December, 2010
  • John, in my research (e.g., of millions of words of Canadian blogs) I see no evidence that Canadian English spelling is on the decline or is in any way “threatened.”

    Posted by Joe Clark on 10th December, 2010
  • I think my point about Canadian spelling was not interpreted quite the way I had intended. It (Canuck spelling) is certainly on the rise, in spite of MS Word and the WWW, and in spite of techies at post-secondary institutions not enabling it on distributed program(me)s (a situation at my school). What I was noticing is the change, maybe ‘Americanization’, of Canadian pronunciation (Newfoundland excepted?). Change is natural, but when one compares recordings of Canadians in the past to the sounds of today, things so sound more Californian. One need only compare Foster Hewitt’s speech to that of Jian Ghomeshi to hear the difference.

    So, fix bayonets (two syllables when I was in the army), put on your khaki battledress, and hide behind the chesterfield if anyone calls you a hoser.

    Posted by John Donald Redmond on 10th December, 2010
  • Thank you all for the comments. And thanks for reading!

    Posted by Sherry Noik on 15th December, 2010
  • I think that the reader should also be informed that Canadian English varies from province to province. For example, in Newfoundland and rural Nova Scotia, we use programme but elsewhere, program is the standard. Also, the fact that Newfoundland is considered to have it’s own dialect of English altogether. So, this article really reflects English in the province or region where the author lives, because whilst some of the things they mentioned are true throughout the country, not all of it is. English in British Columbia is different from that in Ontario, which is again different from that in the Maritimes, and again we have more changes as we go through the isles of Cape Breton and Newfoundland. It is a nice summary, but I believe that the subject of the strong differences from region to region, province to province needs to be mentions.

    Posted by Mitch Mäder on 26th December, 2010
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