Quirks of Canadian spelling

In a class for a university fiction writing course in England, a fellow student, also a flatmate, noticed quirks in my spelling in a workshop submission. An ‘re’ in words like centre. An inserted ‘u’ for colour. There were also several Americanisms in the piece constituting 20 pages of a novel under development for my MA project. The student –a food writer from Dubai –suggested I display a greater consistency by either choosing the Union Jack or the Stars and Stripes. Instead of mixing American and British spelling and grammar, I should follow a singular convention. I argued back, explaining to her and the class about the rules of Canadian spelling –a set of dictates following a mix of American and British standards. Eyes rolled. There was murmuring. Gasping.

“Here he goes again, waving his Maple Leaf.”

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I might’ve convinced a few students on this autumn day in England, but at least one of my classmates checked her phone to see if I wasn’t lying. Outside of Canada, few are aware about Canadian English, a variety of English marching to a singular drum. Unlike other Commonwealth nations, Canadians follow a list of American spelling and grammar rules along with British preferences. Spoken and written Canadian English is distinctive –these dictates define us as a nation of North Americans who have retained some British and French influences, along with numerous American inspirations. Our neighbours to the south have swayed us over the years. Our colonial masters have imposed their ideals of spoken and written English. However, Canadians have managed to maintain distinctive forms of speaking and writing. Good for us, I say.

The Reverend A. Constable Geikie spoke about Canadian English in a speech to the Canadian Institute in 1857. The Scottish-born leader called our speech a “corrupt dialect”, unfavourably comparing Canadian English to the English verbalized by British immigrants. Before Geikie’s condescending words, our way of speaking developed in the late 1700s after a group calling themselves the Loyalists departed from the United States during the American Revolution.

The Loyalists were Americans who supported the British Royalty in opposition to the American Republic. Should you ever visit the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, particularly Upper State New York, you’ll hear the origins of the Canadian accent spoken from Ontario to British Columbia, minus the Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian influences affecting our country later in the 19th century. Here, I am referring to the heavy rhotic r-sounds often heard in rural parts of Canada, influenced by the accents of Northern Ireland and Scotland where many Canadians originated in the late 1800s. Of course, Aboriginal languages have also affected Canadian speech and terminology. Also, French Canadian Habitants, Metis and the Voyagers have shaped Canadian English as seen in words like tuque or coulee.

When people hear Canadian speech in other countries, they assume the speaker is American. There are few outside of North America who realize the diversities existing between American and Canadian English. But Americans are aware of the differences. In American comedy, we’re portrayed as having a wooden, halting dialogue with interjecting ehs and exaggerated diphthongs (as in words like abooout). Let other nations make fun of us, I don’t care. Yet, I can see why Canadian spelling confuses so many people outside the country, since the Canadian version of written English constitutes a perplexing list of guidelines uniting British and American traditions.       

In Canada, words with Greek roots such as realize and paralyze are spelt with ize or yze, instead of ise or yse as in England. Conversely, Canadians follow British rules when spelling French-derived words such as colour and centre. Americans spell defence and offence as defense and offense, but the Canadian Press Style Guide prefers the British c to the American s. Canadians sometimes double the consonants in final syllables before the suffix, as in travelling or marvellous, using more British-derived partialities.

We choose to write out a cheque instead of issuing a check –perhaps this usage refers to Canada’s historic ties to British financial institutions. Yet, because of Canada’s connections to the American automobile industry, our country prefers American spellings and terminologies in reference to vehicles. British automotive words such as boot, bonnet or lorry are unknown in Canada, except for Coronation Street fans. In Canada, tire is never spelt as tyre and kerb is always curb in opposition to British English.

Canadian English is based on a quirky mixture of American, British, French and Scandinavian traditions, along with many Aboriginal influences. Our national rendering of English is a product of Canada’s intriguing and ever-evolving history. I hope the internet, which defaults to American English, never bruises Canadian English beyond recognition.