Author: James Harbeck
America’s neighbour resisted annexation by the US and its people remained subjects of the British monarch. But Canada’s English isn’t British or American, writes James Harbeck.
Is there such a thing as Canadian English? If so, what is it?
The standard stereotype among Americans is that Canadians are like Americans, except they say ‘eh’ a lot and pronounce ‘out and about’ as ‘oot and aboot’. Many Canadians, on the other hand, will tell you that Canadian English is more like British English, and as proof will hold aloft the spellings colour and centre and the name zed for the letter Z.
Canadian does exist as a separate variety of English, with subtly distinctive features of pronunciation and vocabulary. It has its own dictionaries; the Canadian Press has its own style guide; the Editors’ Association of Canada has just released a second edition of Editing Canadian English. But an emblematic feature of Editing Canadian English is comparison tables of American versus British spellings so the Canadian editor can come to a reasonable decision on which to use… on each occasion. The core of Canadian English is a pervasive ambivalence.
The core of Canadian English is a pervasive ambivalence
Canadian history helps to explain this. In the beginning there were the indigenous peoples, with far more linguistic and cultural variety than Europe. They’re still there, but Canadian English, like Canadian Anglophone society in general, gives them little more than desultory token nods. Fights between European settlers shaped Canadian English more. The French, starting in the 1600s, colonised the St Lawrence River region and the Atlantic coast south of it. In the mid-1700s, England got into a war with France, concluding with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which ceded ‘New France’ to England. The English allowed any French to stay who were willing to become subjects of the English King.