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Canadian English: part one

When in Canada, eh?

In 1971, a CBC radio show asked listeners to complete the following sentence: “as Canadian as…” The idea was to find a national equivalent to “as American as apple pie” or “as English as tuppence.” Suggestions might have included “as Canadian as a butter tart” or even a Nanaimo bar. (Loonies and toonies, of course, hadn’t been invented yet.) But the winning entry took a different approach: “as Canadian as possible, under the circumstances.” Canadians are known for tempering their pride with politeness. But does having a distinctly Canadian form of English mean we stand out no matter what?

The first Canadians

The 1st of July 2011 is Canada Day, celebrating the country’s 144th birthday. Of course, people have been living in Canada much longer than 144 years. Canada means ‘the village’ in Iroquois, the language of one of the many aboriginal peoples (First Nations, Inuit, or Métis) whose ancestors predated European arrival by many thousands of years. But the aboriginal way of life was changed forever when European settlers arrived in the 15th century.

When local native words began to enter the language of the new arrivals, the vocabulary of the newcomers began to differ from the British English spoken back home. Canadian English was born.

Kayak, igloo, and toboggan are just a few of the words of aboriginal origin still familiar to English speakers. Place names also continue to reflect the language of their first inhabitants: for a taste, try Algonquin National Park, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Medicine Hat, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Yukon.

Two tongues

The British weren’t the only ones to try conquering this cold new world. French habitants, coureur de bois, and voyageurs were also busy clearing paths through the wilderness. Soon the developed regions became divided into Upper Canada (the English part) and Lower Canada (the French part). After a battle on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, there came to be a single, united Dominion of Canada, in 1867, which marked the start of the Canada we know today.

Canada in 2011 is predominantly English but also vibrantly multicultural. In addition to the large number of minority languages spoken, the country is officially bilingual, which means government services must be available in both English and French. Products must display both languages on their packaging (leading many anglophones, or Anglos, to be more familiar with the words on canned goods and cereal boxes than with more useful conversational French words). Particularly in Quebec, which boasts the highest number of French speakers, the “sign laws” try to keep French from being crowded out by English words.

Still, the two languages influence one another. Francophones will happily order “un hot dog,” while English-speaking Quebeckers will seek out a dépanneur (or dep for short), which means a mechanic in France but refers to a variety store in “la belle province.”

French-Canadians also gave us our name for lacrosse, popularized the use of portage to mean “carry (a canoe) across water,” and, most important for anyone hungry after drinking too many brewskis, invented our unofficial national dish of poutine!

Peace through punctuation?

Americans and Britons get along better these days than they did in 1812. That’s not hard: that year the US invaded Canada, prompting British-Canadians to burn down parts of the White House in response. But disagreements continue to be waged over Canadian soil, and nowadays the battle is over spelling and punctuation. And this time, we’re fighting for both sides.

Canadians stick to the British -our spellings for words like colour, flavour, and harbour, as opposed to the color, flavor, harbor preferred below the forty-ninth parallel. We also opt for the British -re ending for words like centre and metre.

And yet, like our neighbours south of the border, we prefer double quotation marks to single, and we put them outside commas and periods, not inside. We tend to call it an exclamation mark, as the British do, not an exclamation point, as the Americans do, and the letter is pronounced zed, not zee—although, in keeping with American usage, we use gas instead of petrol, trunk instead of boot, and pants for trousers instead of for underwear.

On the other hand, we also prefer pop to the American soda and running shoes to the American sneakers (or the British trainers). Perhaps we’re just trying to keep everyone happy?

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