The Unswung Bat

Thursday, March 24, 2005

"Saying "color" in Canada is essentially a spelling mistake whether it's accepted in America or not, and I expect profs to know better."

It's most definitely NOT a spelling mistake. There is in fact no accepted standard Canadian spelling. The Canadian Press (CP) style that is fairly prevalent in technical writing (and under which, it's interesting to note, "geese" is not a word; rather, that crowd of brown-drabbled birds is a flock of Canada goose) contains an unpredictable mixture of American and British spellings, like:

British: -our words (honour, colour, endeavour), -re (centre, theatre) and cheque, grey, jewellery, pyjamas, storey and sulphur. And American: aluminum, artifact, jail, curb, program, specialty, tire, and carburetor. A Canadian would watch a television program, as in the United States, but would read the programme at a concert or theatrical performance. These conventions are generally theorized (without much surety) to have evolved by historical coincidence and circumstance, on a case-by-case basis without any overarching logic.

I'd say Canadian spelling is basically a very subtle creole and that's great. Honestly, that's how languages develop. If this kind of thing bugs you that much, then if you consider that 2/3 of the world's current English speakers are non-native, and that all sorts of English dialects are popping up and bending the language in various directions, this fact would probably, as we say down South, really stick in your craw. Another related point is that much of the supremacy of English among world languages is due to its wilingness to adapt and incorporate, as opposed to, say, French. English has about 500,000 words. The next-largest vocabulary is, I think, about 50,000. We can use any word we want. I don't know about Life Science kids, but we English students pretty much all think this is great.

And please, it's not like 'American,' 'British' and 'Canadian' English are different languages! Spellings should be standardized in journals and newspapers for ease of editing and copying, but these are the only benefits such rigid treatment accords. Some profs, including the teacher of my primatology class, require that their students use the American spellings (and here I might note that these differ depending on what dictionary one consults, much like the Canadian ones but to lesser extent. I mostly use Merriam-Webster because they kick a high quotient of ass), because the main journals of their fields are printed using these spellings. The world is very interconnected linguistically, and failing to recognize (in any sense of the word) the major spellings of a word outside of one's own geographic region is kind of silly.

I don't know why people can get so territorial about spellings specifically, but try googling it, and read some of the polemics people have posted, and then ask yourself - whether you be American, Canadian, or otherwise - why you can readily accept such a word as "google" as a verb but put up an honest-to-god fight against an arrangement of letters, slightly different from your own particular spelling, that has been used by millions of people for a very long time, nearby.

I don't really care what spelling someone uses, and in that I'm with most Canadian academic institutions and hosts of international conferences. I just wouldn't like it if someone started to get rhetorical with me about the spellings I use, (which are mostly American: that is how I learned to write), because writing is pretty much what I do and I don't want anyone else to be pushy about how I "should" do it, regardless of where I am, unless there is a valid reason concerning the specific task at hand, such as that I am writing for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Which I did. And it was kinda cool, despite the fact that the research I had to do for it was so very boring. When the 1931-1940 phase of the project is published, you can read my entry on James Henry Fleming (born 1872, d. 1940, and by all accounts a rather bland chap of some ornithological significance), and reap the benefits of my academic endeavor.


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