As the nationalistic fervour rises to a fever pitch with the advent of the Olympics and the torch bearers running through our various municipalities, it gives rise to ponder about our Canadian identity and what makes us unique.
I am one of those who believes that language gives strength to a culture and represents the people who speak it. Our dominant language is English, with a few twists to make it recognizably Canadian, or at least differing from American English. Yet more and more, especially among the younger generation, I see signs of our Canadian way of saying things being replaced by American ones. For example, when referring to the deceased, many young people now refer to the person as having ‘passed’. I don’t like this – I find it incomplete, having always said ‘passed away’. When I hear someone say ‘passed’, I am tempted to respond with ‘passed what?… passed wind? passed a test?? Another one is the way the last letter of the alphabet is pronounced. While teaching at a community college, I was astonished to find several of my students saying ‘zee’ instead of ‘zed’. I asked them where they heard this from. They said they didn’t know. I told them I was certain they would have been taught to say ‘zed’ in school, which to my mind would have been reinforced by French lessons, where this important but often overlooked letter is pronounced the same way. ‘Zee’ of course is the American pronunciation and while it might work better in rhyming songs about the alphabet, is one of those little things that sets us apart from the Americans.
I recently read an article in the Globe and Mail where the writer felt that we should drop our differences as they were largely British in origin. I don’t see that as an argument for being swallowed into the vast culture to the south. Yes, much of our spelling is British, but some of it is not. We have sort of a middling approach to our spelling, which borrows on some American yet retains some British, much like our culture and attitudes.
(This website is great – it illustrates the difference between the three ways of spelling mentioned here:http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/BritishCanadianAmerican.htm)
I am not anti-American. I spent five years of my life there and it was a very good time. It did serve though, to help me identify what made us different – and that has been aptly illustrated in one of my favourite old series – ‘Due South’ (I have been enjoying the re-runs) which pokes fun at people on both sides of the border.
Perhaps the most insidious way in which our language has been compromised is through spell check. You can type a word like ‘colour’, and spell check will underline it and tell you to change it to ‘color’. I have tried time and again to reset it to Canadian, but it always defaults to American spelling. I often see writing of Canadian origin peppered with a mixture of American and Canadian spellings, where the diligent author has perceived that someone tried to force him to spell ‘colour’ as ‘color’; but was caught on ‘travelling’; when Microsoft Word took it into its head to change it arbitrarily and remove the second ‘l’.
I don’t think Bill Gates should be allowed to tell me how to spell. When Word changes the spelling all on its own, it gives me the eerie feeling that my choices are being altered by an electronic brain washer, trying to take the ‘Canadian’ out of me. Who knows where this could lead? Next I’ll find myself humming the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in the shower and celebrating July 4th instead of July 1st.
Let’s face it, we are an odd mixture. We now accept kilometres as the way to measure distance, but many of us purchase produce by the pound. But we are red and white, not red, white and blue, and should do our best to remember that. We live in a big country with a small population and have to work twice as hard to preserve the characteristics that make us uniquely Canadian. I think of our identity as a small flame that we should tend to and keep alive, then pass on, just like the Olympic Torch.