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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Discouver Vancouver

With Canada Day and the Fourth of July just past, it's a good time to look at some of the differences between Canadian and American English. Canadians are a little uncertain about our national identity, but one thing we can all agree on: we're NOT AMERICANS (no offence intended to any Americans reading this; you probably feel as strongly that you're NOT CANADIANS).

A handy and inexpensive way of proving our un-Americanness is to spell words like "labour" and "colour" with the British -our spellings instead of the American -or.  I am sure 300 million Americans are not even aware of the affront caused by us rejecting their spelling practices!

The differences between British and American spelling stem from two 18th-century publications by two great lexicographers: Samuel Johnson, whose dictionary was published in England in 1755, and Noah Webster, whose American Spelling Book was published in the US in 1783, later followed by a dictionary.

Take the famous “colour”. In Latin, the word was color. In medieval French, the pronunciation of the second syllable – sort of halfway between “lower” and “lure” – was reflected by spelling the word colur or colour (the latter spelling covering all eventualities). We could have just stuck with the Anglo-Saxon word, “hue”, but, true to the English mania for synonyms, and little knowing that several centuries later Canadians would be arguing bitterly about its spelling as a reflection of our national identity, English-speakers borrowed “colour” from the French. Then the Renaissance came along, and that meant we had to reflect the Latin spelling, so "color" came back. Both spellings coexisted until Johnson and Webster put their lexicographical feet down, each opting for a different spelling.

Webster may have been inspired by political motives to do the contrary of what the British were doing, but he was also interested in consistency: why spell “colour” but “director”, “honour” but “honorary” (yes, even the British spell “honorary” that way)?

The roots of Canadian English (other than Newfoundland English, which derives from the dialects of southwest England and Ireland) are in the speech of the United Empire Loyalists who fled the United States during and after the Revolution, about the time of Webster's spelling book. At its origins, then, Canadian English was American English. This common origin, as well as our ongoing frequent exposure to American English, explains why the American spelling persists in Canada. In the 19th century, vast numbers of people from the British Isles were encouraged to settle in British North America to ward off any lurking nefarious American influence. As British English was the prestige version of the language, British spellings started to be imposed. But they have never completely supplanted the American ones.

Some Canadians feel very strongly about words ending in -our as a token of our identity, adding extraneous u's where there is no need to. They don't go as far you might be led to believe by the Simpsons episode in which Marge and Homer, competing in mixed curling in the Vancouver Olympics, are passed by a  tour bus with "Discouver Vancouver" emblazoned  on it, but they have been known to use -our instead of -or in words like "elabourate" (recently noticed in the Toronto Star) and "humourous", and there is a very strong tendency to spell the aforementioned "honorary" as "honourary". A recent facebook poll I conducted about the spelling of this word had 39 well-educated Canadians opting for "honourary" versus 22 for "honorary", similar to the results we found when we conducted a survey for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, as a result of which it is possibly the only dictionary of current English to include "honourary" as a spelling variant. Traditionally, dictionaries have held to the belief that since "honorary" came directly into English from Latin honorarius, it should be spelled without a u. "Honour" on the other hand, came through French. Not surprisingly, though, the spelling "honourary" was used in the 17th and 18th centuries alongside the u-less variant, and I see no reason why Canadians should not be allowed to use it.

That Simpsons episode also poked fun at Canadian English by having Bart call his nerdy friend "Milhoose", but that's a subject for another post.


  1. One exception to the American +or spelling is "glamour". While both "glamor" and "glamour" are acceptable in the U.S., glamour is most commonly used. Interestingly, as I type this in Firefox (with American dictionary), "glamour" is underlined as a misspelling, while "glamor" is approved by the spell checker.

    Oh, and the standard adjective is "glamorous" for both American and British/Canadian.

  2. Great blog. Love it. But just to point out that the Normans conquered England and brought the French language with them. There was then two languages spoken: Anglo-saxon by the peasants and French by the ruling classes. This is why we have Saxon words like 'cow' or 'ox' for the living animal (used by the farmers) and 'beef' for when the animal was slaughtered (used by the Normans when dining).

    French words were forced into the English language rather than borrowed.

    1. "bprrowing" is the term used in inguistics when one language acquires a word from another language.


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.