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English is the second most widely spoken language in the world. It is the official language of The United Kingdom, Ireland, The United States, Canada, Jamaica, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand and it is widely spoken in India. It is the language of international business and science, of aviation and shipping. As so many people speak English in so many countries, there are many different "Englishes". The best form of English is called Standard English and is the language of educated English speakers. The government, The BBC, The Universities, uses it and it is often called Queen’s English. American English is the variety of the English spoken in the United States. It is different from English in pronunciation, intonation, spelling, vocabulary and sometimes – even grammar! An Englishman goes to the town center to see a film while an American goes downtown to see a movie. If an Englishman needs a pen he would ask you: "Have you got a pen, please?" but the American would say:" Do you have a pen?" Australian and New Zealand English, also called Australian English, are very similar. Especially in pronunciation they are also similar to British English, but there are differences in vocabulary and slang. Many terms, such as kangaroo, dingo, wombat and boomerang, come from the Aboriginal language and many others from the Cockney dialect spoken by the first settlers, The Londoners. Canadian English is different both from American and from British English.
Herbert Agar wrote in his article in 1931:
“The English should try to cope with their philological ignorance. They should train themselves to realize that it is neither absurd nor vulgar that a language, which was once, the same should in course of centuries develop differently in different parts of the world. Just as French and Italian may be described as divergent forms of modern Latin, so it would be helpful to think of the language of Oxford and the language of Harvard as divergent forms of modern English. It is perhaps a pity, from the point of view of international good feelings, that the two forms have not diverged a little further. At any rate, when an Englishman can learn to think of American as a language, and not merely as a ludicrously unsuccessful attempt to speak as he himself speaks, when he can learn to have for American only the normal intolerance of the provincial mind for all foreign tongues, then there will come a great improvement in Anglo-American relations. For even though Americans realize absurdity of the English attitude toward their language, nevertheless they remain deeply annoyed by it. This is natural, for a man’s language is his very soul, it is his thoughts and almost all his consciousness. Laugh at a man’s language and you have laughed at the man himself in the most inclusive sense…” This statement may refer to any of “Englishes” mentioned above.
Another American linguist – John Algeo states in his essay “A Meditation on the Varieties of English”, that “all linguistic varieties are fictions. A language system, such as English, is a great abstraction, a fiction, analyzable into large areal varieties – American, Australian, British, Canadian, Northern Irish, Scots, Welsh, and so on. But each of those is in turn an abstraction, a fiction”. The point, Algeo argues, is that even though these terms – American, Australian, Canadian English – describe the reality that is in fact not there, they are nonetheless useful fictions.
“Useful” is the key term in Algeo’s argument, but unfortunately he fails to adequately define in what way these fictions are useful. The only definition of usefulness he offers is this: “without such fictions there can be no linguistics, nor any science. To describe, to explain, and to predict requires that we suppose there are stable things behind our discourse”. This explanation hardly seems to clarify the situation. The claim that the fictions of national Englishes are useful because they are the foundation for linguistics is a tautology that serves more to undermine linguistics than to justify those fictions. Further, Algeo’s point that all science is based on certain necessary fictions is perhaps true, though usually science attempt to resolve known fictions into more stable, at least less fictional truths. Finally, the role of predicting language change hardly seems an essential component of linguistics.
Algeo returns to the term “useful” in his conclusion. He suggests that the common practice of equating “English” with UK English, and the English of England in particular, is one of these useful fictions. How or in what way he never makes clear.
The suggestion that national boundaries are convenient regional groupings for studying a linguistic community is valid, and perhaps there is some “usefulness” in studying that linguistic community as such provided there is indeed a unique or binding set of linguistic features shared by that group. But by emphasizing Algeo’s remark that “all linguistic varieties are fictions”, we may argue that in certain circumstances, “Canadian English” being one, the “usefulness” of the fiction is so limited, that not only is it almost purposeless but it can and does result in negative social and political effects.
Unique nation, unique language?
The fundamental political problem is that a language, or a variety of a language, is too often equated with a nation. Léandre Bergeron emphasizes this in his Charte de la Langue Québécoise by selecting as an epigraph this sentence by Michelet: “La langue es le signe principal d’une nationalité” [Tr.: “Language is a principle symbol of nationality”]. The association between a unique language group and a unique political nation is not necessarily incorrect or worthless. Our oldest political boundaries are clearly a representation of the fact that a common language at one time was one of the crucial determining factors in how a group of people delimited their community. In England they speak English, in France French and so on. But in Canada they do not speak Canadian, nor do they speak “Canadian English”, for there is hardly such a thing. Historically, the geographic isolation of these nation states must have contributed to the development of unique languages. The political reality of this century is that the existence of a language, or a unique variety of a language, cannot necessarily be equated with the existence of a unique political nation. To point to the problem more directly: a group of individuals speaking a shared language that is different from that of the majority of the people outside of that community, does not constitute a nation.
Thus, the desire to create a term such as “Canadian English” is born from a reversing of the process. There is a nation Canada. Therefore there must be a unique language to complement it. The assertion of a national language is an assertion of political existence, as Léandre Bergeron makes very clear in his introduction to The Quebecois Dictionary (1982). And while many writers on the subject are clear to point out that they are not discussing a Canadian Language, but a “variety of English”, emphasis is placed on the uniqueness of that variety and its geographical integrity, essentially using, or allowing the terms to be used interchangeably.
The role of dictionaries and lexicography in this assertion of a national language and thus nationhood is interesting, and as old as Johnson and his desire to enter into “contest with united academies” of France and Italy and permit English to rival those “more polished languages” (Plan of an English Dictionary, 1747).
English in Canada
The term “Canadian English” has a pedigree dating back to 1857, at which time the Reverend A. C. Geikie referred to it as “a corrupt dialect growing up amongst our population”. Geikie’s preference was obviously for the British English spoken ‘at home’. In the 1950s and 1960s an awareness of, and a concomitant amount of scholarship, developed that was dedicated to the subject. In 1962 Gage Publishing of Canada began its Dictionary of Canadian English series with The Beginning Dictionary in 1962, followed by The Intermediate Dictionary, and The Senior Dictionary in 1967. The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP), also published by Gage, appeared in the same year. As was to be expected, the primary justification made for preparing Canadian Dictionaries was a lexical one. As Walter Avis states in his introductory essay to The Senior Dictionary (1967), “That part of Canadian English which is neither British nor American is best illustrated by the Vocabulary, for there are hundreds of words which are native to Canada or which have meanings peculiar to Canada”. He goes on to elaborate that much of this new vocabulary is the result of the unique Canadian landscape, flora, fauna, weather, etc.
M. H. Scargill, writing a decade later, structures his book, A Short History of Canadian English, around essentially the same idea: that the defining feature of Canadian English is its unique lexicon. He does add a brief chapter on grammar, but as he states the unique vocabulary is “the most obvious and major item to answer the question ‘What is Canadian English?’»
It is impossible to object to most of the words Scargill presents as “Canadian” on grounds that they are not truly so. The problem of defining a “Canadianism” is one that DCHP comments upon, citing a great difficulty in distinguishing between a “Canadianism”, an “Americanism”, and a “North Americanism”. Nonetheless, they do in the end manage to come to a conclusion. One possible objection to Scargill’s word list is that it for the most part contains specific technical words or proper names, very limited regional
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