Before leaving Canada, I had a solid grasp on Canadian English. I knew there were differences between British and American English, and my language differed from both of these. Beyond that, I didn’t give Canadian English much thought.
After finishing my BA, I ventured to Germany to teach in sleepy Uelzen, a village known for its train station. As my fellow teachers and I slipped into speaking a mix of English and German, I didn’t take notice of the variations in our speech. Only when my students questioned me about my mix of British and American English did I wonder about the identity of the language I spoke.
My year in Germany was followed by two years in Belgium, where my feeble understanding of Flemish didn’t get me very far. When I moved to London, I was thrilled by the prospect of living without planning out my speech in advance.
Transitioning to British English was easy. I learned new words for vegetables and picked up a few turns of phrase. I began to appreciate the gentle smoothness of the “s” in contrast to the jarring, angular “z.” At work, my clients had simple style guides with straightforward spelling conventions. Headings tended towards sentence case. I emerged unscathed from my internal work communications, unlike a dear colleague who sent out a management memo about an event happening “in loo” of a meeting.
And then. After a recent return to Canada, I found my own language no longer made sense. I struggled to come to terms with the mix of “flavour” and “recognize.” More shocking was the tendency to use exclamation marks and capital letters everywhere. Titles and subheadings shouted at me.
My reaction was due in part to growing comfortable with a more consistent form of English, but also to the fact that times have changed. Communication has become faster-paced and less formal, with thousands of emails and texts fired off every minute. There are no borders for online communications, which further blurs the lines between different language styles.
My reintroduction to Canadian English has reignited my appreciation for our unique country with its influences from our British heritage and our American neighbours. Rather than battling against our sometimes nonsensical language, I have embraced it. I delight in explaining Canadian spelling to my British husband and discussing how we measure people in inches and distances in kilometres.
I’ve learned to see Canadian English less through a comparison to British or American English and more as what it is on its own. I appreciate its leniency and what it reflects about us as a country of many cultures and influences. In private company, I still use my favourite British words. “Aubergine” is much better suited to the regal vegetable than “eggplant.” The punchy “rubbish” echoes the nature of what it articulates better than its blander companion “garbage.” While its rules and tendencies are not always easy to explain, ours is a special language and I’m happy to use it.
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