Spelling and Other Really Annoying Subjects
Recently, one of my Canadian colleagues commented that an American had told her: ”If you keep spelling “Defense” with an “s” instead of a “c”, you will never be taken seriously.” Um, hello…ever heard of Canadian or British spelling? Americans, as I have mentioned in earlier posts, do tend to, um, keep to themselves…and therefore have very little knowledge of what’s going on in other countries (except as it affects them…just watch CNN for ten hours straight and you’ll see). I also encountered Americans at the Conference who thought I’d flown through a blizzard to reach Virginia…um, no, Autumn hasn’t quite started yet; everything in Canada is still green, just dropping to sleep as winter beckons. A family from Brooklyn waiting at the Dorval Airport when I was on my way to Vancouver in July, questioned why all the kiosks offered baked beans with breakfast. I nearly explained: ”Beans are a staple in the traditional Quebec breakfast,” but the wife was so vocal and so, um, prolific in her bewilderment at the offers of baked beans, that I couldn’t find a moment to interrupt to tell them anything.
Now…I say this with all due respect…after all, my mother’s family is from Youngstown, Ohio, and Philadelphia, PA. This is more than most of my father’s relatives who have since moved to the States, most of whose first language was French. No doubt their English is much improved since the time they moved away from Quebec. They’d have had no choice as Americans would grimace at their pronunciation of English words, and demand a repeat…cuz the US still thinks it owns the world. And in many ways, it does own the world. Every major soft/hardware innovation has issued from the US; most text…that’s txt…messaging is based on the US’s idea of how to abbreviate English words: I lv yu. R yu hm? Whatever. As a teacher of ESL to both francophones in business and immigrants, I had to explain that “fantastic” was a word while “Fantastik” was a trade name, and homework was a noncountable noun followed by a singular verb, and could never be plural, whereas “HomeWorks” was a TV show. (Don’t get me started. My homework is done.)
What happened was that, sometime in the early 40s, the University of Chicago produced a manual which sought to standardize and simplify American spelling. This included reducing, um, irrelevant letters in English words: thus, “marvellous” became “marvelous”, “night” became “nite”, “recognise” became “recognize”, “analyse” became “analyze”, “draught horse” became “draft horse”, “ageing” became “aging” (always makes me think of gagging), and “focussed” became “focused”, “Quebecker” became “Quebecer” (more on this one later), and of course, my personal favourite, “kidnaped” instead of “kidnapped”. In Canada, a “cheque” is spelled “check” in American English. “Color” is “colour” and “honor” is “honour”. You get the drift, I’m sure. There are so many other examples, and I only have so much time (or, I have only so much time).
My point is this: some words in Canada retained the old British spelling, and some, like Quebecer, tried to follow the American lead prescribed in the U of Chicago’s Style Manual (in fact, I think most Canadian newspapers follow that Manual…which would explain their imminent demise). Moreover, people like Mark Abley, a self-styled linguist, who writes bi-weekly in The Montreal Gazette, attempt to analyse the changes in the English language as he and his readers see fit. Bravo, Mark. The only time I remember disagreeing with Mark is when he spoke about the use of the present tense in English practice to describe continuous action: Mark (or one of his readers) confused a second-language problem with common English practice (that’s “practice” as a noun, not “practise” as a verb). His column that day gave the example that we cannot say, correctly in English: ”I work here for ten years”. As a teacher of ESL for some sixteen years, I must agree: the French verb form of the present is used in the same way we use the present perfect in English; thus “I have worked here for ten years” translates into French with their simple present tense as above. In English, however, the simple present can be used to refer to the future, under certain conditions: for example: ”The plane arrives today at 5pm” is perfectly correct English, as long as the context makes clear that the future event (carried by a present tense verb) is indeed imminent (so, the above can be stated if it is today and it is prior to 5pm: that is the context). Working at the same place for ten years, however, requires the present perfect verb tense in English, so thus: ”I have worked here for ten years” (present perfect verb form, indicating that you are working, and continue to work, at the same place, good and loyal soul that you are). The use of ”depuis” in French is another linguistic challenge, being alternately translated by “since” or “for” in English (“since” describing the beginning of the event, “I have been married since 1999″ versus “for”, describing the entire duration of the event, “I have been married for ten years”–both, however, describing a state which still continues beyond the past and the present, and is likely to continue into the future). The present perfect is called so because action begun at some time in the past and continuing into the present is believed to “perfect” itself in some future time; the French present perfect does not harbour this rather obscure benefit, as far as I’m aware. I think Mark’s reader may not have been someone familiar with Quebec English (the English spoken in Quebec) which, like most regional dialects, borrows freely from the language it’s closest to…in this case, Quebec French. Even unilingual speakers of English here call the corner store, the “dep” (short for “dépanneur”); say, “I have to wash them tonight” when referring to hair (I have to wash it tonight), and look at the calendar, saying “What day are we?” rather than “What day is it?”. Anticipating the critics of this kind of language-bridging, let me say that it’s no worse than hearing an anglophone in BC say: ”We had went to the store” or “It was broadcasted last night.” Yikes.
On the other hand, you can’t beat French and Italian for the lyrical, ambiguous beauty they embody. I understand why French was used as the language of diplomacy in the Renaissance, or Reformation, and probably before then. You just can’t pin them down, those eloquent Frenchies…a quality which modernists would rail against in this, the modern age, which insists you mean what you say and say what you mean. As for “Quebecker” versus “Quebecer”, I well remember writing to the (now-defunct ) Montreal Star, saying that the letter “c” at the end of a suffix-bearing word was not strong enough to carry the hard, gutteral sound of the “k” (as in “coarse”). As a word that was originally Indian, we had, historically, pronounced the word as “kebeck”, and in keeping with the random but still officious rules of English pronunciation, had, perforce, to spell its other forms with the same hard gutteral “kuh” sound–especially when one of its forms requires (by standard English spelling) a gutteral “k” following a short vowel, as in “KWE/BEH/CUR…Quebecker (the “e” preceding the “c” in ”Quebec” is a short-sounded vowel thus must be followed by a hard sounded “k”. Compare to “cetacean” where the “soft c” starts off the word, and the second “c” is also soft, a “sh” sound, starting off a soft word-ending like “ocean” O/SHUN, not O/see/on.). English is fascinating, partly because it is the Heinz 57 of languages, yet still, there are some rules, though with many exceptions. This last was a de facto spelling rule and not an exception (I refer you to The Spell of Words by Elsie T. Rak). Alas, the Montreal Star, a much finer newspaper than the Montreal Gazette is today (though a few years back, the Gazette had surpassed the quality of the Montreal Star)…never made the correction. I did try, in my book, Ground Manners. A Novel, to use Canadian spelling, but even my eye, lo these many years, has become so used to American spelling that I missed a few, writing “analyze” instead of “analyse”.
My Master’s degree, after all, is in semiotics. Holding a Master’s, I should be able to impress somebody, anybody, but the truth is that no-one masters language, language masters us, so my graduate degree really only means that I went very far in my studies, only to ultimately discover how little I knew and how much more there was to learn. Sigh. N.B. Look sharp…my next post will talk about the increasing obsolescence of the semi-colon (I bet you can’t wait).