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Why is Canadian spelling so weird?

Why is Canadian spelling the way it is? Why do we use the -our endings, like the British, and the -izes, like the Americans? Who is the "Great Canadian Spelling Authority" anyway? And should we continue on our own path or try to blend in with someone else?

Historically, of course, the English language prevailed throughout the entire British Empire, including Canada. Many of the political and bureaucratic leaders, jurists, journalists and educators came from the British Isles. The nation's laws were made or at least approved by the British Parliament. Naturally, the British writing and spelling style had a great influence on the way English was written in Canada. Furthermore, most of the early English-speaking immigrants came from Scotland and Ireland, as well as England, which had a considerable influence on Canadian pronunciation and vocabulary. Perhaps the bigger question is "Why did American English deviate from the British standard?"

Wikipedia says, "As a spelling reformer, Webster believed that English spelling rules were unnecessarily complex, so his dictionary [published in 1828] introduced American English spellings like 'color' instead of the Commonwealth English 'colour,' 'music' instead of 'musick,' 'wagon' instead of 'waggon,' 'center' instead of 'centre,' and 'honor' instead of 'honour.' He also added American words … like 'skunk' and 'squash.'"

It appears that Mr. Webster pursued spelling for political purposes, intentionally distinguishing his new country's language from that of the now-estranged mother country. In the early twentieth century, journalist and literary critic H. L. Mencken vigorously defended his American language as well. Authorities in Canada have also acted from similar political and patriotic motives, as they tried to preserve Canadian English's differences when faced with the American steamroller. In one instance, Sir John A. Macdonald issued an Order in Council (No. 1178 of June 12, 1890, according to the National Library of Canada) that "the English practice be uniformly followed" in official documents of all sorts. From that stems our system of writing honour, colour, theatre and centre instead of using their -or and -er forms.

Some sources say -or was the original form and travelled with settlers to the Americas, but British usage changed in the mid-nineteenth century under the influence of French, which was considered a more cultivated language. Thus, Britain and her Empire adopted -our spellings, which looked more like the French -eur, along with a preference for -re instead of -er, while the Americans retained the simpler, original forms.

For many Canadians, the Great Spelling Authority remains the spellers they used in their schooldays. Canadian spellers (among them were the Nelson, Gage, Macmillan and Dent's) taught several generations of children the "proper" way to spell those culturally sensitive words and to double the final consonant when adding suffixes to such words as travel (travelling), jewel (jeweller) and total (totalled). Yet, those spellers varied with the years and varied between provinces and school districts as well. Some leaned more towards the American spelling, while others favoured the British.

While many Canadian businesses and institutions, especially those in publishing, develop their own in-house style which they expect their writers to follow, others use a commercially available style guide. Notable style guides include the Canadian Press's CP Stylebook and CP Caps and Spelling, The Globe and Mail Style Book and, of course, The Canadian Style, the Canadian government's guide to good English. In addition, we can rely on the Gage Canadian Dictionary and newer reference works such as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Each government department—and even Parliament—has its own preferences for spelling and capitalization, and sometimes for usage as well.

Canadian spelling is a mixture of styles, influenced by history and politics, and remains a cause of arguments, even feuds. Using the tools we offer will help keep the peace, we hope!

Note: If you wish to test your knowledge of spelling, go to the Spelling section under Quizzes.