Why Canadian spelling is different

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Posted: 
November 14, 2017
Written by: Sheila Ethier

Canadian spelling isn’t quite the same as anyone else’s.

It’s no secret that we Canadians spell differently from our cousins in the United States:

  • We put a “u” in words like “colour” and “favour”; Americans leave it out
  • We spell “theatre” and “centre” with an “re” at the end; they spell them with an “er”
  • We write cheques for things we order from catalogues, while they order from catalogs and write checks

So how did these differences come about?

 

The roots of the issue

After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, French became the language of government. And when French scribes heard English words, they wrote them according to French spelling rules.

Meanwhile, the low status of English meant that there was no written standard, so even English writers used their own spellings. By the late Middle Ages, English spelling varied greatly.

To add to the confusion, an important change called the Great Vowel Shift took place in spoken English between the 14th and 18th centuries. Over this period, the way words sounded gradually became quite different from the way they were written. As a result, English spelling became less and less logical.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, a number of scholars tried to standardize English spelling or even reform it, but with little success.

England’s Samuel Johnson

In 1755, Samuel Johnson published his 40,000-word Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson didn’t try to reform spelling to make it more logical. Instead, he simply chose the most common spellings in use at the time.

It is interesting to note that most words in his dictionary are spelled the same way they are today. The biggest difference is that words written today with an “ic” all end in “ick”: “comick,” “magick,” “musick,” “romantick.”

Johnson’s dictionary was very popular and became the main reference for spelling in England for more than 150 years. But although English spelling had become standardized, it hadn’t gotten any more logical.

America’s Noah Webster

Several decades after Johnson’s dictionary appeared, Noah Webster (of Webster’s Dictionary fame) set out to reform American spelling by making it simpler.

For instance, he dropped the “u” from words like “colour” and the “k” from words like “musick.” He also adopted the “er” ending for words like “center” and the “ize” ending for verbs like “organize.”

Webster’s 1828 dictionary and 1829 speller became the primary spelling references for generations of Americans.

Canada’s Sir John A.

As time went on, American spelling practices began to creep over the border. In 1890, Sir John A. Macdonald was asked what spellings should be used in Canada.

Our first prime minister felt strongly that all parts of the British Empire should hold to the system used in England. And he ordered that “the English practice be uniformly followed” in all government documents.

Thus, British spelling was upheld as the standard in Canada.

Canadian spelling today

Language changes; and in spite of Sir John A., our neighbours to the south have made some inroads into Canadian spelling.

For example, we’ve adopted the American ending “ize” instead of “ise” in verbs like “organize,” “civilize” and “specialize.” And like the Americans, we spell “encyclopedia” (and most other words like it) with an “e” instead of an “ae.”

So if our spelling is partly American and partly British, how can we be sure we’re choosing the right forms for a Canadian audience? The best bet is to check a reliable Canadian dictionary (such as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the Gage Canadian Dictionary or the Collins Canadian Dictionary) for the spellings accepted in Canada. When more than one spelling is listed, it is the first one that most Canadians prefer.

What do you think about Canadian spelling? Would you do anything to change or improve it? Tell us your opinion in a comment.

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

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About the author

Sheila Ethier

Sheila Ethier has taught English and translation at the post-secondary level and has many years’ experience in translation. She enjoys creating content for the Portal.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Public Services and Procurement Canada or the Government of Canada.

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I am torn by a loyalty to Canada, Canadian history and its institutions, and a common sense approach to all things. On the one hand I wish every word was spelled exactly as it sounds. On the other I am annoyed when my computer automatically reverts to US spelling and auto-corrects or when I see Facebook posts by Canadians using American spellings. Our adherence to the status quo is an illustration of our reluctance to admit someone else may have a better way. My right brain says don't let our bully brothers from south of the border tell us how to spell. My left brain says why do we spell 'cough' and not 'coff'?

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