New Canadians might notice that the English language is a little bit different here compared to the English they learned in the Philippines. This is especially noticeable in the spelling of words. At first glance, spellings like centre, theatre, colour, honour and many others just look wrong. The spelling is different here because the origins of Canadian spelling and English spelling in the Philippines are different. Also, the paths that the English language travelled to get to the two countries were different.
The Americans brought the English language to the Philippines when they occupied the newly founded republic at the beginning of the 1900s while Canada inherited English from the British who explored the country as early as the 1500s. They eventually settled here and made their colony a nation in 1867.
Of course, the English language originally came from England, which is the ultimate source for all the variations of English throughout the entire world – even the English spoken in the U.S. But why are American, British and Canadian spellings different from one another?
It has been a long-standing tradition in England not to change the spellings of foreign words too much when they are adopted into English. Even when the pronunciation of a word is changed (and it almost always changed), the spelling usually remains unchanged. This is true even for very old English words that are pronounced differently now than when they were first written. For example, the word knight did go through a slight change from the original Old English spelling of cniht, but back then, all of its letters were pronounced: keh-ni-geh-tah. Today it is pronounced nayt but the silent letters, k, g and h are still there.
So when French words like centre and honour entered the English language, their spellings did not change much, either.
Among the languages that have influenced English in the past one thousand years, it was French that had the biggest effect. French was the official language of England for almost 400 years after William the Conqueror took the throne in the year 1066. William was from Normandy in France. He didn’t speak English, so French became the language for governing the kingdom while Latin continued to be used in the Church.
The English of that period between 1066 and the mid 1400s is now called Middle English and it was the language of the common people. During that time, many French words used by the elite classes gradually entered the speech of the commoners. The words may have been mispronounced or simply changed over time, but the original French spellings did not change very much – probably because most commoners could not write.
When the colonists in America rebelled against the British monarchy in 1776, they wanted to correct many things that they believed were wrong in their society. One of those things was the spelling of English words. Many Americans at that time, and many Britons too, worked to standardize English spelling and make it more sensible. The most successful innovator was the American, Noah Webster, who published three school textbooks in the 1780s. The first book was a speller published in 1783. It eventually became known as the Blue-Backed Speller because of its blue cover, and for one hundred years it was the standard school textbook for American spelling. During Webster’s lifetime 80 million copies of his speller were sold and it established the new American method of spelling and pronunciation.
Because of Canada’s unique history, the spelling of English words here is a mixture of both the American and the British methods. During the American revolution of 1776 some Americans remained loyal to Britain and many of them escaped the U.S. to settle in Canada. Their particular speech and spelling methods, and those of their descendants, became mixed in with the English used in Canada at the time.
When the United States and Britain went to war again in 1812, the Americans made many attacks on Canada but they were unsuccessful. After the war, the British discovered that the Americans had hoped that when they invaded Canada they would gain the sympathy and support of the former Americans living there. They did not. And even though these so-called loyalists really did remain loyal to England, the British were uncomfortable with so many people living in Canada who had ties to the U.S. Therefore, to lessen the American influence in Canada, they embarked on a plan to entice as many British citizens as possible to immigrate and settle in Canada. During the 1800s the population of Canada doubled and Britain was once again the dominating influence on Canadian society.
Today the British and American influences are mixed into our Canadian spelling. We still spell some words the British way, such as axe, dialogue, labour and programme, and the last letter of our alphabet is zed, not zee. But we do not use the British spelling of aluminium for aluminum or tyre for tire. We use the American suffix –ize more often in Canada than the British –ise in words like equalize, specialize and Canadianize, even though both spellings are accepted here. Many other words are also accepted with two different spellings.
These days, American culture dominates the entire world and its influence is especially felt in Canada because the U.S. is right next-door with a population and an economy ten times bigger than Canada’s. Everyday we are exposed to American customs and opinions through movies, television and the Internet, and many Canadian children first learned the abc and zee by watching the American Sesame Street show on TV. But in spite of all this, we Canadians continue to value our own culture and the uniqueness of our language. The way we spell is part of our Canadian identity.