The idea of Canada’s own English version dictionary started as absurd, and only got wilder and even a bit controversial from there.
It starts in the 1950s when the high school educated American hobbyist Charles Lovell – a U.S. author of mountaineering in the Alberta Rockies to give him due credit – lobbied Canadian scholars and even the government to consider a Canadian dictionary.
Lovell died in 1960, but the work he started lives on in the new book by Oak Bay’s Stefan Dollinger, Creating Canadian English: The Professor, the Mountaineer, and a National Variety of English.
Ironically, despite his U.S. citizenship Lovell is considered among the Big 6 of Canadian linguists, said Dollinger, a University of B.C. professor and linguistic researcher.
So how did a U.S. language hobbyist have such an impact? Because in the 1950s the Canadian scholarship either wasn’t taking the idea of Canadian English seriously, or they were afraid to. It took Lovell to convince them.
“Canadian English as a concept was still ridiculous in the 1950s,” Dollinger said. “But Lovell convinced Canadian linguists that establishing a Canadian variety of English was something worth doing.
“Even the concept of American English was grudgingly accepted by conservative linguists, language professionals, in the 1930s, and that was something that dated back to the 1790s.”
Scholars fought bias in English standards towards American English and it still exists today, Dollinger said, even though American English is affecting the mother language back in the U.K. (One such example is dreamt/dreamed, the latter used in the the United States, is becoming the norm in U.K. instead of dreamt.)
A few years ago, Dollinger took up the mantle of updating the first historical dictionary of Canadianisms. The original work, the Dictionary of Canadiasms on Historical Principles (DCHP), came out in 1967, an overdue and timely centennial project to celebrate the English side of the nation’s identity. The seminal dictionary was curated and edited by editor in chief Walter Avis, with Charles Crate, Patrick Drysdale, Douglas Leechman, Matthew Scargill and, of course, Lovell (as founding editor until his untimely death at 52).
These are the Big 6.
Not only is Dollinger living in Oak Bay but half of the Big 6 spent considerable time here. Scargill shopped weekly at Oak Bay’s Ivy’s Bookshop. Leechman lived in south Oak Bay, next to the Chinese cemetery. Avis worked two summers here on site. Oak Bay and the University of Victoria was the central point — Crate came down from Alert Bay to discuss things.
In 2017, Dollinger published a second edition of the DCHP online. It took a team of 43 students to update the DCHP. The edition is free in open-access though demand for a print edition has been so great that it might be the next book Dollinger publishes.
“Usually, I write books that cost $200 and are read by 20 people,” Dollinger joked. This time, the idea was “to sell for $20 and have it read by more than 20 people.”
Creating Canadian English: The Professor, the Mountaineer, and a National Variety of English is close, listed at $32.95 in paperback.
So what is Canadian English and why was it controversial? Because Canadians get their backs up when the U.S. is credited for anything Canadian. So swallow your pride Canadians, because one of the key introductions to U.S. spelling and usage of the English language was when the loyalists fled the 13 colonies ahead of the impending revolution and landed, with influence, in the developing cities of 1700s pre-Canada.
The Austrian-born Dollinger not only traces how the ‘u’ found its way back into behaviour and colour (regions of Canada were in dispute over this until it became “near-categorical” only a few decades ago), but also explains how Canadians can be so oblivious to their own usage of Canadian English.
“Look at the term ‘tire centre,’” he said, as in an auto garage. “This is the American usage of ‘tire’ and the British usage of ‘centre.’”
In other words, Brits would spell it ‘tyre centre’ while Americans would spell ‘tire center.’
“That is Canadian English,” he said.