Photo of the New Canadian Library edition of Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel by David Topping. Note spelling of “colors.”
You probably write “honour” and “analyze.” Quite possibly you write “cozy” and “axe.” But do you write “jewellery” or “jewelry”? “Focused” or “focussed”?
To guide you through the mangrove swamp that is Canadian spelling, up pops Joe Clark—local writer, accessibility advocate, typographic aesthete, and cuddly curmudgeon. His new book, Organizing Our Marvellous Neighbours: How to Feel Good About Canadian English, is a concise and engaging attempt at explaining why our country’s unique spelling both exists and matters.
The book opens with the observation that “correct” spellings reflect popular usage: if enough people spell a certain word in a certain way for a certain period of time, then that spelling becomes acceptable. In other words, Canadian spelling doesn’t follow the dictionary; rather, the dictionary follows how Canadians spell.
The book then describes Clark’s research into how Canadians actually spell, in which he surveyed several million words from sources as varied as mass-market magazines and newspapers, small-market and niche publications, blog entries, court decisions, government websites, and literary pieces. His raw data findings are to be made available online.
It’s an impressive corpus, though one may query whether the methodology is skewed by the likelihood that many words in such sources would have been proofread and corrected according to institutional preferences. (For example, an author might have written “catalog,” but a publishing house might have changed it to “catalogue.” Which spelling is more authentically Canadian?) This isn’t Clark’s fault, of course, seeing as researchers have relatively limited access to the unvarnished spellings of ordinary Canadians, and his consideration of such a wide variety of sources goes some way toward mitigating the problem.
Clark directs some ire toward various authorities for misunderstanding Canadian spelling. His biggest targets are computer spellcheckers, which, even when set to “Canadian English,” regularly tell users that correct spellings are wrong and that incorrect spellings are right. Other targets include mainstream media outlets for trying to lead rather than follow Canadian spelling preferences, as well as Canadian English dictionaries, which get the occasional word wrong. Clark’s rebuttal of one dictionary’s finding that “yogourt” is preferred over “yogurt” is particularly convincing.
The book’s biggest weakness is being, at times, concise to a fault. It makes several incisive observations, but leaves a reader wanting to shake the pages for more information about why open-source spellcheckers are so powerful, why Canada’s many governments continue to spell the same words differently, or any of the other nuggets within it. One may also want more discussion about the book’s claim that top-down spelling reforms in English tend to fail, which is deserving of further examination in light of the efforts of, say, Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster.
Other quibbles are relatively minor and relate more to structure than substance. For example, Clark conjures up an arresting passage about the alternative reality of waking up in a society that has abandoned Canadian spelling in favour of either American or British spelling, and how we might feel in such a scenario. It captures better than perhaps anything else why Canadian spelling matters, but it lies buried in a few anonymous paragraphs in the book’s final chapter. The book deserves a powerful hook to draw the reader in, so why not open with it?
These observations do not detract from what is overall an interesting and informative read. Note that the book comes in electronic format rather than more traditional paper format, and it’s relatively short at approximately 20,000 words (though a short book, like a short speech, can often be more enjoyable than its longer counterparts). Its price, $17.83, may discourage readers who are accustomed to paying less and getting more bulk in return, but the book is generally free of padding, and, for the rest of 2008, Clark offers a nifty 10% off for every minor error that you spot, and 50% off for any major error of sense. To his credit, Clark lists online every one of his errors that gets spotted. The price also covers a cheat sheet with the correct Canadian spellings of many words that typically cause confusion.
Organizing Our Marvellous Neighbours is available for purchase online.