Two Nations Divided by a Common Language, and About 100 Years of New Songs and Dances
By Sam Linton
Asalaam Aleikum, Language users! Y’know, I’ve gone on record as a being a big fan of the English language (see previous columns in this series), but even I recognize that it has its problems. Problems like standardization.
You see, one of the central problems in having a truly global language, spoken in multiple countries over multiple continents, are those little discrepancies that occur over distance. A word may be spelled one way on one continent, but slightly differently on another. Specifically in the case of English, there are two elephants in the room: Britain and the US, two cultural juggernauts speaking the same language with subtle variations in spelling (also, pronunciation, but we can chalk that up to accents).
Sure, the differences are cute, almost endearing now, giving each side the opportunity to look down on the other for being either overly simplistic (The US, in British eyes) or stuffy and old-fashioned (Britain, to the Americans). But mark my words, if we allow these lapses to continue, it’s only a matter of time before the entire language system breaks down, and reading something written on the opposite side of the Atlantic devolves into a Chaucerian nightmare of counterintuitive spellings, antiquated words and incomprehensible dialects. And that, my friends, is where we come in.
We here at MONDO make no secret of our Canadian origins; it’s part of who we are, probably. Maybe. Could be. In any case, part of what that being Canadian is all about (linguistically speaking) is negotiating a delicate tightrope walk of spelling, balancing our geographical proximity to the US with our historical/cultural ties to our Queen across the waves. It is for this reason that I believe that it is up to us, as Canadians (non-Canadian readers: keep reading! I’m not specifically trying to exclude you, and you bring a unique perspective to reading this article) to make the hard decisions for the benefit of the language as a whole.
Which words should be globally standardized under British spelling, and which under the American? Sure, it’s a tough job, but in the immortal words of Colin Meloy, “Someone’s got to do the culling of the fold.” If not us, then who? The Australians? I’m not even going to dignify that with a response.
Thusly, in the interest of this national project, I have taken it upon myself to assemble some preliminary suggestions at standardization. I would take this opportunity beforehand to remind my readers that, despite my erudite articulation, I am by no means any sort of linguistic authority, and nor do I hold any advanced degrees in the arts or sciences (yet). I am merely a young man with an abiding interest in wordsmithery, making my choices based purely on what “feels” or “sounds” right. Bearing that in mind, here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
Honor/Honour (or any or/our ending):
British Spelling Let’s just get the or/our thing (what some would argue to be the largest difference) out of the way right off the bat: the “ou” wins because of how it looks. Maybe it’s just me, but I associate the or/our ending with some pretty weighty words, conceptually speaking. Honour, Valour, Armour. Words like these deserve the air of nobility and gravitas offered by that extra “u”. It wouldn’t mean squat to me if someone offered up their “word of honor“, but a “word of honour” is an unbreakable bond. Plus, I think that the actual pronunciation is better expressed through use of the “u”, so that’s another mark in the “British spelling” column.
Theater/Theatre (or any other er/re ending):
American Spelling I’ll be honest: I like the look of the “re” ending more, but looks alone are not enough to base a decision on, and every rational bone in my body (my brain counts as a “rational bone” for the purposes of this metaphor) is telling me that “er” makes more sense. After all, if we’re not speaking French, why are we trying to spell as though we are? The fact is, in the English language, “re” is pronounced as “ruh”, so unless you honestly say the word as “theatruh”, the American spelling is the only one that makes sense. To quote Lisa Simpson, “It may not be pretty, but dammit, it’s honest!” (Episode 95, “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacey”. Yes, I’ve seen them all). So, though my sense of pretension objects, the American spelling proves truer.
Civilization/Civilisation (or any other instance of s/z confusion):
American SpellingThis one was just easy. If you’re going to include a “z” in your alphabet, this is the exact type of buzzing sibilant you want to have it around for. Otherwise, what’s the point? If you drop the “z” from a word like “Civilization”, then you may as well chuck the whole letter out the window! Then what? Next thing you know, you’ll be taking the kids out to the “Soo” to see the “Sebras” and the “Chimpansees!” I’ll tell you right now, that’s not the kind of world I want to live in. For the sake of the letter zed’s continued existence then, it’s clear how we have to proceed with this one. We don’t even have a choice, really. And while I’m on the subject:
British VersionI know that I might take some heat for this one, having been told even by fellow Canucks that the whole “zed” thing is foolish and outmoded, but it just has to be (don’t you see)? Sure, calling it a “zee” is fun at first; I’m sure that children the world over all prefer singing that zany, fun-sounding “zee” at the end of their alphabet songs over the dull, leaden sound of a hard “zed”. But it is precisely this “fun” quality that makes “zee” so dangerous: it lets kids think that language is something there to amuse them, like some kind of damned game! Call me paranoid, but I believe that there is a direct correlation between the use of “zee” early in life and sloppy spelling on the internet in later years. And from there studies have already proven the link between sloppy internet spelling and gang activity, drug use and lax sexual hygiene (I feel no need to link these studies, you readers just take my words on faith). For the sake of the children, then, “zed” is the clear choice. Call it a moral imperative.
Season/Series (specifically regarding their use in TV production schedules):
American “Spelling”Okay, okay. This has nothing at all to do with spelling, and by even trodding this road, I’m towing the line on the whole “elevator/lift,” “truck/lorry” slanguage/language distinction, which is frankly none of my damned business. But I simply couldn’t let any Britain/US word discussion go without mentioning this. I’m assuming that you’re all familiar with this distinction, but just in case one of you isn’t, a year’s worth of television in the US is called a “season,” while in Britain it’s referred to as a “series.” This is ridiculous. Britain, you have a great cultural history behind you; Hell, maybe even ahead of you. But the US freaking invented television. Doesn’t it stand to reason that they should have a say over the terminology? Don’t feel bad; you still have a legacy of poetic, theatrical and literary terminology to call your own, but let the States have television. You guys still make some quality programs (Black Adder! Extras!), just label them correctly.
Hopefully, I’ve solved the language gap forever now. I’d like to take this time at the end of my column to encourage all my British and American readers to adopt my suggestions; just put aside your nationalistic cultural pride and accept that you’re doing something for the greater good. To my Canadian readers, I pass the torch and, with it, the burden of pruning the language. Should you come upon a word with different American and British spellings, it is now your job to make the executive decision: which should stay and which should go?
It’s a mighty task, but we have to shoulder the burden. Not just for ourselves, but for future generations! Courage! And for my English-speaking readers in other countries, you guys should… umm… take five, I guess. Sit back and have a brew while the Canadians, Brits and Yanks sort themselves out. Then go with whatever we decide. Trust us, we know what’s best. Don’t you worry your pretty little heads about nothin’. We’ve got it all under control.
Finally, to all my readers, regardless of nationality, remember, It’s a living language; let’s keep it that way!