Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Alanis Morissette: Language Sell-Out

Every Canadian knows that the word "flavour" is spelled with a "u." Just as labour, humour, colour and a host of other words differentiate themselves from the American versions. The "our" ending isn't the only contrast between Canadian and American spelling though it's probably the most common.

But I should qualify the opening sentence. Most Canadians over the age of 30 should know the difference. As time passes, that number will further dwindle though there will always be a core of Canuck purists who continue to write the way they were taught. After all, language is as much a part of national identity as many other things. But with default settings on most computer programs deferring to the U.S. brand of spelling (and a general erosion regarding language precision), more of the younger generations will begin to see that as the "right " way.

Of course, even before the onslaught of the internet and the ubiquitous presence of computers, Canadian spelling was always a bit confusing and varied from person to person. More similar to British than American, it nonetheless shares some of the alternate spellings with the yank rule book.

"Kerb," is distinctly British; only a rare Canadian would spell the word this way and probably then only as an affectation. On the other hand, "grey" is the British rendering also widely used by Canadians while the American "gray" is adopted only by those who are clueless to the difference or are one of many self-loathers from the great white north. Then there are relatively neutral examples such as "travelled" and "traveled" which are probably used in equal measures by Canadians.

For learners of English as a second language outside of Canada, the no-man's land option barely rates a mention. I normally advise students to choose between British and American spelling and then stick with it.

But the "our" ending is significant because, unlike many of the words with variant spellings, it has somehow remained one that Canadians have kept in the face of American media, pop-culture and Microsoft (OK, there are a few exceptions.) To be a Canadian and spell "labour" without the "u" is to announce that such matters are insignificant and petty.

Alanis Morissette Flavors of EntanglementStill, I've no doubt that something will twig for many Canadians when they see the title of Alanis Morissette's new CD, Flavors of Entanglement.

Hipsters in the local music industry who interview the singer likely won't go near a question like "So what's up with the U.S. spelling?" for fear it would label them as anal and pedantic. But they too will recognize the shameless pander.

And who can blame Morissette and her record company? Her most important market will be in the U.S.

The inclusion of the "u" would be meaningless to many Americans while others would think something was amiss but be fully unaware of the British/U.S. variations. For those who had a notion of the separate spellings, it would invoke a vague sense of foreignness and annoyance.

All very symbolic of the fuzzy sense of culture in the massive frigid wasteland we call Canada. Proximity to the U.S. means resisting their influence is nearly impossible though many continue to make the effort. At the same time, a nostalgia for the more reserved, traditional and nuanced Brits still has an effect on who we are.

It's only fitting that Morissette, one of Canada's many musical exports, has created a small, thriving industry out of advancing her similarly contradictory and confused public persona. And her prior recording success has already proven that language isn't necessarily her strongest suit. Thanks to her, an entire generation of angry young faux feminists has no idea what the word "irony" truly means.

It would be a nice surprise if there were different releases of the CD depending on location but I have seen no evidence of this so far.


Grouch said...

Funny after being told by one student that "therez no pont learnig da engliz, caoz we wilz all be witing in da text" Alanis for all her faults seems quite literate. Nice site!

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