DOES ANYBODY HERE SPEAK CANADIAN?
Or is there a Canadian language at all? To prove there is, scholars all over the country are making new lists of words they claim belong only to Canada. Now there is a whole book called The Canadian Dictionary. It says le spaghetti and sweetheart are Canadian words, but it doesn't say anything about toboggan or squid-jigging
IT'S A SOHERING THOUGHT that I might never have tumbled to the plot if I weren’t, as it happens, a compulsive jotter. I suppose it’s just a propitiatory gesture toward the gods of order— a harmless pretense that I’m logical. At any rate I seldom read anything without a pencil in my hand, using it idly to correct printing errors or to underline things (in my own books only, of course) or sporadically to note down words or phrases that I might like to work into my conversation sometime, if I can remember to.
The book I started marking up was a copy of a new bilingual dictionary, English-French, French-English, called The Canadian Dictionary, which was published in mid-April by McClelland & Stewart.
At the time it came into my hands it seemed just another symptom of a situation that looked not only innocent but positively bucking. It seemed that Canadian speech was at last being noticed, recorded and studied—studied, moreover, not just by one man but by earnest linguists and lexicographers all over the country. And the results were already beginning to appear in the form of dictionaries and glossaries, with rumors of more to come. Volume I (for Grades Four and Five) of a three-level dictionary of Canadian English for school use had appeared in February. A 20,000-entry Dictionary of Canadianisms, compiled on histoiical principles, was bruited for sometime after 1965. In Newfoundland a worker at Memorial University was hard at work on a Newfoundland dictionary. As for French-Canadian speech, Cassell and Company—that august international source of French-English dictionaries “compiled from the best authorities in both languages” — had included for the first time a vocabulary of canadianismes in its newly revised edition issued this March. In addition, as a version of the same awakened interest, a campaign was well under way in Quebec to decontaminate the spoken language which had, it seemed, fallen into slatternly ways. As part of the campaign a sternly cautionary catalogue of abusages, under the title Petit Dictionnaire da “Jouai” au Français, had just appeared. “Jouai” is approximately as corrupt a rendition of “cheval” in French as “hoss” is of “horse” in English and it is the term currently being applied by the purists to everything they dislike about Canadien speech habits.
I wasn’t worrying much about the French aspect of the thing, though, when 1 started browsing through The Canadian Dictionary. At least the Canadiens were universally acknowledged to have a language or at any rate a dialect. This, I have always understood, is due to the preservation in isolation of antique forms of the mother tongue—rather like those hillbillies who are supposed to speak pure Eliza-
bethan English—to their vigorous invention of their own terms to describe life in the New World, and to their habit of pronouncing petit as p’tz-ee.
On the other hand, like most English-speaking Canadians 1 had sorrowfully learnt that Englishmen would unfailingly take me for American and Americans would also take me for American, though possibly from some other state (except for Bostonians who would occasionally look doubtful and ask me where exactly I’d gone to school). I had kept, however, an innocent faith that if they only had a tutored ear and some really good program notes they’d be able to tell.
Actually I couldn’t tell, myself, but 1 was sure there must be a thousand little unconscious betrayals that I would recognize instantly if they were pointed out to me and that would add up to a genuine Canadian speech—Americanized, to be sure, but subtly distinctive all the same. I was encouraged in this belief by the discovery that two such betrayals had already been widely noted. One was that you could always tell a Canadian by the way he said “house,” “about” and “ouch.” The other was that Canadians say “eh?” all the time. The Englishman, by contrast, isn’t held to say it with the same querulousness and the American isn’t held to say it at all. If two shibboleths had turned up without formal research, how many more could we hope for now that scholars were digging into the subject properly?
BLIZZARDS AND BUSYBODIES
1 had taken to saying “eh?” quite a lot, as a stopgap, so when The Canadian Dictionary put in its appearance I settled down to its English section at once with both relish and relief. The accompanying notice advised me that it contained “not only those words normally found in bilingual dictionaries of comparable size (862 pages, 60,000 entries) but those words, phrases and concepts which are uniquely Canadian and not found elsewhere.”
The foreword to the book noted that all Canadianisms (over 2,000 of them) were marked in the text with a ©.
At the very least I expected to emerge able to Say Something in Canadian — something along the lines of a couple of sentences 1 had already worked out laboriously on my own. One went, “The Mountie mushed out after freeze-up with nothing in his poke but pemmican and the makings.” The other went, “The bush pilot was a Bluenose but his tillicum was a screech-swilling bay-noddy just back from a trip to the fat, eh?” Racy. Virile, Impenetrable to anyone but your Canadian born and bred— or. as they say in Quebec, Canadien pure laine . . . which was the first thing I came across
marked © when I turned to the English section of the book.
Aside from that find, which really seemed to be out of bounds, my first harvest was a disappointment. Beaver, chokechcrry, Crown Attorney, the Eastern Townships, kayak, the National Hockey League, Maritimer, portage, Remembrance Day, tuque.
The Crown Attorney, a Maritimer, portaged his kayak, crossed the Eastern Townships wearing a tuque and munching chokecherries and joined the National Hockey League on Remembrance Day. What kind of a sentence is that?
Still, it had been a very random récolte, and a closer check might be more rewarding.
This time, aside from squaw and concession road, I seemed to come up with a government directory. My list read in part: Attorney general, Auditor General, caucus, Department of National Defense, House of Commons, Indian agent, Legislative Assembly, Secretary of State.
I did come across several good words, but they were unmistakably French. The Canadiens, ‘I gathered, had invented a special word for blizzard, la poudrerie, and for busybody, Ti-Jos connaissant. They had also come up with some catchy phrases—attendre les sauvages, for example, which is their way of saying pregnant; and passer un Québec which means to dupe someone.
A passage from Hansard began taking shape: a debate revolving around a sorry little Teepee drama that had become a public concern because of an unfortunate delay in snow removal.
Secretary of State: // lui a passé un Québec . . .
Minister of National Defense: On a concession road?
Secretary of State: Ti-Jos connaissant!
Some hon. members: Caucus! Caucus!
Still, though it might be pure Canadiana, it was not what I’d had in mind for dining out on.
Besides, I had already realized that I’d gone wrong somewhere. Both French and English ©words seemed to be scattered through both French and English sections. As I have mentioned before, I am a jotter, and all this time I had been circling and underlining the Canadianisms automatically as I came to them. The next step was obvious. If I wanted to get any real notion of my language I would have to go through the whole book compiling the flagged entries into my own list, which I could study. Actually I decided to make two lists since, if I were going to the trouble of scanning all the entries anyway, 1 might as well find out how the French were making out. It was a fateful decision.
The French list got lengthy pretty quickly. This was only to be excepted if, as I’d been assured, they had more idiomatic get-up-and-go
than we. But it included some strange entries— entries like un snack-bar, un chum, le rye, le nursing, c’est le fan; even (right there on page 48 1 ) une couple de jours.
Mon chum va par jeep à Montréal où il va passer une couple de jours buvant du rye dans un snack-bar. C’est le fun! It didn't sound Canadian or even Canadien. It sounded like an American tourist trying to make out in Paris.
I felt qualms of remorse and sorrow. We English-speakers with our national linguistic arrogance, we had a lot to answer for. it seemed. As I got still deeper into the list it looked even worse for us. Many of the terms looked less like simple French accommodations to the English of the market place than pernicious inventions of us English ourselves, foisted on our fellow countrymen with callous insensibility. Specifically they looked like the inventions of whatever high-school graduates sit in tiny back offices and make up the French messages that appear on the labels of assorted nettoyeurs, tablettes au lait de magnésie and patates chips.
How else to account for le biscuit soda, le spaghetti, les bermudas, le lard, le silex and le ginger ale? How else to account for l'O’cédar, offered seriously as a canadien equivalent for mop? And look at the samples of usage it's been thought important to include in a serious dictionary:
Ne manquez pas la sortie du modèle de l'année prochaine! Watch for next year’s model!
Demandez notre brochure! Write for our pamphlet!
Ça savon vous est offert par XYZ. This soap is a courtesy of XYZ.
It was easy to see the way things had been going.
What with shame and embarrassment it was a while, therefore, before I noticed that my English list was shaping up pretty strangely too. All sorts of extremely unlikely words seemed to be labeled Canadianisms. Etc., for example, and TV channel, crossword puzzle, cold sore, socks, godfather and godmother, coat hanger, sweetheart, safety deposit box, wedding ring. Wedding ring?
MY FIRST GLIMPSE OF THE REAL TRUTH
1 have a cold sore from leaving my socks etc. in the safety deposit box with my sweetheart’s wedding ring . . . and so on. It hasn't any sort of authentic sound.
My immediate thought was that in some editorial saw-off it had been agreed to bring a skimpy English list somewhere up near the length of the French one. These would be makeweights, then.
My first glimpse of the real truth didn’t come until I'd worked my way right through to page 807 and the word toboggan, la traine sauvage. La trahie sauvage was marked with a © but toboggan, mysteriously, was not. I turned back to trahie in the French section just to make sure we'd been given credit there.
We had not.
I checked with Webster’s dictionary, which firmly identified toboggan as “Can.” I checked with Chamber’s Twentieth Century Dictionary, which said it came from a Micmac word. The Encyclopaedia Britannica said the Micmacs had lived in Nova Scotia and northern New Brunswick. The encycloCONTINUED ON PAGE 50
CONTINUED ON PAGE 50
DOES ANYBODY HERE SPEAK CANADIAN? continued from page 25
Baby bonus, parka and screech aren’t listed at all — and they call this a Canadian dictionary!
paedia agreed that toboggan was a Micmac word. I phoned several academic friends who all concurred: toboggan was a Canadianism pure laine.
I grew very thoughtful. After a while 1 bestirred myself and got busy.
Although I’ve had only the meagre resources at present available to an amateur Canadian linguist — besides my elaborate
analysis of the internal evidence, of course —I have now succeeded in uncovering the main strategy and the more important tactics.
What stands revealed is undoubtedly a Separatist plot. (Significant in itself is the fact that the word Separatist appears nowhere in the dictionary.) It is moreover a plot whose stunning scope is only exceed-
ed by its bold simplicity. The secessionist business is a smokescreen; what these boys aim to do is take over Canada. And they aim to do it by spooking us out of any notion that we belong here. The Canadian Dictionary is the first step, designed to suggest that whatever we speak it isn’t Canadian. The next step will be to prove that wherever we live it isn’t the true Can-
ada and whatever our history it doesn’t belong in the real Canadian story. And once They’ve got all the rights to Canadianism there'll be nothing left for the rest of us to do but join the States or throw in with the Doukhobors and move to Brazil.
Once you know what to look for, the design is obvious. For example, I have listed a number of important words, manifestly Canadian, that are listed but deliberately not flagged with a ©. The enormity will be plain when I say that they include reserve (our word for what Americans call an Indian reservation), prairies. Bluenose, bush pilot, Socred, wapiti, and family allowance!
Baby bonus is not listed at all. In fact the next item in my indictment is a list of utter omissions. The treachery can be gauged by mention of even a few of them, viz.: Arctic char, bluelinc, flying wing, malemute, massasauga rattler, mukluk, mush, outport, parka, pemmican, point blanket, saltchuck, saskatoon, screech (the Newfoundland liquor), squid-jigging, tumplin, wendigo and zombie. You’d hardly think they’d have dared go so far.
But omission is only the crudest ploy. Properly read, the dictionary is almost the outline for a textbook of psychological warfare, subliminal division.
Start with the ethnic adjectives. The entries under British, britannique, English and anglais, totaled together, take up only thirty-eight lines. French and français, however, manage to appropriate 101. A good part of the space is given over to an unlikely catalogue of effects to which the adjective French has arbitrarily been attached. They include something called the French curve, as well as French bristles, French knitting, French mussels, French pork, French rice, French walnuts and French wheat. FAcn the Russians never tried to say they'd invented knitting.
There are signs that the Russians will shortly have rivals at editing history, too. Areas of vital interest to the French, like Orangeman and Jehovah’s Witness, are scrupulously listed; but one looks in vain for Doukhobor or Freedomite. For that matter, the BNA Act. well buried among the examples under “act,” is not even marked Canadian.
As for geography: though the names of a good number of the United States arc entered, there is no sign at all of Saskatchewan or Alberta. In fact the prairies are scarcely mentioned except for a sentence demonstrating usage that reads, “He has been sick right from Winnipeg.” Significantly, most of the action in these illustrative sentences takes place in and around Montreal.
Perhaps the tactic I resent most is a faint, cunning distortion of the way F.ng-
lish-Canadians speak, designed to make us sound lubberly. This, too. is to be found in the illustrative sentences: "The club will host the Canadiens.” we're supposed to say. and “He's an excellent French-speaker.” The suggestion is allowed to arise that we use "striker” interchangeably with “batter” in baseball, and that w'e talk a lot about "1 he Frozen North.”
But the most devilish twist is one that so far I only suspect. If I'm right, they have carefully planted, as equivalents of harmless Fnglish words. French ones whose real meaning could be. well, almost anything. All I have to go on is that “kibitzer" is rendered in the Fnglish section as un écornifleur but ÉCORNIFLEUR IS NOT GIVEN IN THE FRENCH SECTION. I know that I, personally, would not now care to try calling anyone a kibitzer, in French, in public.
Actually 1 think 1 am right, because it’s just the sort of exquisite refinement he'd think of. I say “he” because, though the plan is undoubtedly the plan of The Organization. I believe this particular project was a one-man operation.
1 believe he was a petty clerk in the editorial office, scarcely noticed by the forty-odd assorted linguists, editors and translators who. we are told, actually compiled the dictionary.
Of course, he’d have been planted there, and night after night he’d creep back to make his carefully planned changes on the filing cards, undoing or distorting each day’s work . . .
You see, I feel I almost know him by now. For willy-nilly, perhaps through Freudian slips or perhaps from the jeering impulse to add a signature to his work, he has let slip quite a lot. It's all there in those illustrative sentences, now in French, now in English.
He lives in Montreal, of course. (J'habite Montréal) and he is married (Je vous présente ma femme). He resents having to live on a clerk’s wages (I’m badly off for shirts); and I somehow picture him as both pale £md thin-lipped (Morals have grown lax!). In fact there is a displeasing note of sanctimony (While I like coffee, I don’t have it with every meal). He disapproves of smoking (Le tabac vous est contraire) . . . and women (She is wearing a flashy outfit). Above all he has a scarce-
ly concealed air of grievance (Try as I would, the car just wouldn't start . . . There’s something wrong with the TV . . . My watch gains two minutes every day . . . European-made plugs do not fit Canadian appliances . . . Tout va mal!).
You can understand how a man like that might become a zealot.
As I see it. now that we know the enemy there are three courses we can choose. The first is capitulation. We can go on as we have been doing, more interested in the Civil War than we are in the Riel Rebellion. learning to say district attorney instead of crown attorney, picking our TV shows according to the Nielsen ratings. Sooner or later we’ll have forgotten about the flying wing and by that time we’ll be content to resign Canadianism to Them.
The second course is bold.
I have a plan that 1 believe would work, and if it did we could conquer Canada for ourselves. The idea is to turn the tables by taking over Their language, or at least the most distinctive parts of it. All we’d have to do is to get used to a slightly different w'ord order, assign masculine and feminine gender to all our nouns, and conjugate our verbs along lines that are, after all. ridiculously easy. We would have a unique language, comprehensible to Britons, Americans and continental French alike, but at the same time proudly Canadian. Furthermore we should simply have digested Them in the process. And the means—in fact a complete blueprint—already exists. I have consulted Le Petit Dictionnaire du "Jouai" and IT'S ALL THERE:. Indeed I can say without hesitation, ‘‘Ils sont wide open. Si nous avons du push, nous devons winner sur le spot."
But perhaps after all the idea is too bold.
The best plan may well be the third one. It is to hold on grimly until 1965, when that massive historical Dictionary of Canadianisms is expected to appear. There will be no bilingual nonsense about it. and the basic research w’as done by a genuine American. If he says there’s a Canadian language — and if he’s really got 20,000 entries to prove it, as advertised — we’ll have something to work with.
And then we can highstick those peasoupers.