On a recent trip to China, my grandmother asked for the
“washroom”. There were confused stares all around–washroom? Did she
want to do some laundry? It turned out that in China, people use the
British term “toilet”. My grandma thought it was hilarious, because for
us, the toilet is the fixture inside the room, not the room itself.*
So why do we say “washroom” and people in China say “toilet”? Aren’t we an ex-British colony, after all? Well, it was a while ago. Canada became a country in 1867. We’ve since had much more influence from the United States. As a result, much is made in Canadian culture–some of it legitimate, most of it hyperbole–of our supposedly low self-image in comparison with the US. On our darker days, it’s like we’re their friendly yet provincial cousins.
The US is our closest neighbour. It’s also an economic superpower and, according to many, cultural imperialist. From the programs that our TV stations air, to social customs and the way we conduct business, right down to the way we speak, we are really a lot more ‘American’ than some would care to admit. If I compare an hour of American TV to an hour of, say, Coronation Street, it’s the latter that I won’t understand–and I don’t mean the accents. Of course, that’s also partly an effect of the American culture that gets beamed into our lives everyday by the media, but that’s another issue. (“Ish-oo”, not “iss-you”.)
Our school books and style guides always point out the main differences between Canadian versus American spelling–an obvious example is that we don’t drop the “u” in words like colour, favourite, and neighbour. Many of us wear our Canadian spelling like a badge of honour, as if British English were incontrovertible. The same goes for pronunciation. For some proud Canadians, the last letter of the alphabet is “zed”, not “zee”, and Data should be a “leff-tenant” commander, not a “loo-tenant” commander.**
But for every instance that Canadians follow British English, I can point to a way that we write, and speak, like Americans. Is it dialled or dialed? Both are acceptable. As with Americans, if we take a trip to an exotic place, it’s a vacation, not a holiday. And in grammar, we have a few notable instances where we don’t follow the British rules. For example, we say that apples are different from oranges, not different to. Regarding punctuation, we’re like Americans again: the serial comma is standard (unless you’re a journalist).
Sadly, many believe that our national identity is inextricable from notions of how American we are or aren’t, and that includes our language. Our English (one of our national languages, the other being French–which is also ridiculed for being a ‘bastardised’ version of true French) is an inconsistent hybrid of British and American, with some indigenous Canadianisms thrown in. A curious mix, but it sounds about right. I think it’s more productive to accept that an American influence on Canadian culture–and language–is inevitable. Outside the field of linguistics, there’s no need to get hung up over British versus American English. As long as you: a) adhere to a standard, and b) can be understood, what does anything else matter? Vive la différence!
* Definitely an Americanism. It’s why advertisers say “tissue paper” and “bathroom tissue” instead of “toilet paper”. I’m waiting for the day when even the bathroom fixture itself will no longer be called a “toilet”. When it happens, I’ll make like Reservoir Dogs and call it a commode.
** But even Picard said “loo-tenant”. Does everyone speak American English in the 24th century? Or maybe it’s Earth English?