Another in a series of postings on CBC captioning (also see the separate page on the topic)

We return now to our ongoing consideration of the exact ways in which CBC is screwing up its captioning. (There’s a whole list, which explains the numerous and ongoing postings.) Today it’s something so basic we shouldn’t even have to talk about it: Spelling.

Did you know the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation uses British spellings in the captioning it creates? Well, it does: -ize words become -ise words and -our remains -our. I am not sure how the echt-Canadian concept of snow tires would be rendered. Snow tyres doesn’t make all that much sense, does it? But nothing here does.

I don’t know how to explain this to people who are so resistant to reality, but there actually is such a thing as Canadian spelling and it is, in fact, different from U.S. and U.K. spelling in that it combines elements of both.

Canadian U.S. U.K.
colour color colour
organize organize organise
travelling traveling travelling

Yes, we use a combination of -ize (American) and -our (British) spellings. Specific words may derive from either source – tire (around a wheel; American), metre (SI unit; British), cheque (used in banking; British). Our quotation-mark rules are American, not British. (That means double then single and periods and commas inside, never outside.)

I’m sorry if this news shocks you and I’m also sorry if you think that Canada is “too small” to have its own orthography. It isn’t. We are historically influenced by both the United States and the United Kingdom and it shows in our spelling. Pure-American and pure-British spellings are incorrect in Canadian English, though in nearly all cases all spellings are equally intelligible to readers of any nationality. (Exceptions are archaisms like gaol. A rare word like foetus [or, worse yet, fœtus] might be disturbing to an American reader.)

Now, since time does not stand still in language usage, of course there are native writers of Canadian English who use all-American or all-British spellings. Of course there are. But we also have American English and British English speakers in Canada, and nobody would make the mistake of calling their speech output Canadian English. Exceptions are exceptions, not rules.

A more common exception in this context is someone who’s halfway there in usage of Canadian spellings; of the common trends, the one that people tend to ignore is the double-L in words like travelling. They’ll still write organize with a Z (not a “zee”; only Americans call it that) and colour with a U, but they draw the line at double-L. Maybe they’re right; maybe that is an archaism too.

While the outliers on the bell curve may merit curiosity and even discussion, the facts of Canadian orthography are just that: Facts. The dominant and accepted spellings are -ize/-our/-ll-. Try checking the dictionary (e.g., Canadian Oxford) or any well-edited publication. Just try it. Fact-check my arse.

Oh, hell, let me do it for you. Canadian Oxford, second edition:


Some Canadians mistakenly believe that the -ise spelling for this suffix is the “Canadian” spelling because they are aware that Americans use only the -ize variant and that the British now prefer the -ise variant. However, this British preference is only recent…. The vast majority of Canadians who do use the -ize spellings are therefore following not American practice but former British practice and longstanding Canadian practice.

(-our is a tougher case, being listed as “var. of -or suriviving in some nouns [ardour; colour; valour],” all of which are the preferred spellings in the dictionary, and separately as “var. of -or [saviour].” It may be a vestige, but it’s the vestige we use. The considerably worse Gage Canadian Dictionary merely says “In Canada, both spellings are acceptable but -our is the more frequent”; ditto -ize. And in case you’re wondering, dictionary titles are conventionally not italicized.)

So what spelling do CBC’s in-house captioners use?


Why? God only knows, but I have a theory.

CBC hires from a candidate pool that was never interested in captioning at the outset. (I suppose all offline captioners hire from such a pool.) According to a report, a reasonably capable high-school student could pass CBC’s “proofreading” test. There simply isn’t anyone on staff with training in linguistics or etymology.

You’d think English majors would have useful knowledge, but in fact they are actually a problem here, and their problem inevitably projects itself on the entire department: They feel superior to their own language. These veddy, veddy important university graduates are concerned with Literature, with the Gloryes of the Englishe Tongue as she is Spoke, hence they have an irresistible urge to align themselves with the upper-class twits who deigned to teach us English in the first place. They conveniently forget the fact that they taught us 400 years ago and a lot has changed since then. They are, at root, colonial.

The thinking on the sixth floor of the CBC Broadcasting Centre goes like this, as far as I can tell: We have to settle on some kind of spelling system here, and the CBC can hardly be seen to use American spellings, so let’s be safe and use British. But using British spellings for Canadian English isn’t “safe”; it’s marginal at best and, under any rational application, wrong most of the time. In their ignorance or denial of the fact of Canadian spelling, they opt for the prestige approach. Let’s go Westminster! they think, if they even know what or where Westminster is.

So we watch promos for CFL football and Ottawa Senators hockey games written in British English. Native speakers like David Suzuki read like the Prince of Wales. (I’m still working up some screenshots for you.)

Ask a lexicographer!

I attended a presentation by Oxford Canadian/Canadian Oxford Dictionary editrix Katherine Barber on 2005.01.28 and specifically asked her about the usage of British English in CBC captioning. Her response? “I really don’t think there’s anything sinister going on at the CBC. They’re just too cheap to buy a Canadian dictionary.”

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.08.22 14:35. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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