Writer in Residence

Canadian English and His Relatives

By Pamela Mordecai

Back to our English. Having raised the question of how old he is, and mused about how we decide, we now consider his relatives. Perhaps we should begin with great-grandma.

Our English, we know, is Canadian, and a true descendant of the original Mother Tongue, who is old and shrouded in mystery. As long ago as 1857, the Philological Society of London decided that existing dictionaries of this grand maternal fore-parent were incomplete, and that her pedigree should properly be accounted for. However, it was only in 1879 that the Society made an agreement with Oxford University Press and James A. H. Murray to begin work on a NEW ENGLISH DICTIONARY, as it was then called. That dictionary – a proper birth certificate, if you wish – was not available to the world until April, 1928, when the last portion of it was published.

It appeared under the name, A NEW ENGLISH DICTIONARY ON HISTORICAL PRINCIPLES, and contained 414, 825 words. It was, presumably, historical because it used 1,827,306 quotations to help define its 414,825 words. Many thousands of these came from a brilliant, wealthy American Civil War veteran, Dr. W.C. Minor, who was imprisoned in a cell at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum for killing an innocent man. The story of Dr Minor, how he came to be in Broadmoor, and his involvement with the making of the dictionary and so with Professor Murray is the subject of an absorbing book, Simon Winchester’s THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN.

So. We know about our English’s maternal ancestor, but what about his brothers and sisters? To begin with, how do we know when a language is in the English family? How do we decide when it’s English and when it’s not? It’s a real question. For example, linguists disagree about whether African American Vernacular English (known by several other names, including Black Vernacular English) is a Creole, rather than English. If it’s English, it’s a son or daughter of American English, but maybe there was some hanky-panky, and it’s not an English at all! It happens in the best-regulated families!

It appears that there is a further disruption in the existing household, if I’m to believe AskOxford.com It seems we are now to speak of a family of Englishes, varieties of the language that are related to one another, but we are no longer to regard them as children of the British parent. That’s commendably egalitarian, but it leaves the Englishes of the world as orphans, and is hardly fair. Sort of like the Mother Tongue saying, ”You’re all grown up now, independent, with papers to prove it, so you get on out of the house and look after yourselves. Don’t bother call me if you find yourself in any crosses!”

Well, at least we can get to know our siblings better. During the 1980s and 1990s, five dictionaries that provide information about regional Englishes appeared: THE AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL DICTIONARY (1988); A DICTIONARY OF SOUTH AFRICAN ENGLISH ON HISTORICAL PRINCIPLES (1996); A DICTIONARY OF CARIBBEAN USAGE (1996); THE CANADIAN OXFORD DICTIONARY (1997); and The DICTIONARY OF NEW ZEALAND ENGLISH (1998).

I can’t see why they’re calling these languages by the English surname, if they have no parent, but at least us bredren and sistren all over the world can keep in touch and get to know one another. Not a bad ting!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Pamela Mordecai has been many things: a teacher, a trainer of teachers, a TV host, a diplomatic wife, an anthologist, a writer of poems, stories and textbooks for children, and a writer of criticism, fiction, poetry and plays for those challenged by age. Born and raised in Jamaica, educated there and in the U.S.A., Pam has lived in Toronto for the past 15 years.