LINGUIST List 32.815

Thu Mar 04 2021

Review: English; General Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Dollinger (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 06-Sep-2020
From: David Robertson <>
Subject: Creating Canadian English
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Stefan Dollinger
TITLE: Creating Canadian English
SUBTITLE: The Professor, the Mountaineer, and a National Variety of English
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: David Douglas Robertson, University of Victoria


(xviii + 283 pp.) Here is a book that engages with the process, or processes, by which the landmark Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles was conceived, organized, and created. In the telling of this highly specific history, Stefan Dollinger finds occasion for substantial meditations on broader social issues that are too often left unaddressed by lexicographers.

The Preface (xiii-ix) encapsulates this book's purview: an “intellectual history of...the creation of a Canadian variety of descriptive linguists”. It intends to communicate across linguists' “silos”, and to a broad public to show how lexicography works. (Thus the book is amply illustrated, including simple data tables.) Acknowledgments follow (xiv-xvi). “A Note to the International Reader” (xvii) notes North American English usage conventions used.

Chapter 1 tackles the animating question behind the research documented here: “What is Canadian English?” (1-33). Dollinger's response to this expansive enquiry is to enumerate various matters entailed by it. There have been languages spoken in Canada for millennia before any sort of English was, by cultures massively impinged upon by its arrival and expansion. The value is noted of recognizing that English brought a linguistic culture which presumed hitherto alien ideas, e.g. that written treaties gave new rights to White newcomers, whereas First Nations assumed themselves to be merely agreeing to share resources. Issues internal to Canadian English include its often insufficient acknowledgement of diversity and the extraordinarily slow development of a national and linguistic self-image. A shifting target due to ongoing immigration's effects, Canadian English speakers also long saw British English as the standard and only worthy object of study – one powerful effect of colonialism Dollinger points out. A “Big Six” of 20th-century North American gradually influenced scholarly and public opinion towards curiosity about, and pride in, English as spoken in Canada, leading to the milestone achievement of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP), editions 1 and 2.

Chapter 2 “The Heritage of Canadian English” (35-63) shows how limited research on Canadian English was for the first several decades of the country's modern existence. One slim dictionary of Westernisms and an elementary volume (more a spelling guide) were virtually everything produced until mid-20th century, when an undereducated American employee on a dictionary of Americanisms, Charles Lovell, privately catalogued Canadianisms. Though he is, ironically, the father of Canadian English, several female researchers (Helen Munroe, Joan Hall, Faith Avis, etc.), influentially contributed to the nascent field. But it was Lovell's slip files that became the nucleus of the first great Canadian dictionary. His independent, driven life receives attentive examination, illuminating his too short but stellar career.

Chapter 3, “Avis Pulls It Off” (65-85), tells Walter Avis' crucial role in seeing DCHP to completion. Like Lovell, Avis was rather an outsider, a former soldier whose career was spent teaching at the Royal Military College, not a mainstream academic department. Yet he was trained at Upper Midwest US universities, a hotbed of intellectual ferment in English linguistics, by luminaries like Hans Kurath and Charles Fries. Having already gained a solid research reputation, Avis was a natural candidate to approach to take over DCHP editorship upon Lovell's untimely death. His duties on this overdue and financially straitened project inevitably encompassed much of the data collection; it seems overwork led to his health problems and a shortened lifespan, as with Lovell.

With Chapter 4 “The 'Technology': Slips, Slips, and More Slips” (87-116), Dollinger interrupts the historical narrative with an excursus into dictionary-making. His subsection title intentionally busts myths: “Dictionaries are Written, Not Edited”. He goes on to explain how lexicographers' data collecting necessarily involves much evaluation: What qualifies as a Canadianism? As a reliable source for a given word? As an appropriate example quotation? As the word's most plausible history? Photos of DCHP file slips and documentation sheets illustrate these points. Further discussion clarifies the great deal of organizing entailed in delegating work among contributors, from data collecting to drafting sections of the final product.

Chapter 5 “1967 – Excitement and Hype” (119-141) carefully educates readers about how amazing it was for DCHP to emerge in print after just 13 years' formal work. Examples of dictionaries delayed by decades support this point. DCHP's unique challenge, of justifying the Canadianness of every entry, is examined. Measures of success in terms of reception and sales are tabulated, with the added observation that DCHP-1 was so widely praised as to discourage critical reviews.

Chapter 6 “Riding the Wave of Success” (143-161) is a take on DCHP's fortunes following 1967. Multiple published revisions originally foreseen did not materialize, although for the same financial reasons an abridged edition aimed at a broader, budget-conscious audience did. Additional misfortunes included the relatively early deaths of the main researchers of Canadian English and powerful shifts in linguistic research towards sociolinguistic and Chomskyan approaches, away from lexicography.

Chapter 7, “A Global Village and a National Dictionary War” (163-195), shows how the 1980s saw a rising concept of Global Englishes, influenced by Braj Kachru's recognition of Inner Circle Englishes (those of countries where English is typically taught as L1) versus Outer and Expanding Circles. Canadian English, just as scholars were codifying it distinctly from British and US standards, was thus re-lumped into the world standard, as against newer, under researched varieties. Simultaneously, a common perception among scholars and laypeople that Canadian was indistinguishable from, and dominated by, US English similarly dampened research and publishing. Market competition stiffened as well, impelling Canadian dictionary publishers to new, not always accurate counts of the sheer quantity of Canadianisms that their products contained. Canadian dictionary-making became a declining business.

Chapter 8, “Decolonizing DCHP-1 and DCHP-2” (197-217), reevaluates the two editions of this landmark dictionary in the context of Canada's history of unquestioned domination by a European, particularly an English-speaking, ruling stratum. Dollinger looks at the degrees to which these projects have had awareness of issues of ethnic relations and identity, and responded to them by imparting such awareness to readers. The second edition has wound up adding disclaimers to many of DCHP-1's ethnic-related entries, particularly those on First Nations, to indicate that many such terms are more or less unacceptable in civil discourse, being predicated on both an imbalanced power dynamic and an insensitivity to minorities' wants and needs. Substantial examples are provided, including entries with “Eskimo”, “Indian”, and “residential school”.

The book finishes with Chapter 9, “Is There Really a Canadian English?” (219-244). The point here is that Canadians have never ceased both doubting, on some level, whether the answer can be “yes”, and on another, marveling that they seem to suddenly have a noticeably distinct dialect or dialects. An ongoing tension rives the national psyche, between wanting to claim a national identity and fearing overinflating what can seem like a collection of small differences from the US and Britain. The author muses on the ensuing vexed question of why Canadian English is not taught in schools, concluding that it remains up to Canadians themselves what to do with their recent discovery of a standard national language.

The book closes with information relevant to each chapter, both a section of Notes (245-255) and suggestions for Further Reading (256-258), as well as a Bibliography (259-273) and a General Index (274-283).


Dollinger's style stays conversational, inviting the educated lay reader in and keeping them engaged by eschewing most technical terminology (any that he uses shows up first in shock quotes and with plain definitions) and by giving what I might call a healthy dose of gossip. That is, he wisely humanizes the figures involved in his bit of scientific history at every turn, showing them as individuals with definite quirks and troubles, and taking these qualities seriously as likely motivators of their career paths. He also engages his target national audience with quite a number of in-group references that will be all but invisible to the non-Canadian reader – quite a feat, as he is an Austrian immigrant. (For instance, on page 37 he speaks of traveling “coast to coast to coast”, i.e. Arctic to Atlantic to Pacific, a phrase common enough in Canada but absent in, say, the US.) His tone overall is well calculated to hold the attention of those readers who stand to learn the most from what he is reporting.

Another highly laudable feature of this book, worthy of sustained discussion in this review, is its consciousness of Canada's multiethnic history and present. Dollinger's overt discussion of the effects on Canadian English of coexisting ethnolects, and of serious social inequalities among groups, is exemplary and it bodes well for future research that will idealize (simplify) linguistic facts less. His strategy of foregrounding First Nations concerns by starting the book with them and periodically returning to them provides a continuity of context that enriches the significance of this volume.

One example of how Dollinger integrates Indigenous and lexicographic concerns is in his discussion (pages 92ff) of the decision to omit all First Nations place and personal names from DCHP-1. This was partly in order to conserve space, and in fairness an entire separate volume was projected to present the sidelined material. But that publication never happened, and the dictionary-reading public was left with a work that drastically underrepresented the presence of “Indian” words in Canadian English. The author indeed could fairly have added further nuance to this topic by informing readers that such decisions need not be entirely due to a colonialist mentality; it is typical of dictionaries as a genre to purposefully omit names, despite the demonstrable fact that a great deal of spoken language consists of them.

Another praiseworthy strand of Indigenous acknowledgment in this volume is Dollinger's repeated involvement of topics related to Chinook Jargon (Chinuk Wawa; CW), the pidgin-creole main medium of interethnic communication in British Columbia and elsewhere from the first decades of European contact. The Canadianism “cheechako” 'newcomer' appears early (33, 39), as does the Tlingit-derived “hootch” 'homebrew; any alcoholic drink' (85). We also find “Stick” 'northern interior BC Indigenous people' (94). The section on the derivation of “Canuck” 'Canadian person' from the Polynesian word “kanaka” (97-98) is a fine contribution showing that this word, contrary to some linguistic folklore, is actually unlikely to have come via CW's borrowing of it. Similarly valuable is the background information on DCHP-1 collaborator Douglas Leechman's earlier research on CW (115, 152); little of this has been previously known. Page 133 quotes the pithy accolade of DCHP-1 in a Vancouver newspaper: “This is a skookum book.”

To summarize, “Creating Canadian English” provides us with a highly competent and readable story, diligently researched in archives and by interviews, written by a scholar working in Canada, in nuanced Canadian English, that all audiences should find is a helpful introduction to its subject and a clear call for further community-involved efforts. I rate it highly.


David Douglas Robertson PhD is a consulting linguist who specializes in Pacific Northwest tribal language work, particularly Salish and Chinuk Wawa.

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