Literature in English: Language and Literary Form

Canadian writers, if they were going to represent their own ENVIRONMENT and experience realistically, needed to be able to refer appropriately to local flora, fauna, place-names and events, and to use local vocabulary unapologetically (SeeENGLISH LANGUAGE).
Canadian writers, if they were going to represent their own ENVIRONMENT and experience realistically, needed to be able to refer appropriately to local flora, fauna, place-names and events, and to use local vocabulary unapologetically (SeeENGLISH LANGUAGE).

Literature in English: Language and Literary Form

Canadian writers, if they were going to represent their own ENVIRONMENT and experience realistically, needed to be able to refer appropriately to local flora, fauna, place-names and events, and to use local vocabulary unapologetically (SeeENGLISH LANGUAGE). Words such as "moose" and "Medicine Hat," which once had been automatically comic because they transgressed English conventions of verbal propriety, became legitimate to use in LITERATURE. FIRST NATIONS words ("igloo," "muskeg"), borrowings from FRENCH ("tuque," "gopher," "dep"), adaptations of English ("separate schools," "Winnipeg couch," "elected by acclamation in the riding of ___"), REGIONALISMS ("slough," "lakehead," "Bluenose"), words surviving from Trade languages such as CHINOOK ("skookum"), and vernacular cadences all became accepted during the 19th century. So did "standard" Canadian spelling, which some commentators continue to call a mix of British and American practices but which can more accurately be seen as a consistent third alternative that developed in Canadian SCHOOLS and PUBLISHING houses, and in tandem to American practice.

The advent of RADIO in the mid-20th century solidified a sense of the Canadian accent. In DRAMA, for instance, a conventional mid-Atlantic accent gave way to local speech sounds, more conventionally heard in sports broadcasts or news interviews. While numerous variants mark regional speech patterns (in Newfoundland, the Ottawa Valley, or rural Alberta, for example), Canadian speech in general is distinctive, and is distinguishable from American both by lexical terms and by the pronunciation of diphthongs before voiceless consonants (as in the words "out," "white," and "house"). The dominant vocabulary remains "international English," neither so highly localized as to impede communication nor different enough to require readers outside the culture to recognize the need to adjust to it. Not to recognize the implications of local usage in a given literary work does, however, limit full appreciation of its character.

By the early 21st century, more attention was being given to the large number of First Nations languages and their complexities. Some writing began to build words from MICHIF (the MÉTIS language) into English. Shifting immigration patterns also brought a range of additional non-English borrowings into everyday Canadian English usage. Among them are numerous food terms, words associated with music and dance ("bhangra"), and terms related to philosophies of balance and place ("chi," "feng shui"). Various festivals that accompanied IMMIGRATION settlement patterns--among them Vaisakhi, Caribana, and Nowruz--became, in certain parts of the country, as much a shared part of Canadian secular cultural celebration as CHRISTMAS or THANKSGIVING.

The literary forms that writers chose also expressed a changing understanding of the connection between words and the world they represent or convey. For, many early 19th century long poems took narrative form, constructing "history" as "story," while many late 20th century forms of POETRY (as well as story sequences, plays, and such long poems as those by Robert KROETSCH and bp NICHOL), are discontinuous in form, presenting the passage of time not as a linear phenomenon but as a series of discrete, though intersecting, perceptions. Whereas earlier poems and SHORT FICTION establish the writer (or, generally, the narrator) as omniscient, the controller of story-telling, later ones, often "metatextual" or self-referential, call upon both writer and reader to be active agents, interconnecting with the characters and the text. The omniscience conveys a sense of a unified world, one shared by writer and reader alike. The discontinuity emphasizes fragmentariness and the bias of understanding, often pointing to the existence of a "subtext" or alternative to the values of received traditions and conventions. Related distinctions separate the form of the earnest 19th century historical NOVEL from the more obviously ironic and postmodern forms of late 20th century fictional reconstructions of history.

In the later 20th century, some poets and novelists openly challenged what they considered the hegemony of conventional English grammar and style. The translation of Nicole BROSSARD's fictions, which constituted in part a critique of gender hierarchies in French usage, led a number of feminist writers to adapt her arguments to English language practices and social behaviours, criticizing the sets of unexamined values that lay behind "standard" notions of official grammar and stylistic harmony. Other writers dismissed stylistic conventions on political and psycho-therapeutic grounds, and others still adapted short electronic language styles (texting, tweeting) to contemporary narrative.

Numerous techniques have been used to imply the validity of various "marginal" stories, or regional, ETHNIC and sexual alternatives (SeeHOMOSEXUALITY) to conventional norms. Besides the discontinuous series, these include allegory, folktale, the fractured frame story, parodic humour and the ironic "embedded story" or mise-en-scène. As early as the mid-18th century, Donnchadh Ruadh MacConmara wrote English/Irish Gaelic macaronics to oppose colonial rule, one language affirming a public or official statement, the second language covertly undercutting it. Several contemporary poets (Robert BRINGHURST, Lola Lemire TOSTEVIN) also wrote across languages, variously producing bilingual texts, employing polyvocal strategies, "code-switching," and "multivoicedness." Child figures in Canadian literature frequently embody a promise of some alternative to received history, and in many respects CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, ranging from nonsense verse (itself an implicit counter to standard convention) to life sagas (in novels for young adults) enacts such possibilities.Humour in Canadian literature (SeeHUMOROUS WRITING IN ENGLISH), often addressing serious subjects, appears more often in asides and understatement than in broad farce, and more often in sketch comedy, mimicry, parody, and satire than in slapstick. It is evident both in narrative sketch, as in the prose of T.C. HALIBURTON, Stephen LEACOCK, Will FERGUSON, and Drew Hayden TAYLOR, and in the work of several successful stage, radio, and television performers and comic troupes (from MY FUR LADY, Dr. Bundolo, and CODCO to Second City, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, and Saturday Night Live).

Many writers became highly conscious that what distinguished them and their community was not the tale they told but the manner of telling it. By documenting local experience and using the local voice, they fostered regional and national culture. Newfoundland writers such as E.J. PRATT drew on a tall-tale tradition; Prairie writers such as Robert Kroetsch on an anecdotal tradition; B.C. writers such as Jack HODGINS on the exaggerations of everyday life (related to but different from South American "magic realism"); and Ontario writers such as Margaret ATWOOD and Robertson DAVIES on a laconic interplay between irony and moral orderliness. Much of the force of their style derives from their control over regional cadence, which is as important as literal meaning insofar as it reveals the inner motivations of the characters and the social context.

Critical commentary has also identified several subgenres common in Canadian literature. The animal story, for instance, constitutes one feature of early 20th century writing, as in the prose of Sir Charles G.D. ROBERTS and Ernest Thompson SETON, and has been read both as realism and as fantasy. The "composite short story" form (or sequence or cycle) appeared early and continues to appeal, partly for the way it balances competing perspectives rather than determines a single conclusion, and for how it communicates by juxtaposition rather in a simple linear manner. Poetry of place, whether published or in performance, ranges from lyrics of pictorial appreciation to ecological affirmation to inquiries into the nature of identity-in-space. Novels range from epistolary and historical romance to mythic and stream-of-consciousness revelations. Certain POPULAR forms, or "genre fictions," often considered passive forms of entertainment-- the Harlequin romance, the mystery, the science fiction or speculative narrative--also attempted to convey complex insights into behaviour. In the hands of writers as innovative as Peter ROBINSON, William Deverell, and William GIBSON, these, too, invite psycho-social analysis. Late 20th century writers were drawn to the numerous forms of what came to be called "creative non-fiction," among them narrative history, travel, ecocriticism, science writing, and life writing in its various forms, including what George BOWERING calls "autobiology" (SeeAUTOBIOGRAPHICAL WRITING IN ENGLISH; BIOGRAPHY IN ENGLISH).

Like Canadian speech itself (with its widespread dependence on litotes--the "negative positive," such as not unlikely), narrative method is often indirect in Canadian writing (modes of parable and allegory are common); narrators usually hide their true feelings or possess limited understanding of events around them; and the oblique or implied meanings are richer and more instructive than the obvious ones. The obliqueness of irony - a dominant literary mode - invites readers not to accept narrative literally or superficially, but to listen for more sophisticated implications. "Documentary," for example (a frequently used literary pattern), initially suggests that it conveys "truth." But documentary takes several generic forms, from historical report and narrative sketch to drama and long poem, and the effect is more subjective than the word "documentary" implies: the glimpses of history that such works offer are also records of cultural and personal bias. In them, "history" is implicitly a fictional structure, a process of perceiving hierarchies of value and of constructing legends to encapsulate what these values imply.


Further Reading

  • Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, eds., Guide to Canadian English Usage (2007); W.H. New, A History of Canadian Literature (2nd ed., 2003); W.H. New, ed., Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (2002)