Treatyse of the friynge of fysshe, and dyvers othere stuffe
Several weeks back, to supplement their Grade Four studies in medieval history, I introduced my daughters to the first English-language work on sport-fishing, The Treatise of Fishing with an Angle, also known as “the treatyse of fysshynge wyth an Angle.”
“Wow,” said the daughter named out of Walton’s Compleat Angler, “those people sure were crazy spellers!”
“They just made it up as they went along,” I said. “They even spelled the very same words all kinds of different ways.”
And without much effort, we found the inconsistent author of the Treatise arguing that “dowteles thenne folowyth it that [the best of sports] must nedes be the dysporte of fysshynge wyth an angle. For all other manere of fysshyng is also laborous and greuous.”
“Wow,” said daughter. “That is ca-razy.”
“No it isn’t,” said I. “Verily fysshynge is the beste of dysportes.”
“Not that. I mean that he can’t even spell fysshynge!”
Oh, that. Well, spelling hadn’t been invented yet. At the time of the first printed edition of the Treatise (1496), publishing was in crisis. The Bible had been wrested from the grip of the French-speaking aristocracy and translated into English. Sir Thomas Malory, who couldn’t decide if his own name was spelled Malory, Maillorie, Mallory, Mallery, or Maleore, had just self-published a whacking great book called Le Morte d’Arthur – in English. And other people were, for the first time, writing in English on such culturally important subjects as fysshynge for dysporte – that is, anglynge, angelynge, angleyng, or the modern “angling.”
It was as if someone had suddenly invented the Internet.
All this new writing in English demanded all kinds of new words. The language exploded in scope and subtlety. This was the birth of English culture as we know it.
Someone is always ready to declare our culture mortally threatened by our inability to spell. It probably goes back to Thag the caveman, who inspected the new antelope painted on his cave wall and said, “Antlers too long. Culture doomed.” The role of Thag is played today by Geist magazine, resuscitating (on Twitter) a 2003 Stephen Henighan column arguing that the inability of Canadian writers to decide whether to spell in the American or the Canadian idiom – or even to know the difference – is evidence of a culture in decline. Canadian culture, presumably, is being assimilated into American mass culture, and spelling is the canary in our literary coal mine.
Canadian culture has always been the U.S.S. Enterprise to the U.S.A.’s Borg cube: American mass culture pursues us through space at ridiculous speeds, informing us that resistance is futile, and we will be assimilated. This particular Star Trek episode has been airing since about 1812, by my watch, and yet Canadian culture remains stubbornly distinct.
But what is this distinct culture? It most certainly is no longer the same culture of 1812, nor even the culture of the 1960s, when Canada decided that developing its very own literature would make a worthy summer project for nationalist youth. Canadian culture has changed, as any culture does, by encountering aliens and (in the Borg idiom) adding their distinctiveness to our own. Canada is never your father’s Canada.
Nor should it be. Change is the index of cultural vibrance. Art continually challenges boundaries, transforms the culture that produces it. Writing, in a vibrant culture, should expand the language, just as writing did in the late medieval period, both by adding words and ideas and by expanding the proper subjects of English writing, for the first time, to such important (and enduring) topics as fysshynge.
In that light, concerns for the consistent use of Canadian spelling conventions, conventions that are utterly arbitrary, seem a problem for newspaper copyeditors. Whether colour is color, whether licence is license (and when): these are hardly critical tokens of cultural identity. Do we not have greter fysshe to frye?