Strathy Language Unit – Queen’s University 1981 – 2011

Thirty years ago, the English language in Canada was given a boost from a surprising quarter – a geologist by training and profession – whose lifelong fascination with English led him to create an endowment that has helped define and perpetuate “Canadian English.” J.R. Strathy, BSc’44, left money in his will to create a unit that would “study standard English usage” and produce “an authoritative guide to correct written and oral communication in English within Canada”.

The first director of the Strathy Language Unit (SLU), W.C. Lougheed, Arts’49, MA’50, set about to create a computer-based Canadian English “corpus.” The Strathy Corpus has grown to become the world’s largest database of Canadian English, containing approximately 60 million written and spoken words. The corpus is accessed by publishers, such as Oxford University Press, Thomson-Nelson, and Harper-Collins, in compiling Canadian English dictionaries.

The second director of the SLU, Margery Fee, was instrumental in obtaining a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) grant to fund research into usage and the further expansion of the corpus. This work was important to the creation of the first edition of the Guide to Canadian English Usage (Oxford U. Press, 1997). A second edition of the Guide, co-authored by Fee and Janice McAlpine, Arts’77, Ed’83, the SLU director from 2000 to 2010, was published in 2007. Prior to publication of the Guide, Canadian writers seeking information or advice on language had to look to either British or American dictionaries and usage guides.

An important aspect of the mandate of the SLU is provision of support for an undergrad course on Canadian English, LING202, which is offered through the linguistics program. The SLU’s current director, Cornell-trained linguist Dr. Anastasia Riehl, teaches the course. Riehl plans to expand the scope and methods of the SLU by increasing attention to the spoken language, informal writing, a variety of dialects, and the relationship of Canadian English to other languages. Forthcoming projects of the SLU include: a collection of oral stories from Canadian English speakers; a bibliography of writings on Canadian English, which will be regularly updated; and a blog that will feature regular contributions by noted Canadian English scholars. 

This article appears in Queen’s Alumni Review magazine, 2011, Issue 2, p. 14.