So We Changed the Anthem…

So We Changed the Anthem…

Una nota por mis amigos que hablan español: Ya que este artículo trata con un tema muy específica de Canadá, y en parte con un asunto particular de la idioma inglés, no voy a traducir este post a español.

So as of this past week, the Canadian national anthem has officially been changed, with a desire to make it “gender neutral”. While this change hasn’t elicited as much response as I had expected, I have seen some people posting complaints about it, while others are celebrating it. Both the change and people’s response to it kind of intrigue me, so I thought I would add a few thoughts to the discussion. Hopefully this will be a balanced approach that both sides can benefit from.

Note: For those who haven’t heard, the change occurs in the fourth line, where “In all thy sons command” was changed to “in all of us command”.

  1. Change is hard. Since 1914, Canadians have been singing the current version of O Canada. That means that most people presently alive have only sung the anthem as it was before this change. Tradition is a strong thing, and for many, the change feels completely unnatural. Although some people have rightly pointed out that the original song adopted in 1908 used the line “thou dost in us command”, I don’t know if anybody now alive ever sang that. Messing with something aswell-known as our national anthem is going to produce an emotional reaction. So if you happen to agree with this change, show compassion and grace to those who don’t. For many, it simply doesn’t sound right.
  2. It’s not oppressive! Another reason for or against the change is the “patriarchal” language. In other words “sons” refers to all of us, just as mankind does, etc. The language uses the male figure to refer to everyone. Some find this offensive or not inclusive. Some even argue that the entire patriarchal system and language is oppressive. While I don’t disagree that women have been abused and oppressed at times (more than many care to admit, but less than others try to make it seem), I think an automatic equation of patriarchal language with oppression is over the top and unfortunate. For most, this was simply the language used. Throughout history and various (most?) cultures, the male-dominated society simply made sense and seemed natural. Men are generally stronger and in a survival society, they automatically focused more on the tasks that were more physically demanding (warfare and working the fields among them). Women are the only ones who can physically have and nurse kids, and since families often needed to have lots of kids (many would die young, and they were the parents’ old-age security), the women cared for them and the household. It made sense. And the culture and language developed from there. So please step down a bit from automatically equating patriarchal language with oppression. Oppression happened (and sometimes still happens), but for most people, it’s just the way the language was used, and many see no need to change it.
  3. But language and times change. That being said, the culture has changed, and language is bound to change with it. I have heard a variety of women, from little girls to much older ones, question where they fit in comments that use male language. We do live in a different time, and while some might think that change is not beneficial (a much larger topic), I’m personally okay with it. Those who wish the anthem would stay the same need to recognize that some people honestly feel like it doesn’t include them. If the purpose of the line in the song is to refer to all of us (which it obviously is), why is it a big deal to adjust it so that everyone feels comfortable? Let’s put it this way – if we had been singing “in all of us command” for the past 100 years, nobody would even be fazed about it. It’s not a big deal – the bigger issue is just that it sounds strange, or it’s being changed and we don’t like it, or that some feel it’s not really necessary and that people just need to understand that’s how the language works! But that’s the rub – if that’s not how the language and culture actually work anymore, maybe we do need to change it.
  4. It doesn’t sound as good. From a purely linguistic and poetic point of view, I think the old way sounds better than the new way. “thy sons” just sounds more poetic than “of us”. But I recognize that part of that is just that I’m used to singing it that way. Also, as I mentioned before, if we had been singing it that way for the last 100 years, we wouldn’t even think about it.
  5. But it is clearer. I’ll admit, until a couple of years ago, I had never really thought through the entire anthem carefully. The result? I was hearing “sons” as a possessive, not as a plural. I was hearing “in all thy sons’ command” or, in other words, that our sons (all of us as Canadians) were commanding something – I just never really thought about what they were commanding. It wasn’t until I really read it carefully and thought about it that I realized that we weren’t commanding anything, but Canada was commanding true, patriotic love in (or from) all of us. Oops. I’m curious how many others have made that mistake. The new way just sort of eliminates that confusion.

So, in 5, 20, or 50 years, how much will this matter? I anticipate our kids will grow up learning the new way and never give it another thought. Do we need to argue to keep language the same, even when people don’t identify with it the same way that they did? I don’t think so, even though I will probably end up singing it the old way most of the time without thinking about it. It’s just deeply engrained in me by now.

So, if you love the change, sing it the new way, but recognize that change is hard for many people and many honestly (without being oppressive or oppressed) feel like it’s unnecessary. Either way, be patient with them. The change is made, and it will gradually be adopted.

If you hate the change, realized that it’s not a conspiracy! Our culture has changed, and many people feel awkward singing it as it was written or even feel excluded. It is what it is. Learning the new way won’t hurt anyone in the long run, even you. And if you keep singing it the old way, either because “that’s the way it’s always been” or because “we didn’t need to change it” or even just because you don’t like it as much, so be it. Just please don’t be belligerent about it. There is not actually anything wrong with the change, and no matter what the official language is and the law says, it will take a long time for the new wording to become popular and accepted. Just like switching to the metric system, right? It hasn’t hurt anybody, now we’re used to it, and for the most part, it’s just the way it is.

Whatever the specific words we might use, we are all still Canadians. That is the focus.