Canadian English

Canadian English

Until fairly recently, Canadian English was a severely understudied national variety of English. Reliable sociolinguistic data of a national scope has been especially hard to come by and, until the mid-1990s, was virtually inexistent. The geographical proximity to the American super power is quite unique to Canadian English and contrasts it with other varieties of English, such as Australian, New Zealand, or UK varieties of English. Combined with a relatively low awareness of Canadian English features (a result of the school system), some commentators, especially outsiders, tend to confuse Canadian English with American dialects. Comparisons of degrees of difference are always relative: while a local East Anglian English speaker may confuse a Torontonian for an American, Canadians usually have little difficulty telling the one from the other. The last ten years in particular have produced significant data on a national scale that allows the characterization of the variety more adequately than before.

Development through settlement: first and second waves

Canadian English is by and large the outcome of the two earliest settlement waves. The first wave was a direct result of the American Revolution in 1776, with about ten thousand so-called United Empire Loyalists fleeing the territory of the newly-founded United States. The Loyalists were New World dwellers who preferred to remain British subjects in what was to become Canada. They came from the mid-Atlantic states, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, upstate New York, on the one hand and New England on the other hand. This wave, peaking in the mid 1780s, settled the province of Upper Canada, now Ontario and their speech patterns are responsible for the general make-up of Canadian English today (that is, the notion of the ‘founder principle’), including its more ‘American’ than British twang.

The second wave started in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic wars and, until 1867 when Canada gained considerable independence from Britain (Confederation), was responsible for over a million immigrants from England, Scotland, Wales, and importantly, Ireland. There is some dispute as to the degree of influence of this wave, which was much larger than the first one. However, existing studies strongly suggest that the first (American) wave was most influential in everything but one area of language: that is, language attitudes—the evaluation of linguistic items as more or less ‘desirable’ and interference with consciously accessible language features.

From the start of the British and Irish migrations in the second wave to the mid-to-late twentieth century, all things British were considered superior by many Canadians. Irving Layton’s poem Anglo-Canadian, published in 1956, characterizes the phenomenon that linguists call ‘Canadian Dainty’ at its tail end. Layton’s poem refers to Kingston, Ontario, in the historical Canadian heartland and depicts—well, mocks—an extreme case of acceptance of the British prestige norm:

A native of Kingston, Ont,
–two grandparents Canadian
and still living

His complexion florid
as a maple leaf in late autumn
for three years he attended

Now his accent
makes even Englishmen
wince, and feel
unspeakably colonial.

Today, Canadian Dainty is a thing of the past and only a vanishingly small minority still adheres to, in Layton’s words, an accent that makes even the English feel ‘unspeakably colonial’.

But the British connection did leave a trace on Canadian English in some isolated tokens. One of these is the use of tap for what Americans generally call faucet (the knob that turns on water). This term came in use in the mid-nineteenth century, when the first houses were equipped with running water. As a colony, Canada’s close economic ties to Britain ensured that not only British plumbers, but also their terms were imported. To this day, it is the majority term (about 80 percent and more) from coast to coast to coast and a Canadianism (see below for a typology). Very rarely, British traces are witnessed in the most formal speaking styles today: newsreaders at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will pronounce the first sound in schedule like the ‘sh’ in shoe, which is not done by 90 percent of Canadians, including other media outlets, who use the first sound in school for schedule.

Starting in the late-nineteenth century, Canada encouraged immigration from a much broader range of countries, while maintaining barriers against non-Europeans at first. After the Second World War, these remaining barriers were lifted and, today, Canadians come from all possible backgrounds. Census data show that in major cities up to 40 percent and more do not speak English natively. In Quebec, the province’s largest city Montreal—where French is the sole official language—is unrivalled in its international composition; here again about 40 percent do not speak French natively, though French is dominant elsewhere in the province.

However, recent studies have shown that second generation Canadians (i.e. children born to immigrant parents in Canada) are adopting a language system that is natively Canadian, regardless of ethnic background. There is evidence to say that second generation Canadians of Anglo-Irish, Chinese, and Italian descent essentially share the same linguistic system. This homogeneity points towards the unifying force of shared open social networks and shared communities of practice. Exceptions to this trend are those extremely close-knit neighbourhoods, such as Montreal’s Italian and Jewish quarters. Traditionally, local speakers have not gone much beyond these groups, which has lead to the development of distinct linguistic features over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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Homogeneity and autonomy

One of the most interesting questions about Canadian English is why it is at all different from US English dialects. Given Canada’s proximity to the US and its close ties in terms of trade and business or its exposure to American media outlets, TV, radio and magazines, it is striking that US-Canadian differences persist.

Generally speaking, the linguistic features in the west (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia) are less diversified than in the east (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec), which has been settled for a century or more longer. The island of Newfoundland, which joined Canada only in 1949 after hundreds of years as a separate British colony, is the most distinctive linguistic community as compared to Standard Canadian English.

Relative similarity, or homogeneity, of dialects is a common denominator of regions that have been settled for relatively short periods of time. As time progresses, regional, and social dialects are being formed, examples of which include the distinctive neighbourhoods of Montreal. For Ontario westwards, relative linguistic homogeneity has been proposed since at least 1951. Incidentally, the concept is paired with the question of Canadian linguistic autonomy. Canadian linguistic features are maintained by the country’s communication lines that run along the east-west axis, across mountain ranges, vast stretches of prairie land, and other physical barriers. The existence and persistence of Canada, successful in staving off American expansion in the nineteenth century, has given rise to national, pan-Canadian networks: it is not uncommon for Canadians to grow up in the Golden Horseshoe (the area surrounding Toronto and home to one sixth of the population), study in Edmonton on the Prairies, go to graduate school in Vancouver, BC and find work in Halifax, NS These east-west connections and travel streams weave Canadian English together since the completion of the trans-Canada railway in 1886 and have, so far, put a check on larger linguistic diversification.

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We can find the linguistic expression of the Canadian east-west connection at all linguistic levels.  Vowels, for instance, love to change but when they change in Canada they have been shown to rarely – for some changes never—to cross the Canada-US border. For example, the ‘Canadian shift’, first detected in the mid 1990s, affects the ‘short front vowels’, i.e. the three vowels exemplified in black, pen or tin.  In Canada these vowels move in the opposite direction to the well-established ‘Northern Cities Shift’ in parts of the United States. So in Canada, the vowel in black, for instance, is pronounced farther back in the mouth. Canadian dialects are actually diverging from the American dialects that have experienced the shift, and this despite the high levels of interaction between the two countries.

Other features include ‘Canadian raising’, the most-widely known Canadian pronunciation feature.  Canadian raising affects the diphthongs in words such as wife, price or life and house, about or shout. Canadian pronunciations, though far from universal, are often perceived as weef instead of wife and a boot instead of about by outsiders. There are also other, less well-known Canadian differences, such as the Canadian integration pattern of foreign sounds represented by <a>. In words like pasta, lava, plaza, and drama the foreign <a> sound acquires the vowel in father in American English and British English, but the vowel of cat in Canadian English.

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Words are most accessible to speakers, and comments abound. Terms like washroom ‘public bathroom’, all-dressed pizza ‘pizza with all the available toppings on it’, garburator ‘in-sink garbage grinder’, parkade ‘car parking structure’ or the ubiquitous toque ‘woolen hat’ are easy to find and are sometimes used as ad-hoc identity markers in Canadian regions.

Historically speaking, about 70 percent of Canadianisms, which are defined as terms ‘native or of characteristic usage in Canada’, are comprised by noun compounds that are especially difficult to spot: for instance, butter and tart are ‘ordinary’ words, but butter tart ‘pastry shell with a filling of butter, eggs, sugar and raisins’ is a ‘type 1’ Canadianism. In the historical Canadian dictionary project, four basic types of Canadianisms are recognized: type 1: form origins in Canada; type 2: preserved in Canada; type 3: having undergone semantic change in Canada; and type 4: culturally significant terms. The Dictionary of Canadiansims on Historical Principles, first edition, lists about 10,000 Canadianisms from 1498 to 1965/6. The revision project, DCHP-2, includes terms until the present day, such as grow-op ‘grow operation of marijuana plants’, small packet ‘special rate mail item’, or the prototypical tag marker eh, with its many functions—for example, ‘eliciting opinion’ or ‘emphatic stress’.

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Variation in grammar—morphology and syntax—can also be found in Canadian English. Reported since the early 1980s, but never thoroughly studied, Standard Canadian English allows (to give just one example) the placing of as well sentence-initially. Thus, in a sentence such as The Canucks had good forwards that day. As well, their blue liners were better than last time, other standard dialects would usually accept as well only after ‘last time’, i.e. sentence-finally.

The study of Canadian English has come a long way since the first serious attempts in the mid-1950s. It has reached critical mass and is now in the position to tell the story of Canadian English and its varieties. 2010 marked a milestone with the publication of Charles Boberg’s The English Language in Canada, the first scholarly overview monograph on Canadian English. The book is a symbol of how far the field has come as a collective effort, while also serving as a spring board for further work on the ‘other’ North American English.

By Stefan Dollinger, Director of the Canadian English Lab, University of British Columbia at Vancouver

Visit the OED's Canadian English resources page

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