Luke’s Languages #7


Welcome back and happy new year! Didja get anything good this Christmas? Ah okay, I see, I see. Oh no, yeah no definitely, me too, yup, yeah, oh for sure. Okay, now that we’ve got all the small talk out of the way, let’s get right down to business!

Since we closed last semester’s run of the series with a piece on defining your own style of language, let’s start this one with something both unique and universal among us: Canadian English. Specifically, West-Central Canadian English, which, if you’re reading this, you either speak or hear spoken every day.

The history of Canadian English is short and sweet: various peoples of France and the British Isles came to the colonies, there was a lot of fighting, Loyalists fled to southern Ontario during the American Revolution, and now we draw from both the British and the Americans, with some minor help from Aboriginal languages and from French. Simple.

So what’s the result? What makes us special? First, throw out most of your stereotypes. We’re actually so close to northern American English that speakers of both have a hard time telling which is which. If they were paying attention, they’d see that…

First, we sound a bit funny. The main thing we’re laughed at for is Canadian Raising, which changes “aye” to more like “uh-y”, and “ow” to more like “uh-oo”, before a voiceless consonant at the end of a syllable. For example, compare the vowel sounds in “rise”, “rider”, and “strive” to those in “rice”, “writer”, and “strife”; also, compare those in “house” (verb) and “cloud” to those in “house” (noun) and “clout”. This difference is so sharp to American ears that they parody us as saying “oot and aboot” (but of course, we hear them as saying “owd and abowd”!). We also say “forest” as “four-ist” and “borrow” as “boar-oh”, rather than America’s “far-ist” and “bar-oh”, which just sound silly. And apparently Americans have a difference between “cot” and “caught” that we can’t distinguish. Oh well; for them a “writer” is the same thing as a “rider”. Sucks to be them, amirite?

For specific words, we generally use the British pronunciation if two are available (“Mummy”, not “Mommy”; “shone” rhymes with “Sean”, not “shown”), use the French slightly more accurately than most (“clique” is “cleek”, not “click”; “niche” is “neesh”, not “nish”), and sometimes even our own inventions (“asphalt” is “ash-phalt”… what?). There are tons of other small changes, but it would take too much space to go into them. (Why not find some out for yourself instead?)

The other major part is the vocabulary. We go to “grades one through twelve”, not “first through twelfth grades”, and then some of us go on to “university”, not “college”, although others of us go to “college” (in America, “college” can refer to all post-secondary education), where we “write” exams. Stephen Harper is not a “president”, he’s a “prime minister”. We use “washrooms” or “bathrooms”, not “restrooms” (nor “lavatories” nor “toilets”, as in the UK!). We wash our hands at the “tap”, not the “faucet”, before eating with “cutlery” and “serviettes”. Sometimes we drink “pop” at the table, but we would never dream of drinking “soda”. (Filthy stuff, soda. It’ll rot your gut. Better stick with pop.)

More fun are the words unique to Canada, although these are so over-hashed that at best a list might resemble some cheap t-shirt your mum got you from Northern Getaway in the ’90s, back when Northern Getaway was cool. For example: We wear toques. We love our double-doubles, our two-fours, and our poutine. Oh, and we pay attention to something called a Humidex, whatever the heck that is. Most famously, we say “eh”. But as you’ll have noticed if you’re lived here more than a week, we don’t say it as frequently or randomly as they’d have you believe. We just say it to make sure the other person’s listening and get a small response. Pretty cool, eh? (Mm-hm.)

As well, there are some minor sentence-level changes. (For example, it seems only Canadians start a sentence with “As well”, meaning “In addition”.) They’re hardly worth mentioning.

That concludes our brief overview, which hopefully got a heap of nods and smiles of recognition, or maybe some amused gasps. Or maybe some of you are disappointed that I didn’t examine the Canadian that sounds strange even to Canadians (I mean out east, b’ye), which is so different that you can’t really talk about the two in one article. Maybe some other time?

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of your dialect. Did I miss anything? Write in and tell me ([email protected])! Oh, and be sure to tune in next week when we zoom out to the bigger picture again, eh.