‘Canada 150, Eh?’

Cana­dian English ac­cent sur­pris­ingly uni­form across prov­inces — ex­cept New­found­land

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - PERSPECTIVES - BY LINDA GIVETASH

Cel­e­bra­tions across Canada this sum­mer may look dif­fer­ent from one com­mu­nity to the next, but for most of the coun­try it will all sound the same.

Derek De­nis, a post-doc­toral re­searcher of lin­guis­tics at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria, said more than just the stereo­typ­i­cal “eh?” unites Cana­di­ans.

His re­search com­par­ing the recorded oral his­to­ries from 50 years ago and in­ter­views from more re­cent times found that from the On­tario-Que­bec bor­der to Van­cou­ver Is­land, English-speak­ing Cana­di­ans have a largely ho­moge­nous ac­cent.

“There is al­most no di­alect re­gion that is that large and so ho­moge­nous,” De­nis said.

The United States and even the United King­dom have far more vari­a­tion over smaller ge­o­graphic ar­eas.

De­nis said mi­gra­tion pat­terns and set­tle­ment pat­terns are be­lieved to be be­hind the con­sis­tency in ac­cent in Canada.

South­ern On­tario was set­tled by English-speak­ing United Em­pire Loy­al­ists who were flee­ing the Amer­i­can Revo­lu­tion in the late 1700s. De­nis said those peo­ple es­tab­lished their ac­cent and as they drove the west­ward col­o­niza­tion, the ac­cent spread across the coun­try.

It’s a phe­nom­e­non Matt Hunt Gard­ner, Cana­dian English in­struc­tor and PhD can­di­date at the Univer­sity of Toronto, said is called the “founder ef­fect.”

“Who the first suc­cess­ful or per­sis­tent group of English speak­ers is in an area is im­por­tant be­cause they sort of set the tone for every­body who comes later,” he said.

That means if a swell of im­mi­grants en­ter a com­mu­nity, they and their chil­dren will even­tu­ally adopt the ac­cent of the orig­i­nal set­tlers.

Loy­al­ists who fled to the At­lantic prov­inces were largely from the coast, un­like those from in­land who went to On­tario. A sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Scot­tish set­tlers also in­flu­enced lan­guage in Cape Breton and Prince Ed­ward Is­land, Gard­ner said.

The dis­tinct New­found­land ac­cent is a re­sult of set­tlers from south­west Eng­land and south­east Ire­land, Gard­ner said. Be­cause New­found­land was last to join the Con­fed­er­a­tion and re­mained rel­a­tively iso­lated, its unique ac­cent was pre­served.

Yet while many Cana­di­ans say they can tell whether some­one is from the East or West based on their ac­cent, the dif­fer­ences are nar­row­ing, Gard­ner said. At­lantic res­i­dents are in­creas­ingly drop­ping their dis­tinct Rs and the use of “dis and dat” for “this and that” to sound more like Cana­di­ans in On­tario, which Gard­ner said is largely driven by eco­nomic fac­tors.

Peo­ple want to be mo­bile and work out­side the re­gion, and Gard­ner said sound­ing more like the rest of the coun­try is per­ceived as de­sir­able.

As for Cana­di­ans’ use of the lin­guis­tic fea­ture “eh,” De­nis said it doesn’t de­fine the coun­try in the way most peo­ple think. He said it isn’t used nearly as of­ten as other lin­guis­tic fea­tures, such as “right?” and “you know?”

Eh isn’t unique to Cana­dian English ei­ther. De­nis said the first use in English lit­er­a­ture was found in an Ir­ish play from the 1770s and didn’t ap­pear in Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture un­til the 1830s. What is unique, De­nis said, is its sta­tus in Canada, which started to de­velop in the 1950s and ’60s as the coun­try started to think more about its iden­tity.

The 1980s SCTV skit “The Great White North” helped de­fine the Amer­i­cans’ per­cep­tions of Cana­di­ans as their plaid wear­ing, eh-say­ing neigh­bours.

The joke was turned around, De­nis said, as Cana­di­ans be­gan ap­pro­pri­at­ing the word.

“I think most Cana­di­ans agree that part of the Cana­dian iden­tity is to be ex­plic­itly not Amer­i­can, so if you have Amer­i­cans laugh­ing at you for us­ing eh for be­ing Cana­dian, that might be some­thing you want to em­brace be­cause it de­fines you as not Amer­i­can,” he said.

While a sin­gle tele­vi­sion show was enough to dif­fer­en­ti­ate Cana­di­ans from their south­ern neigh­bours, there’s no cause for alarm about an over­whelm­ing amount of Amer­i­can con­tent broad­cast in Canada un­do­ing our unique ac­cent.

Tele­vi­sion and other me­dia are great tools to spread or pop­u­lar­ize cer­tain words or phrases, but Gard­ner said “when it comes to how you con­struct a sen­tence or pro­nounce some­thing, that’s some­thing that re­quires face to face con­tact.”

Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion has been play­ing in Canada for 70 years now and the dif­fer­ences be­tween Cana­dian English and Amer­i­can English are grow­ing, not shrink­ing, Gard­ner said.

CP PHOTO

Rick Mo­ra­nis, left, and Dave Thomas as char­ac­ters Bob and Doug McKen­zie in this scene from the 1980s SCTV com­edy se­ries.

CP PHOTO

When Howie Man­del played a Bos­ton doc­tor on the 1980s med­i­cal drama “St. Else­where” it wasn’t the med­i­cal jar­gon he strug­gled with — it was his Cana­dian ac­cent.

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