Skip to main content

CANADIAN ENGLISH

CANADIAN ENGLISH Short form CanE. The English language as used in Canada, a country of North America and member of the Commonwealth: a constitutional monarchy and confederation of ten provinces and two territories. This national variety has coexisted for some 230 years with Canadian French, which is almost a century older, as well as with a range of indigenous languages such as Cree, Iroquois, and Inuktitut and a number of immigrant languages such as Italian and Ukrainian. However, only English and French are official. It has been marked by the now less significant influence of BrE and the enormous ongoing impact of AMERICAN ENGLISH. Because of the similarity of American and Canadian accents, English Canadians travelling abroad are virtually resigned to being taken for Americans. However, as Gerald Clark has noted, although Canadians seem ‘indistinguishable from the Americans the surest way of telling the two apart is to make the observation to a Canadian’ (Canada: The Uneasy Neighbour, 1965). Because CanE and AmE are so alike, some scholars have argued that in linguistic terms Canadian English is no more or less than a variety of (Northern) American English. In response to the dominance of AmE, some Canadians have tended to stress the indigenous or even British features in their variety while others have felt that to do so is pretentious. Studies of CanE of necessity compare it to BrE or AmE or both, and many do nothing else. Recently, however, the view that only highly distinctive varieties are ‘true’ national languages is changing. The US linguist Richard W. Bailey notes: ‘What is distinctly Canadian about Canadian English is not its unique linguistic features (of which there are a handful) but its combination of tendencies that are uniquely distributed’ (‘The English Language in Canada’, in Bailey & Görlach, eds., English as a World Language, 1982, p. 161). In addition, the environment of CanE differs significantly from that of other varieties in two ways:

1. The presence of French as co-official language.

Spoken French is concentrated in QUEBEC, New Brunswick, and eastern Ontario, while written French is ubiquitous. It appears with English on everything from signs in post offices to boxes of cornflakes, which have long been the stereotypical example of how French was being ‘rammed down’ unwilling English throats. In English broadcasts, a simultaneous translation formerly drowned spoken French, but lately CBC news broadcasts allow the French speaker to be heard and rely on the commentator to make the message comprehensible to anglophones without a knowledge of French. The first Official Languages Act (1969) confirmed the bilingual nature of Canada at the federal level and set up the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. The Commissioner deals with complaints concerning the infringement of language rights and oversees the implementation of the Act. The Office publishes a bilingual quarterly, Language and Society/Langue et société.

2. A preoccupation with the wilderness.

An awareness of the great empty northern spaces exists even among urban Canadians. Much as Australians are preoccupied with their myth of ‘mates in the Outback’, contending against nature, many Canadians are conscious of the vast extent of Canada.

Population

The Canadian population is highly urbanized and mobile, 80% living in urban areas within 200 km of the US border. Canadian Standard English (CSE), the English spoken in cities from Ontario to British Columbia by the middle and upper classes, is remarkably homogeneous, but the nonstandard language varies, depending on which groups originally settled an area. The differences between the main regional varieties (such as in Newfoundland, the MARITIME PROVINCES, Quebec, and from Ontario westwards) can be accounted for primarily by settlement history. The history of Ontario, the province which currently has the largest number of English-speakers and dominates the country politically, economically, and linguistically, explains why CanE sounds very much more like AmE than like BrE.

History.

English-speaking settlers began to enter mainland Canada in significant numbers after the Treaty of Paris ceded New France to Great Britain in 1762. Most were from the New England colonies and went to what are now the provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. During and immediately after the American Revolution (1776–83), a wave of some 50,000 settlers arrived from the US, usually called Loyalists or United Empire Loyalists (UELs). Some 10,000 went to Quebec, 2,500 settling in the Eastern Townships south-east of Montreal and 7,500 in western Quebec, which was named Upper Canada in 1791, Canada West in 1840, and Ontario in 1867. Government promotion of settlement resulted in the arrival from the US of at least 80,000 ‘late loyalists’ after 1791. By 1812, Upper Canada's population of around 100,000 was 80% of American background. This population consolidated its values by fighting against American attack during the War of 1812. By 1871, the population of Ontario had risen to 1.6m.

Canadian linguists disagree about the reasons for the similarity between CanE and Northern AmE. Partly in reaction to American linguists' suggestions that CanE is simply derivative from AmE, M. H. Scargill (A Short History of Canadian English, 1988) has argued that the flood of immigrants that arrived after 1814 overwhelmed the dialect they found in Canada. In his view, CanE is the result of a mixture of northern British dialects. Its similarity to Northern AmE thus would be accounted for by common origins in the mix of British dialects. Walter S. Avis, however, has argued that by the time the first major wave of British immigrants arrived ‘the course of Ontario speech had been set, American speech habits of the Northern variety having been entrenched from the beginning’ (‘The English Language in Canada: A Report’, in Current Trends in Linguistics, 10: 1, 1973). Current opinion rests with Avis, although to call the UEL dialect ‘American’ invites debate. The Loyalists who arrived in Canada were far from homogeneous linguistically: some had been in the US for generations, others were recently arrived British soldiers, some were Gaelic- and others German-speaking. However, once the Loyalists did arrive, the process of dialect mix would have begun.

Although their descendants' tendency to overstate the loyalty and status of these settlers has been called ‘the myth of the UEL’, they had over a generation to establish themselves and their dialect before the first influx of British settlers. Since children generally adopt the usage of their peers rather than their parents, later British settlers had to accept the assimilation of their children's speech to an ‘American’ dialect:
Listening to the children at any school, composed of the children of Englishmen, Scotchmen, Americans, and even of Germans, it is impossible to detect any marked difference in their accent, or way of expressing themselves

( William Canniff,

The Settlement of Upper Canada, 1869).

Indeed, the Irish and Scottish immigrants may well have embraced a patently non-English dialect as a sign of their rejection of England and its values. As Catharine Parr Traill observed:
Persons who come to this country are very apt to confound the old settlers from Britain with the native Americans; and when they meet with people of rude, offensive manners, using certain Yankee words in their conversations, and making a display of independence not exactly suitable to their own aristocratic notions, they immediately suppose they must be genuine Yankees, while they are, in fact, only imitators. … You would be surprised to see how soon the newcomers fall into this disagreeable manner and affectation of quality, especially the inferior class of Irish and Scotch; the English less so (in The Backwoods of Canada: Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, 1836).

The English spoken in Ontario is the dominant urban form westwards because settlement west of Ontario was led by Ontario anglophones, who formed the middle and professional classes. It was deliberate government policy to ensure that non-English-speaking immigrants conformed culturally, not to their American immigrant neighbours, but to the values of the Ontario heartland, a policy accomplished primarily through the education systems.

Pronunciation

Generally, the standard forms of CanE and Northern AmE are alike whereas such regional varieties as the Maritimes and Newfoundland are more distinctive. The main features of standard CanE are: (1) Canadian Raising. There is a shibboleth that Canadians say such words as house and out differently from Americans, and by and large they do. Canadian Raising (a term coined by J. K. Chambers in 1973) is a convenient term for what is in fact a non-lowering of certain diphthongs that are lowered in most other dialects. The tongue is raised higher to produce the diphthong in knife, house than in knives, houses. In general terms, these diphthongs have a raised onset before voiceless consonants: /ai/ becomes /ʌi/ and /au/ becomes /ʌu/. In the following pairs, only the first word has the raised onset: tripe/tribe, bite/bide, tyke/tiger, knife/knives, price/prizes, lout/loud, mouth(n)/mouth (v). Many Americans from western New England across the Great Lakes have the raised onset for /ai/, but far fewer have it for /au/. These raised diphthongs appear to be an innovation resulting from dialect mix. Studies of the speech of Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Victoria show that Canadian Raising is a majority usage (over 90% in Vancouver, over 60% in Ottawa), but that there is a trend away from raising toward standard AmE values, led by women under 40. (2) The cot/caught distinction. Many phonological features shared with Northern AmE are distributed distinctively in standard CanE: for example, the low back vowels have merged, so that Canadians pronounce cot/caught, Don/Dawn, awful/offal, caller/collar with the same vowel sound, although the quality of this sound varies. This merger is widespread in the US (in eastern New England and western Pennsylvania) and is spreading in the Midwest and West, but a distinction between cot/caught, etc. is maintained in all US areas bordering on Canada. (3) T-flapping and T-deletion. Especially in casual speech, many Canadians, like many Americans, pronounce /t/ as /d/ between vowels and after /r/, a feature known as t-flapping. Such pairs as waiting/wading, metal/medal, latter/ladder, hearty/hardy are therefore often homophones and the city of Ottawa is called ‘Oddawa’. In addition, the /t/ is usually deleted after n, so that Toronto is pronounced ‘Toronna’ or ‘Trawna’ by most of the city's inhabitants. (4) Use of WH. Speakers of standard CanE tend more than speakers of standard Northern AmE to drop the distinction between initial /hw/ and /w/, making homophones out of which/witch. (5) Different regional and social groups vary the pronunciation of some words, such as lever, schedule, aunt, route, hostile. As with the lexical variants like tap/faucet, pail/bucket, porch/verandah, the differences are generally ascribed to the degree of influence from AmE.

Grammar.

Where CanE differs grammatically from BrE it tends to agree with AmE. However, where such differences exist, Canadians are often more aware of both usages than Americans, either because they use both or have been exposed to both. Middle-class Canadians over 40 prefer have you got as in Have you got a match? to either the AmE Do you have a match? or the conservative BrE Have you a match?, but the younger generation and those with some post-secondary education are moving to the American form.

Canadian EH

The belief, especially among Americans, that Canadians frequently use eh (It's nice, eh?) is borne out by research, but until more comparative work can be done, the assertion of Walter Avis (‘So Eh? is Canadian, eh?’, in Canadian Journal of Linguistics, 17, 1972) that it is not uniquely a Canadianism must stand. As elsewhere, this interjection is used in Canada to mean could you please repeat what you said, but more commonly it is a tag question (You do want to go, eh? = don't you?) or serves to elicit agreement or confirmation (It's nice, eh?) and to intensify commands, questions, and exclamations (Do it, eh?). It is also common in anecdotes: He's holding on to a firehose, eh? The thing is jumping all over the place, eh, and he can hardly hold on to it eh? Well, he finally loses control of it, eh, and the water knocks down half a dozen bystanders. This last use, the anecdotal eh, is the most stigmatized.

Vocabulary.

English Canadians have developed the vocabulary they have needed in their special environment by borrowing from indigenous languages and from French, by extending and adapting traditional English words, and by coining new words, in addition to which, CanE vocabulary has been affected by institutional bilingualism:

1. Borrowing from indigenous languages.

There are two sources of native borrowing: the Canadian Indian languages such as Cree, Dene, and Ojibwa, and Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit or Eskimo. Such words tend to relate to flora and fauna, early economic and social activities, travel, and survival. From the Indian languages come chipmunk, mackinaw (a bush jacket), moose, muskeg (boggy, mossy land), muskrat. From Inuktitut come kayak, mukluk, anorak, parka, malemute, husky. A productive borrowing from Micmac through French is toboggan, a runnerless wooden sled still used by children. The word produced the logging terms bogan and logboggan. A motorized sled was first called a motor toboggan and autoboggan, then bombardier (after the trade name of one such vehicle). Now a vehicle of this kind, widely used in the North instead of a dog team and in the South for sport, is a skimobile, skidoo, or snowmobile.

2. Borrowing from French.

In addition to the ancient legacy of French expressions in English, CanE has a range of usages which are distinctively North American: caboteur (a ship engaged in coastal trade), cache (a place for storing supplies; a supply of goods kept for future use), coureur du bois (a French or MÉTIS trader or woodsman), Métis (a person or people of ‘mixed’ blood), portage (the carrying of canoes past rapids), voyageur (a French-Canadian canoeman in the service of the fur companies; someone travelling the northern wilderness), mush (from French marcher, used to order sled dogs to run), and tuque (a knitted cap). In addition, there are such technical terms as anglophone and francophone (without an initial capital, in the French style), caisse populaire (a credit union, a bank-like institution, especially in QUEBEC). The existence of two official languages has led to various usages, including the attributive use of Canada in the names of government departments, crown corporations, and national organizations, often with French word order, the attributive after the noun: Canada Post, Revenue Canada, Air Canada, Loto Canada. French and English often mix, as in names like the Jeunesses Musicales of Canada and on hybrid signs, especially those used for official purposes: Postes Canada Post. During the recent Canada games, some anglophone announcers referred to them as the Jeux Canada Games as if Jeux were an English word. In addition, the delicate relationship between English and French allows for originality: for example, the visual form of the name of the airline called Canadian in English and Canadien in French, in which the variable vowel is replaced by the company logo, a red arrow.

3. Extension and adaptation of traditional words.

Many BrE words have had their meanings extended and adapted to conditions in North America. CanE shares with AmE many usages relating to landscape and social life, etc., but has a range of distinctive additional usages, such as: Native officially referring to the indigenous peoples of Canada (the Native Peoples); the distinction between prime minister (federal chief minister) and premier (provincial chief minister); province, provincial (referring to the major political divisions of the country, most of which were once distinct British colonies); riding (a political constituency); status Indian (someone officially registered as a Canadian Indian); CanE reserve as opposed to AmE reservation as a term describing land set aside for Native peoples.

British influence

The social institutions of Canada have been profoundly influenced by the British imperial connection: for example, Parliament in Ottawa, in which usage is comparable to that of the British Parliament in Westminster. The ties of blood are still strong in many places, but have been considerably weakened by the influx into Canada of immigrants from parts of the world where the British connection has been either minimal (as with China and Vietnam) or equivocal (as with India and the West Indies). In addition, the generation that fought alongside the British in the Second World War is growing old, the Queen's representative in Canada (the Governor-General) is no longer a British aristocrat but a Canadian, and where Britain's economic and military interests now lie with Europe, Canada's lie with the US. Nonetheless, some BrE forms are either holding their own or gaining. Younger Canadians of both sexes pronounce been to rhyme with queen and not bin, anti-, semi-, and multi- to rhyme with me, not with my; words ending in -ile to rhyme with Nile and not ill. These all run against the tide of AmE. It may not be clear to these speakers, however, that they are sustaining BrE forms.

Social issues

(1) Stigmatized usages include ‘dropping the g’ in the words ending -ing, especially in going (‘goin’), dropping the t in words like just (‘jus’), and the use of the contraction had've, sometimes written ‘had of’ (We would've helped you if you had've asked us). (2) The trend away from Canadian Raising led by young women seems to indicate that standard AmE rather than standard CanE or standard BrE is becoming the prestige dialect. Jennifer Coates notes, ‘it seems as though women are more sensitive to status-giving prestige norms, … while men are more sensitive to vernacular norms, which represent solidarity and values traditionally associated with masculinity’ (Women, Men and Language, 1986). English Canadians have said and written relatively little about linguistic nationalism and in this they are different from Americans, Australians, Brazilians, Argentinians, and French Canadians: ‘[T]he normal and natural development of linguistic nationalism has apparently been blighted by the peculiar condition of Anglo-Canadian culture, caught between the Scylla of England and the Charybdis of the United States’ ( David Haberley, ‘The Search for a National Language’, Comparative Literature Studies, 11, 1974, p. 87). However, it can be argued that linguistic nationalism is only ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ where its presence does not risk fragmenting the nation. CanE could be described as bland and Canadian attitudes to it as blighted, but CanE, like all varieties of English, is a practical response to a unique set of social, linguistic, and political pressures.

Conclusion

That Canada has had two official languages since its founding may explain why anglophone Canadians have by and large accepted bilingualism and multiculturalism as public policy. However, protest is mounting in New Brunswick and Ontario against this policy, especially by anglophone public servants who fear that their jobs will be classified as ‘bilingual’. Heavy immigration (100,000 in 1985) is a commonplace of Canadian life and shows no sign of slowing. Immigrant varieties have developed, such as Toronto's Italese, an interlanguage resulting from three generations of contact between Italian and English. Currently, half the children in Vancouver schools and a quarter of those in Toronto schools speak English as a second language. This Canada has been described as a ‘two-cultured, multi-ghettoed, plural community’ ( William Kilbourn, Canada: A Guide to the Peaceable Kingdom, 1970), where fascinating and unusual kinds of language change and accommodation are possible. See DIALECT IN CANADA, NEWFOUNDLAND ENGLISH, OTTAWA VALLEY, SOUTHERN ONTARIO.

CANADIAN PLACE-NAMES

The place-names of Canada reflect mixed linguistic origins over some 400 years, and fall into three broad types:

1. Adoptions from Amerindian and Inuit languages

Such names have generally undergone a process of Anglicization or Gallicization, as in: Canada (from Iroquois kanata ‘village’), Manitoba (from either Assiniboin Mini Tobow ‘lake of the prairie’ or Cree Manito Wapow ‘strait of the spirit’), Quebec/Québec (from Algonkian kebec ‘narrow passage, strait’), and Saskatchewan (from Cree Kisiskatchewani Sipi ‘swift-flowing river’). Such adaptations may have an English spelling (as in Shawinigan), a French spelling (as in Chicoutimi), or a neutral form (as with Ottawa and Winnipeg). Combinations of names may perpetuate complex indigenous patterns, as in the city-and-province phrases Saskatoon Saskatchewan and Winnipeg Manitoba.

2. Transfers and inventions by British and French settlers

Place-names of British origin fall into four broad categories: transferred British names such as London, Hamilton, and Kingston (all in Ontario); the commemoration of people in Britain and Canada, as with the Queen Charlotte Islands, King Edward Island, Victoria, Prince Albert (Saskatchewan), Wolfe Island, Churchill Falls (Labrador), and Shakespeare (Ontario); frontier coinages, such as Hell's Gate (rapids on the Fraser River in British Columbia), Kicking Horse Pass, and Medicine Hat; and descriptions, such as Clear Lake and Thunder Bay. Among place-names of French origin, whose pattern is similar, saints' names are particularly notable, especially in Quebec, as with Saint-Chrysostome, Saint-Felix-de-Valois, and even Saint-Stanislas-de-Koska-de-la-Rivière-des-Envies. Some predominantly French names have English equivalents, such as Trois-Rivières (Quebec), also known as Three Rivers. Many names have (more or less) the same spelling in both languages but different pronunciations, as for example Montréal/Montreal, Ontario, and Québec/Quebec. In addition, while the names of some provinces are more or less the same in both the official languages, some are distinctly different; for example, British Columbia is Colombie-Britannique in French, the Anglo-Latin Nova Scotia (New Scotland) is Nouvelle-Ecosse, and Newfoundland is Terreneuve.

3. Native and Anglo-French hybrids and translations

The Red River which flows through Winnipeg, Manitoba translates French Rivière Rouge which in turn translates Cree Miscousipi. In Quebec, such forms as Sainte-Hélène-de-Kamouraska and Saint-Prosper-de-Dorchester result from French/Amerindian and French/English mixing. The now-extinct trading pidgin known as Chinook Jargon (blending Chinook, Nootka, French, and English) has provided the first elements in Siwash Rock (from French sauvage ‘wild, savage’, applied to Amerindians) and Canim Lake (from canoe), both in British Columbia. Dauphin, Manitoba and Bienfait, Saskatchewan are pronounced ‘Doffin’ and ‘Bean Fate’ respectively. And ironically, French Baie D'Espoir ‘bay of hope’, Newfoundland is locally pronounced ‘Bay Despair’.

In the North, an aboriginal revival.

Inuktitut (Eskimo) names are beginning to replace English-language place-names in the North: for example, Frobisher Bay has become Iqaluit and Resolute Bay is Kaujuitoq. In addition, the names for the proposed divisions of the Northwest Territories are Nunavut from Inuktitut for the Eastern Arctic and Denendeh from Dene for the Western Arctic.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"CANADIAN ENGLISH." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"CANADIAN ENGLISH." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 18, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/canadian-english

"CANADIAN ENGLISH." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Retrieved October 18, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/canadian-english

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.