Thursday, June 23, 2011

Canadian English – Eh?

My Oxford Canadian Dictionary has a fascinating 2 page article (in fine print) called “Canadian English: 250 Years in the Making” by J.K. Chambers, 1998. The book The Oxford Companion to the English Language has a 4 page entry on Canadian English. From these two sources I synthesized a brief history of Canadian English to show how and why we differ from British and American English.

The first recorded reference to “Canadian English” was by Rev. A. Constable Geikie in 1857 (10 years before Confederation) who disparaged it as “a corrupt dialect.” Mr. Geikie was a new Canadian, having emigrated with his family from Britain in 1843. To him, proper English was how he and his family spoke (a universal bias!) whereas the English spoken by those already settled in Canada was some form of “low English”.

Most of these established settlers were descendants of refugees from the American Revolution (1776-1783) – which Canadians like to call “United Empire Loyalists” – who brought with them their Northern American dialect. There were some 50,000 Loyalists who came to Canada during this time – to the Maritimes (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I.), Lower Canada (Quebec), and Upper Canada (southern Ontario). Another 80,000 followed after 1791. By the start of the War of 1812, 80% of Upper Canada’s population was of American background. Much to the surprise of the American invaders, these transplanted Americans by and large fought alongside the British soldiers rather than join the American “liberators”. [As an aside, some years ago I gained insight into how this war is perceived differently south of the border by a reference made by my 3rd cousin-once-removed in Michigan to the “Continental Army” (vs. the British Army, I presume).]

Following the War of 1812 there was a large wave of British immigration into Upper Canada, of which the Geikie family was a part, which more than doubled the population. This was a deliberate recruitment of British settlers by the Canadian governors, with support of British government, to consolidate the loyalty to Britain of Canadian inhabitants in order to ward off possible future American expansionism. The linguistic effect was to overlay the Loyalists’ English with a layer of more modern British English. Unfortunately for the likes of Mr. Geikie, the lasting effects of this influence was minimized by the tendency of children to conform to their peers – they grew up speaking not like their British parents but like their Canadian schoolmates.

This British English overlay provided at most an alternative way of speaking and spelling, and Canadians, being the tolerant bunch we are, tolerated both. Examples given by Chambers include variations in the pronunciation of leisure and either, and in the spelling of color/colour and neighbor/neighbour. Both versions persist to this day with the British version, until recently, considered to be somewhat superior.

Canadians still hold different but firm opinions on these variations. Until I read these articles I thought that the British English was the “original” Canadian English and the American a later “corruption”, so believed it patriotic, for example, to add the extra ‘u’ in spelling colour. On the other hand, my wife, who can boast Loyalist ancestry on her father’s side and has added practicality from her mother’s Scottish genes, omits the “useless u”. I now see that the American spellings and pronunciations are at least as Canadian, and perhaps more so, than the later imported British ones. It depends on how strongly you define “Canadian” as “not American”.  It should be no surprise then to learn that while most Ontarians prefer colour, more Albertans prefer color.

Of course there are other unique characteristics of Canadian English. In addition to the British and American influences, Canadian English borrows many words from French and from the many languages of our indigenous peoples. There is also some influence from French on Canadian English grammar. The only example I can think of is the naming of federal government institutions like Immigration Canada, Revenue Canada and Air Canada where the modifying word Canada follows the noun in the same pattern as adjectives follow the noun in French (la balle rouge / the red ball). These names are all recent (defined as “within my lifetime”) changes from the more traditional English “Canadian Department of Immigration” etc. The changes saved a lot of ink while at the same time appealing to the French Canadian population.

There are also minor pronunciation differences between Canadian and American English which I won’t go into because I don’t understand them well and they are probably more a result of drift than of history. Canadians pronounce house, out and about differently than Americans, and pronounce certain pairs of words like cot & caught and caller & collar as homonyms while most American pronunciation distinguishes between them.

Of course the most famous difference is the unique Canadian word Eh. My American friends find our use of this word amusing. I just think of it as a more polite word for the American Huh – at least when it’s used to mean “pardon me?” or “what did you say?” Eh though has so many more uses – like “don’t you agree?” as in “it’s cold out, eh?” or as a replacement for the hesitating um or uhh as in “it was storming so bad, eh, we got stuck in a snowdrift, eh, and had to build an igloo, eh…”. This last usage of eh is considered stereotypically Canadian (not unlike my example). So there, eh?


  1. Very interesting article. Language evolves, that is for sure. Saskatchewan English next?

    Albertans are just American wannabees. If we could move the entire province down between Idaho and Montana, they could have it.

  2. It's a land cultivated by many of us who love words and the arts both. This is a fine spot to explore. Welcome to Blogtopia!

  3. One thing about *that* type of Albertan is they can be pretty pro-american but they don't actually want to become Americans. I know people who watch fox 24-7 and might as well fly the stars and stripes but talk about how great Alberta might do at the olympics on their own, not as part of the States. They won't swap one federal government for another, especially when the Canadian government won't mess with their education system and there's no guarantee about health care either now.

  4. Here is a more recent essay on the topic.
    By the way, I have never heard a Canadian say "oot" and "aboot" for out and about. What part of Canada would that be from? Or is it just that we don't say "owt" and "abowt"?

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