The History of Canadian English.

Thomas Rogers writes for BBC.com:

The primary reason for Canadians’ hard-to-identify accent is, of course, historical. Canadian English was partly shaped by early immigrants from the UK and Ireland, but it was affected much more by the arrival of about 45,000 loyalists to the British crown during the American Revolutionary War. By the outbreak of the War of 1812 a few decades later, a significant part of the population of Ontario – which had about 100,000 inhabitants – were of US extraction. The result, especially west of Quebec, was an accent lightly shaped by British English, but much more so by 18th Century colonial American English. Since Ontarians were largely responsible for settling Western Canada in the following decades, their Americanised accent spread across the country and eventually became the de facto accent for the majority of Canadians.

There are a few exceptions: Newfoundland’s population was disproportionally shaped by immigrants from southwestern England and southeastern Ireland, and since the island is geographically isolated and only joined Canada in 1949, it has retained a way of speaking that is dramatically unlike the rest of the country. Other parts of Eastern Canada – including Cape Breton Island and in parts of Prince Edward Island – have also retained distinctive accents.

But if a person travels into western Canada – into Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia – the accent becomes more American-sounding and locally indistinguishable. “The West was a melting pot for settlers from many regions, so there was this leveling out of differences, not only in Canada, but in the US,” says Boberg. “The settlement depth in Western Canada goes into the 1890s, so it is about a century old. The time depth and the population density being very sparse, those encourage widespread leveling and homogeneity.” This makes it very difficult, even for Canadians, to tell the difference between someone from Winnipeg and someone from Vancouver – or from Seattle.

There’s an interesting change happening, which I hadn’t been aware of:

In recent years, academics have noticed that the Canadian accent is undergoing a curious change. Known as ‘the Canadian vowel shift’, the vowels among a wide variety of Canadian demographics are becoming higher and pronounced further back in the mouth – bagel is turning into ‘bahgel’, shoes into ‘shahs’. The reasons aren’t clear, and despite the name of the shift, Canadians are not alone in undergoing the change: something similar is happening in parts of the US, including California (some people are describing this process as the ‘Valley Girl-isation’ of the Canadian accent). Other parts of the US, including some northern regions, aren’t experiencing the shift, so it may end up amplifying differences between the two accents rather than muddling them.

Thanks, Paul!

Comments

  1. I wonder what Rogers means by “bahgel.” The pronunciation I’m used to is /beɪgəl/, but the description makes more sense if he’s talking about /bægəl/ shifting from something like [bægəl] to [bagəl]. The vowel of “shoes” can’t get very much higher, and I doubt it’s getting backer: the usual trend for the “goose” vowel in North America (and California in particular) is fronting to something around [ʉw], especially after coronal consonants (although this fronting is often inhibited before tautosyllabic /l/).

  2. I’ve noticed “i” shifts to “e”: “I will go” becomes “I well go”.
    However, this does not appear to be related to the speaker’s age or geography. I know two Canadian brothers, one of whom talks with the shift (and is unaware of it), and the other who doesn’t, and I’ve heard it everywhere.
    Not sure if it is limited to Canada: given cultural currents, it would make sense to me if the same thing was happening among those US accents that are similar to Canadian accents.

  3. I’m passingly familiar with the Canadian shift (it’s similar to the California shift), but I have no clue what those spellings are about.

  4. The bagel issue is a red herring (or perhaps lox). There’s a separate issue that in parts of Canada “bagel” is indeed pronounced [bægəl], as Eli Nelson surmises. But it’s not a shift (other than the general Canadian backing/lowering of æ); it’s just a different pronunciation with a different underlying vowel.

    Another interesting variant pronunciation of “bagel” is the Philadelphia-area [bɛgəl].

  5. Alon Lischinsky says:

    @Eli Nelson:the description makes more sense if he’s talking about /bægəl/ shifting from something like [bægəl] to [bagəl]

    Spot on:

    Instead of tensing and raising, CE /æ/ retracts and lowers still further in the direction of central open /a/. Such retraction is made possible by the fact that the vowel of such lexical sets as cot and caught —which for most Canadian speakers have undergone merger— has remained in the low back [ɑ] area in CE, where it is variably rounded. In fact, there is evidence (see, e.g., Woods, 1993:170) that this back merged vowel is being increasingly rounded by at least some younger speakers of CE.

    We suggest that it is precisely the merger of the cot/caught vowel which serves as the pivot of the Canadian Shift. The fact that this low back vowel remains a tense peripheral vowel in CE provides the trigger for the lowering and retraction of the entire front lax vowel system; that is, as the low central area of vowel space is not occupied in CE by the vowel of cot, the conditions for a drag chain are created, whereby /æ/ may move into this space, and so on.

    (Clarke et al., 1995:212)

    Clarke and colleagues also note that for many speakers the normal pronunciation of /u/ is closer to [ʊ], and in at least one speaker it goes all the way to [ɪ].

  6. Mike Roberts says:

    if a person travels into western Canada – into Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia – the accent becomes more American-sounding and locally indistinguishable.

    As an American I disagree with that part. If anything, I would say the accent gets more stereotypically Canadian as you go west from Ontario to the Prairie Provinces. When I hear someone with a stereotypical Canadian accent, they’re often from the Canadian prairies. It helps to have an outsider’s perspective sometimes. I don’t agree with him about the “locally distinguishable” point either. Yes, western Washington accents can sound a little Canadian, but I think I can still distinguish them from Vancouver accents.

    This makes it very difficult, even for Canadians to tell the difference…

    I’m not surprised. IME, Canadians always think they sound exactly like Americans, even when they sound like Bob and Doug McKenzie or the late Mayor Rob Ford. Many of them almost seem to get offended when you tell them that that they don’t sound exactly like us. I’m not sure why that is. If I were from different country, I’d want it to have it’s own, unique accent. Most people don’t think like me I guess.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    IME, Canadians always think they sound exactly like Americans, even when they sound like Bob and Doug McKenzie or the late Mayor Rob Ford. Many of them almost seem to get offended when you tell them that that they don’t sound exactly like us. I’m not sure why that is. If I were from different country, I’d want it to have it’s own, unique accent.

    I thought that was the whole motivation for Canadian Raising?

    (Canadian Raising is the only difference I’ve noticed between Canadians and estadounidenses – I had an opportunity to compare several of them just two weeks ago. Maps show the southern border of Canadian Rasing lining up uncannily precisely with the political border.)

  8. Canadian raising of /aɪ/ is pretty common throughout the northern United States; raising of /aʊ/ much, much less so, but still present in parts of New England and the Upper Midwest.

  9. @ Mike Roberts: Canadians always think they sound exactly like Americans even when they sound like Bob and Doug McKenzie or…Robert Ford.

    I think this is often a matter of “you sound Canadian” being interpreted as shorthand for “you sound like one of those jackasses.”
    Nobody I know in Canada objects if I bring up the matter more specifically: for example, mentioning cot/caught, or will/well.

  10. Mike Roberts: How distinguishable those Canadian accents are is definitely a function of how much one is paying attention. I was talking to my friend Alex Ogden the other night. (He and his wife are basically the whole Russian program at the University of South Carolina.) He mentioned that he was from Canada, which I had not known. However, once I knew, I could pretty easily identify what part of the country he was from by his accent.

  11. In the early 20th century there was a lot of American immigration into the Prairies because it was easy to get agricultural land. That affected the accent and also other cultural peculiarities, such as an aversion to two-dollar bills. I have relatives in Alberta (some of whom descend from those American immigrants). The difference in accent is there for the older generation, but it hasn’t been passed down to the younger people. They have more what I would call “general Canadian” accents. And of course there are no two-dollar bills any more.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    but still present in parts of New England and the Upper Midwest

    Oh, that’s something I hadn’t noticed. Raising of /aɪ/ goes all the way to Maryland, though.

  13. I have been able to distinguish Canadians from Americans because the former tend to say “hoos” for house and “aboot” for about – or used to.

  14. One of my three Canadian professors, born in Saskatchewan, said “hoce” for “house” and “aboat” for “about.” (Paul’s version above is even more extreme, with “oo” intstead of “o”.) The other two talked like nondescript Americans. Or so I heard them.

  15. Paul’s version above is even more extreme, with “oo” intstead of “o”.

    That’s not how they talk, it’s how Americans hear/describe it. It’s actually a diphthong starting with schwa, but we have no easy way to transcribe that (outside of actual linguistic transcription, which nobody but specialists uses).

  16. Alon Lischinsky says:

    The informed opinion (pace Paul) seems to be that no-one says “aboot” /əˈbuːt/. Canadian pronunciations range from /əˈbʌʊt/ to /əˈbɛʊt/, but it’s always a diphthong.

    Admittedly, [ʌʊ] is unheard-of in American English, though it exists in rightpondian varieties as one of the outcomes of the London/Estuary GOAT split: “goal” /ˈgɒʊl/ vs “goat” /ˈgʌʊt/.

  17. Well, Scots do: the Great Vowel Shift didn’t affect back vowels for them.

  18. Admittedly, [ʌʊ] is unheard-of in American English,

    On the contrary: there are more vowels in American English than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Listen to speaker 4 at 3:00, speaker 5 from 2:55 to 3:35, or speaker 7 at 3:10. The oldest speakers around here may lack raising, but since WW2, [ʌʊ] has really become an essential part of the eastern Massachusetts accent. My own native variety, an idiosyncratic mix of ENE and GA, used [ɛʊ]; I dropped it in college, though.

    though it exists in rightpondian varieties as one of the outcomes of the London/Estuary GOAT split: “goal” /ˈgɒʊl/ vs “goat” /ˈgʌʊt/.

    The southeastern British GOAT tends to have have a fronted offglide, though.

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    The geographical range of language varieties often fails to match up perfectly to political boundaries on the map, and some aspects of stereotypically-Canadian phonology sometimes wander across the border a little bit. Back 30+ years ago I had a college roommate from Green Bay, Wisconsin who pronounced “about” and some similar words more or less the way we had learned (via the Bob and Doug McKenzie characters on “The Great White North”) that Canadians did.

  20. I once worked with a woman who had a perfectly ordinary standard-issue mainstream American accent, except that her ‘about’ had a strong Canadian tinge to it (to my ear, I mean). I asked her about it and she said she was from the Northern Neck of Virginia, and that that pronunciation is a local characteristic. I’ve since noticed a similar vowel in people from the Eastern Shore of Maryland (the bit on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay).

  21. Eli Nelson says:

    The southeastern British GOAT tends to have have a fronted offglide, though.

    @Lazar: The impression I’ve got from reading descriptions of British English is that fronting of the offglide in GOAT (or MOUTH) is more variable between speakers than fronting of the nucleus of GOAT, and perceived as a less “neutral” feature of an accent: it seems it may be stereotypically associated with upper-class accents.

    John Wells wrote a blog post in 2010 about fronting of the offglide in MOUTH: the myth of maɨθ. It’s possible there is a significant difference in the frequency of fronting in “MOUTH” and “GOAT”, although I’m not aware of it.

  22. Fronted offglides in GOAT are associated with both U-RP and Estuary – but with a fronted mid onset in the former, and an unfronted low onset in the latter. For example, check out how this girl from Essex says “so” at 0:09, or “below” at 0:57. In some of the most deprecated youth varieties, GOAT can even become [ɐᵻ], approaching the mythical U-RP MOUTH.

  23. Some other traits shared by “plummy” U-RP and common southeastern speech, but not by standard bourgeois RP, are the use of a high-mid [oː] in THOUGHT, and the use of a fully back (rather than near-back) [ɑː] in PALM/START. Not to mention the old aristocratic penchant for huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’.

  24. Speaking of American accents, I just learned of Edward McClelland’s How To Speak Midwestern, newly released by Belt publishing. Here’s an excerpt, about the accent of St. Louis.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    There are British accents that turn GOAT into a fully front [œy̑], but I don’t know where they’re located geographically.

    Unrounding of German u, including au, occurs in Saxony, resulting in [aɨ̯] or thereabouts for au.

  26. There are British accents that turn GOAT into a fully front [œy̑]

    I used to hear something very like this half a century ago in West Virginia, I think as a young female (and gay?) affectation.

  27. @Mike Roberts: Well, you might be annoyed if an English person felt the need to give your country an extra acknowledgment of its independence by insisting that you speak “American” rather than “English”.

    People’s identities are often bound up in the languages they speak (or consider themselves to speak). If a given Canadian’s sense of identity includes the belief that (s)he speaks with the same accent as Americans, then it’s not surprising if (s)he gets annoyed when an American rejects that identification, whether or not (s)he normatively feels that Canadians and Americans should have the same accent.

    (And this is far from specific to Canadians. I’ve known New Yorkers who insist they don’t have a New York accent, Southerners who insist they don’t have a Southern accent, and so on. (And sometimes, incidentally, I’ve agreed with them; but sometimes not.) Canada happens to be a separate country, but linguistically its English speakers are clearly part of the same dialect system as those of the US, and there’s no reason that they should insist otherwise.)

  28. All anglophones are part of the same dialect system. There are isoglosses that cross the Atlantic to enclose parts of the Northeast.

  29. A few thoughts:

    Though likely gone for 75 years or so, there was a unilingual Scots Gaelic community in Nova Scotia, possibly in the Cape Breton area. Its speech patterns may have influenced the region.

    Years ago I took a night train from London to Edinburgh. Leaving the station I felt I had arrived in Ottawa. The Daily Scotsman read more like a Canadian daily than anything published on Fleet St.

    Many of the Hudson’s Bay Co. factors (think Moose Factory, the oldest ‘white’ settlement in Ontario and still without road access) were Scots. Were their numbers large enough to have affected speech patterns over generations?

    People with a sharp ear quickly pick up my ‘oot ‘n’ aboot’ even though I haven’t lived in Canada for almost 25 years.

  30. It’s been mentioned here that a lot of the traits that distinguish Canadian pronunciation within a North American context – maybe even most – are similar or parallel to those of Scottish English.

  31. Mike Roberts says:

    David Marjanović

    Canadian Raising is the only difference I’ve noticed between Canadians and estadounidenses – I had an opportunity to compare several of them just two weeks ago.

    That’s definitely not the only difference I notice between my accent and a typical Canadian one. Also if you’re not a native speaker of English, you can’t expect to able to distinguish native accents as well as natives can. I hope that doesn’t sound rude, but it’s true. I can’t distinguish different accents of Hindi or Greek. It’s good to have a little humility sometimes.

  32. Mike Roberts says:

    Ran

    Canada happens to be a separate country, but linguistically its English speakers are clearly part of the same dialect system as those of the US, and there’s no reason that they should insist otherwise.

    Maybe, but there’s a difference between being “part of the same dialect system” and sounding exactly like each other. Me and someone with a heavy Maine accent could be said to be part of the “same dialect system” too, but we sound very different from each other. The Canadians I’m thinking of seemed to think they sounded exactly like me, but they sounded very Canadian.

  33. Mike Roberts says:

    David L

    I once worked with a woman who had a perfectly ordinary standard-issue mainstream American accent, except that her ‘about’ had a strong Canadian tinge to it (to my ear, I mean). I asked her about it and she said she was from the Northern Neck of Virginia, and that that pronunciation is a local characteristic.

    I’m not surprised. I had a female landlord a few years ago in her 40s or 50s who I think was from even further north than that in the Virginia suburbs of D.C. She also had a somewhat Canadian-like vowel in words like about. But otherwise her accent was a pretty ordinary American accent, just like your woman. If it means anything, this Wikipedia article says that house is pronounced [həʊ̯s] Washington D.C. and [hɛʊ̯s] in Charlottesville, VA. If you don’t know the IPA, that’s basically saying that house is pronounced in a Canadian-like fashion in those 2 cities. Although I think I could maybe still distinguish that Virginia pronunciation from the Canadian one.

    Not to get off on too big of a tangent, but the antepenultimate sentence in the preceding paragraph also reminds me of how little I know about the Washington D.C. accent. I have seen very little literature on it and no one ever talks about it. I have seen videos of elderly white people from there who had old-fashioned Southern accents with R-dropping, etc. I have heard other people from the D.C. region who had pretty typical East Coast/Philly/NYC-type accents. There seems to be a weird mixture of accents in that region. It seems like a very interesting area linguistically and in many other ways.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    Also if you’re not a native speaker of English, you can’t expect to able to distinguish native accents as well as natives can.

    *blink* Of course not. I didn’t mean to imply any such thing. Quite the contrary – I was trying to imply that this is the most noticeable difference.

  35. Re: fronted offglides for GOAT or MOUTH words in English English

    I hear fronted offglides in GOAT words much more from Southern Hemisphere Anglophones than from the English (or anyone else, for that matter). I wonder if their frequency in England has maybe been exaggerated in the literature. When I do hear strongly fronted offglides from English people, it seems like it’s usually female or gay male vloggers under 25 years of age using them. And even they don’t use strongly fronted offglides all the time.

    When it comes to MOUTH words, fronted offglides* can be heard in the West Country (including parts of Cornwall)** north to some of the relatively rural counties of the West Midlands that border Wales. It seems to me that in some parts of the latter area, a West Country-ish MOUTH vowel competes with a West Midlands type MOUTH vowel and both may be used by the same person in different words. Another thing I’ve noticed is that some people in the West Country today only use the fronted offglide in certain phonetic environments (often before /n/, in my experience). It’s a special allophone for them, it would seem. Lancashire accents also have a very noticeably fronted offglide in the MOUTH set of words. According to books, East Anglian accents have a somewhat fronted offglide too, but I don’t notice that feature as much there as in the other regions I mentioned. In fact, East Anglian accents have quite a bit in common with West Country accents and could maybe be said to be essentially non-rhotic (R-dropping) West Country accents. British actors do often get the two confused, for what it’s worth.

    * Fronted onglides in MOUTH words can be heard in the West Country too, either with or without fronted offglides.

    ** And also east to cities as close to London as Reading and High Wycombe. These co-occur (or use to co-occur) with some other West Country type vowel and consonant features in those cities. In fact, many parts of the Home Counties around London used to (and to some extent still do) have West Country-ish accents. I sometimes wonder if these accents give us a clue to how urban London accents sounded a long time ago.

  36. Mike Roberts says:

    @ David:

    I’m sorry. My mistake.

  37. Mike Roberts says:

    Re: fronted offglides for GOAT or MOUTH words in English English

    I hear fronted offglides in GOAT words much more from Southern Hemisphere Anglophones than from the English (or anyone else, for that matter). I wonder if their frequency in England has maybe been exaggerated in the literature. When I do hear strongly fronted offglides from English people, it seems like it’s usually female or gay male vloggers under 25 years of age using them. And even they don’t use strongly fronted offglides all the time.

    When it comes to MOUTH words, fronted offglides* can be heard in the West Country (including parts of Cornwall)** north to some of the relatively rural counties of the West Midlands that border Wales. It seems to me that in some parts of the latter area, a West Country-ish MOUTH vowel competes with a West Midlands type MOUTH vowel and both may be used by the same person in different words. Another thing I’ve noticed is that some people in the West Country today only use the fronted offglide in certain phonetic environments (often before /n/, in my experience). It’s a special allophone for them, it would seem. Lancashire accents also have a very noticeably fronted offglide in the MOUTH set of words. According to books, East Anglian accents have a somewhat fronted offglide too, but I don’t notice that feature as much there as in the other regions I mentioned. In fact, East Anglian accents have quite a bit in common with West Country accents and could maybe be said to be essentially non-rhotic (R-dropping) West Country accents. British actors do often get the two confused, for what it’s worth.

    * Fronted onglides in MOUTH words can be heard in the West Country too, either with or without fronted offglides.

    ** And also east to cities as close to London as Reading and High Wycombe. These co-occur (or use to co-occur) with some other West Country type vowel and consonant features in those cities. In fact, many parts of the Home Counties around London used to (and to some extent still do) have West Country-ish accents. I sometimes wonder if these accents give us a clue to how urban London accents sounded a long time ago.

  38. Mike Roberts says:

    Sorry for the pseudonym above. This is my real name. I feel a little uncomfortable using it sometimes online. Not that I’m doing anything wrong here of course 🙂

  39. Yeah, I think you’re right that offglide fronting in GOAT is less progressed in southern England than in the Antipodes.

    Oddly, though, I’ve heard it not only from progressive Estuary speakers like the Essex girl above, but also from some young actresses with more RP-like accents: for example, Emilia Clarke here at 0:11 and 0:28. In these cases we might be seeing a convergence of the newer Estuary trend with the older posh trend.

    (Another trait that I’ve noticed among posher-sounding young English actresses is a lower value of NURSE, around true [ɜː], rather than the standard RP [ǝː].)

  40. Mike Roberts says:

    I’m not sure I agree that offglide fronting is an old posh English trend. Onglide fronting and offglide unrounding, yes, but not offglide fronting so much. I think that’s another thing that has maybe been exaggerated in linguistic literature. I hear stronger fronting of the offglide of the GOAT vowel in your Essex girl video than in your Emilia Clarke video. Good night.

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