Cape Breton (French: île du Cap-Breton, Scottish Gaelic: Eilean Cheap Breatuinn, Mi’kmaq: U’namakika) is a linguistically complex place. Many Mi’kmaq (Micmac) still speak their Algonquian language; it’s “the only area in the world – outside of Scotland itself – where Gaelic continues as a living language and culture” (the “grouping of people according to their place of origin in Scotland allowed for the transfer, whole and intact, of localized dialects, of music, song and dance traditions, and of patterns of religious adherence”); there’s a community of Acadian French speakers (“When we speak about a cat we pronounce ‘chat’, but when we refer… to a mess or to a wad of chewing tobacco, we pronounce ‘tchat'”); and of course there’s the local variety of English, about which you can get a lively report here. A sample:

The plural of the word “you” is, of course, “youz”. Thus, the phrase “Each of you appears to be quite intoxicated.” becomes “Youz are all fuckin’ right out of ‘er.” If a native Cape Breton is out of work, they are entitled to collect Unemployment Insurance. This is colloquially known as “The Pogey”. Therefore: “Buddy got his pogey, picked up a few points of Keets and got right fuckin’ out of ‘er” is a very common local sentiment.

In Cape Breton it is customary to greet an acquaintance with a warm phrase. Often an inquiry wondering how the other person is faring is rendered as “What’s goin’ on, b’y?” In the fashion of so many cultures, the proper answer to this greeting is “What’s goin’ on?” Everyone else may safely be called “Buddy”. An exchange of pleasantries between two strangers may begin with “Eh? Buddy.” and be reciprocated with “Eh!”

This last is via jb’s MonkeyFilter thread, where you can find more links in the comments.


  1. In Mongol I am told that the pattern is:
    “What’s new?”
    “Nothing much….
    Well… my father died and I went bankrupt”.
    Alternatively, the cues can be “How are you?” and “Fine”.
    Rather like the American Midwestern pattern.
    Jack kerouac’s family was originally Breton. Apparently some Breton speakers who came over did not know French, though by Kerouac’s family was French-speaking. (His father published a French-language newspaper–I’d enjoy looking at the archive to see what he was like.

  2. Martine and Blork, who you may have met at YulBlog in Montreal, have just been to Cape Breton, where, as Martine says, “they make little Blorks”. Both have posted some interesting observations about the place:

  3. Anybody been to or know much about Iles de St. Pierre et Miquelon? I’ve heard they are populated by Basques. There’s supposed to be a ferry line from Halifax there.
    Anyone? I’ll check the search engines.

  4. There are apparently more speakers of Urdu in Scotland now than of Gaelic.

  5. Buddy is also used thus, almost like a 3rd-person-singular pronoun, in Newfoundland – I use it myself too, having picked it up from my wife, who, incidentally, has been to St. Pierre: she just remembers French having been spoken there.

  6. “the only area in the world – outside of Scotland itself – where Gaelic continues as a living language and culture”. Scottish Gaelic, that is. Irish continues to be spoken on some island in the north Atlantic, I’m told.

  7. “Scottish Gaelic, that is. Irish continues to be spoken on some island in the north Atlantic, I’m told.” And of course Welsh Gaelic and Breton Gaelic.
    As for Iles de St. Pierre et Miquelon, they were indeed settled by Basques, but the language has disappeared. They only speak French now.

  8. Fascinating stuff.
    I went to university in Ottawa, and met a lot of people from “down east,” including a Cape Bretoner. The greeting he taught me was “where ya at, b’y?” I also knew a Newfoundlander whose mother, when she was particularly annoyed by her rambunctious children, would scream, “Jesus in the garden, ya fookin’ kids!”
    On reading this post I also realized that there must have been a lot of Maritime transplants in Hamilton, Ontario, where I grew up (about mid-way between Toronto and Buffalo NY), because we, too, use “buddy” as a third-person pronoun. “Check out the lid on buddy,” is a criticism of someone’s haircut.

  9. The greeting he taught me was “where ya at, b’y?”
    Now, that’s fascinating, because “where y’at?” is the classic New Orleans greeting (I’ve written about it here). Could the fleeing Acadiens possibly have brought it with them, or is it pure coincidence?
    I like the Newfoundland mother’s imprecation very much.

  10. Christine, are you sure it wasn’t “What’re ya at, b’y?” It’s more a Newfoundland thing than Cape Breton. A Caper like myself would be more inclined to ask, “How’s she goin’, b’y?”

  11. The English spoken in Cape Breton has definitely been influenced by the other languages. This can be seen clearly in the way some people will say ‘I was just after doing something’ instead of ‘I had just done something.’ This particular construction is taken directly from Gaelic.

  12. Eimear Ní Mhéalóid says

    Andrew; Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx are the three Gaelic languages. They belong to the Goidelic or Q-Celtic branch of Celtic languages, AFAIK, and Welsh, Breton, and Cornish are Brythonic or P-Celtic.

  13. Why, indeed they are. I stand corrected. Thanks!

  14. “where ya at, b’y?” could also be Cornish.

  15. “where ya at, b’y?” could also be Cornish.

  16. (For those of you who might have missed it first time around, I decided to repeat it. JFYI)

  17. In Ireland we say “youz” for the plural of “you”, too. It’s usually spelt “youse”.

  18. Lower-class New Zealand English also has “youse” as an alternative to “you fullas” [fellows].
    I have a friend from elsewhere in North America who uses “buddy” as a 3rd person pronoun. I must make enquiries now.

  19. I heard “dude” used as a third person pronoun by a black American ca. 1990. It seemed a bit more emphatic that “him”, more like “that guy”.

  20. “Youse” shows who’s lower class just about everywhere in the English-speaking world, it seems, including England and South Africa.

  21. Of course not all Cape Bretoners speak as though they have just left the Backwoods and decided to join the ranks of the rest of us. Some are well spoken.
    Others; you can drive about the island and hear a different accent in New Waterford then you will hear in Glace Bay as in teh case of most of the orginally posted examples. Sydney tends to have less of an accent.
    My advice if you ever go to Newfoundland take either a translator or be prepared to ask everyone to speak very slowly.

  22. I’m from Cape Breton, so I thought I would comment on this. I moved to Ohio ten years ago, and I didn’t notice much of a difference in the way that people talk, but when I returned to visit Cape Breton I noticed the accent more strongly. In general, Cape Bretoners that are from more educated backgrounds have less distinct linguistic tendencies, often to the point of just sounding Canadian or almost American. I remember “Ay, how’ she goin by?” was one of the most extreme examples; whenever it was used by my friends or family, it was almost always just a jestful reference to the colorful aspects of our Cape Breton Heritage. I’ve seen different references that said by was short for buddy and some that it meant bye as in good-bye, but I always had understood it to mean boy.

  23. It should be clear from intonation: if it was bye as in good-bye, I’d expect a falling intonation; if “boy,” a rising one. But I could be wrong.

  24. Also, anyone who says “yous” as a plural form of “you” in Cape Breton would seem just as ignorant as if they said it anywhere else.

  25. One more thing- Despite being common throughout English speaking North America, use of the word “dude” is rare in Cape Breton. I once thoughtlessly referred to my Cape Bretoner friend as dude as in “yeah dude, that was pretty cool” and that was returned with “what the fuck did you just call me?”

  26. I am from Cape Breton also and actually in different parts of Glace Bay and New Waterford we do use the word “dude” but not as commonly as they would use it in other places. Also when asking “why” something happened we ask “how” or at least most people that I know do.

  27. There are definitely accent differences from region to region on the island. Sydney Mines “bye” is more like “bah”, Whitney Pier seems to sound like “biih”, Glace Bay like “buye”, and New Waterford, “by” with the ending much quicker. Just an observation.

  28. Ok – I’m from cape breton – moved away – and now I’m back!
    Sure we say “point” rather than “pint” – but we’d never ever say a “point of keets” – we’d say a “point of rhum” or a “case of keiths” (keets) whatever. lol.
    How’s she going by – I’ve never said that – and like buddy up there said – it’s only used when kind of mocking/laughing about ourselves.
    “Buddy” however – well i just used it!

  29. Steve Syms says

    Being from the good ol’ Ilse of Cape Breton, New Waterford in particular, Nena is absolutely right…the accent changes quite a bit…
    Dijjaeetyet?? no,djew?no, yawnta? yupp…is typical slang. Cape Breton English is more half stupid, half english…or just lazy english cause we don’t want to pronounce all the letters. And another one is…What’s yer fadders’ name?? Hear that quite a bit…seems that most people could you know you by your father. There are so many slangs and accents…..I have mostly lost my accent, most people i meet think i’m from Ontario (where I am presently living)…but when i run into a caper or newfie….man the old accent comes a roaring back again…Well lard tunderin geezez by…how she goin eh?? Yer looking good, don’t mean yer good looking doh. how’s yer wife and me kid’s eh? ugly little bastards ain’t they. ahh yes by, i seen buddy da udder day there, he working at whatchacallit, with whatshisface there…yes by dats him. he was askin how ya was…etc, etc, etc…

  30. danny perfect says

    Lard Jumpin Jesus. I’m a Cape Bretoner, lived in Toronto for 12 years, and Newfoundland for 3 years. That, I feel, gives makes me somewhat of an authority on the subject. If you are truly from Cape Breton or Newfoundland and find yourself in Toronto or anywhere else in the North American continent, please be yourself. Speak with your accent, be it lazy, stupid, (Authentic) or otherwise, proudly. I’ve been guilty of it for a year or so, but then I met others walking and talking proud. I felt, I respect that. Then from that point on, I never let my accent go. How’s she going by, does not apply here in Newfoundland. I say, “what’a ya at?”, but with a Cape Breton accent. When elsewhere, I speak all Cape Bretonish. Jamaican’s don’t change in order to relate to others. They are a proud bunch. Now, so am I.

  31. Good for you! I like it when people stand by their way of speaking.

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