The Varieties of English site (maintained by the Anthropology Department of the University of Arizona) is an ongoing project to describe various English dialects; some links take you to a “we’re working on this” page, but the Canadian English section is well filled out and quite interesting:

Canadian English, for all its speakers, is an under-described variety of English. In popular dialectological literature it is often given little acknowledgement as a distinct and homogeneous variety, save for a paragraph or two dedicated to oddities of Canadian spelling and the fading use of British-sounding lexical items like chesterfield, serviette, and zed.

There is a small body of scholarly research that suggests that if there is such a thing as a Canadian English, all its unique characteristics are being lost… To the contrary, this site’s discussion of Canadian phonology identifies at least four other characteristics not included in Woods’ study, all of which remain robust in Canadian speech. The other sections offer further insight into the character of Canadian English.

(Via mj klein of Metrolingua, a blog on “language discussion and expression.”)

Addendum. A nice supplement: Wikipedia’s List of dialects of the English language. (Via Plep.)


  1. While not strictly English dialects, this link of non-native speakers along with an IPA transcription from George Mason Uni is pretty neat.

  2. Thank you for posting the Varieties of English site. There indeed is such a thing as Canadian English. I was largely unaware of it growing up on the U.S. side of the border. It wasn’t until I went to work in Canada temporarily in 1974 that I noticed it. The accent is stronger the further away from the U.S. border you go. In northern Alberta, I definitely heard chesterfield for “couch” and chips with tomato sauce for “french fries and ketchup”. House and mouth were pronounced hoh-ss and moh-th a process in linguistics called “Canadian rounding.”
    There is a new Chicano English emerging in the western Unired States but there never has been much of what you could call “Indian English” even though I do remember a Duwamish boy in Seattle once saying “I tolchoo gwaema – I told you grandma” which I thought sounded a little quaint. For the most part, American Indian tribes in the U.S. didn’t have large enough population ratios to form their own varieties of English. All of the American Indian kids I went to school with including Blackfeet, Cherokees and Sioux spoke very much General American English and one, Bob White, a Cree from Alabama spoke with a southern drawl. .

  3. Erratum: Cree should be Creek

  4. An appeal to the collective readership of currentlinguistics blogs: I seem to recall recently reading an article somewhere that said, basically, rural white people in the United States imagine they all have unique regional dialacts, but apart from one or two signature words or habits like the local equivalent of the Philly Cheesesteak, they are really speaking pretty much the same way.
    Can anyone recall and successfully retrieve the article I seem to remember, and bring it to bear upon the point at hand?
    And a question for those who know better than I do: how thick does a regional accent have to be before it becomes a dialect?

  5. And, just for the record, I’ve never met a Canadian who says ‘aboot’. 😉

  6. pierre: It may not be the article you are thinking of, but there was a piece titled Local Color Illusion in the Language Log a few months ago that concluded that what people usually identify as features specific to their dialect are shared by many others.

  7. That’s it, thanks!

  8. The aboot thing is really cool. Most Canadians do not hear a big difference between the American and Canadian pronunciation of “about.” The American vowel sound is a bit longer, maybe a bit lower, but nothing to write home about. Americans, however hear the Canadian version strongly as “aboot,” yet to a Canadian, the American imitation sounds much further from the Canadian word than the American about.
    I encountered the same thing speaking Klingon, where American Klingon speakers often hear my o (we’re told it should sound like o in mosaic, and that’s how I pronounce it) as a u (there are many minimal pairs in Klingon) so they hear tIpuSmoH (“make them few”) when I say tIpoSmoH (“open them”). Yet I hear their o and u sounds as distinct and recognizable. It’s as if Americans and Canadians draw the boundary between o and u sounds in a different place, with the Canadian boundary closer to the u and the American boundary closer to the o. Does that make any sense?

  9. I don’t know if this is online but I am currently looking at the “Encarta World English Dictionary” (presumably Encarta also publish an American English Dictionary), and it has a self-contained entry on Canadian English (p272 in my edition) which divides it into three regional varieties: (1)the Atlantic provinces of which the Newfoundland dialect is the most distinctive, (2) Quebec, and (3) everywhere else, and focused on Ontario.
    To take an extract: “Canadian English blends, to an increasing degree, the conventions of the United Kingdom (decreasingly influential) and, increasingly, those of the United States. US spelling now predominates. … Canadian English is ‘rhotic’, i.e. r is pronounced in such words as art, door, worker. … Distinctly Canadian English vocabulary includes: (1) adoptions from indigenous languages such as … (2) adoptions from French as in … (3) British English usages adapted for local purposes include riding (originally one of three divisions in Yorkshire, which in Canada means a political constituency) and prime minister (the federal first minister) contrasted with premier (the first minister of a provincial government).
    I’m immensely impressed by Encarta, and generally use it as a first reference over the OED.

  10. Nice site, languagehat. I’ve added the Wikipedia one to my Favourites list and on UK dialects it seems to be pretty sound overall, though I have one or two little quibbles (eg Pitmatic includes Durham as well as Northumberland). BTW, as a Brit I can hear the difference between Canadian and US English, albeit it’s a slight one.

  11. Qov: Interesting! I’ve thought of that too, because I can’t think of any other explanation. Canadians do tend to pronounce ‘about’ like ‘a boat’, especially in the east. Perhaps to Americans it sounds like ‘aboot’. Where I’m from (Cape Breton Island), some people would have trouble distinguishing between ‘out and about’ and ‘out in a boat’, because they both sound like ‘oat n a boat’.
    And I find it interesting that there’s actually American Klingon and Canadian Klingon. Hehe…

  12. I’m still puzzling over this one.
    If the idea of Local Color is generally illusory (see other article linked in comment above) doesn’t that imply there is a generic white American rural/non-book-learnin’ sort of speech?
    But if indeed there are multiple dialects, and the idea of Local Color is illusory, we conclude that while the locals are right about their color, they are wrong about what comprises it.
    Yes? No? Is the question meaningless on grounds of no firm definition of “dialect”?

  13. The ending of “about” is a dipthong, but when Canadians or American mimic each other they change it to a simple vowel. So Americans say something like “ah-oat” and Canadians say something like “ah-oot” or maybe “uh-oot”. But the mimic versions are “aboat” and “aboot”.
    I grew up in rural Minnesota with the Canadian form. Last time I visited Minnesota I also noticed that my sister who still lives there also aspirates the “t” at the end, which I’ve been told is the proper German “t”.
    When I started studying German I also found that the construction “So the…..?” or “So……then?”, featured in movie Fargo, also is normal German.

  14. Of course the vowels in “aboat” and “aboot” are diphthongs as well, just different ones.

  15. I was pleased to see the distinction between the Canadian and American pronunciations of so-called “borrowed words” — pasta, lava, plaza — mentioned because this is something I, as a Canadian, have noticed a lot in recent years. Perhaps I just wasn’t very observant when I was younger but it seems to me that years ago the American and Canadian pronunciations were more similar than they are now and that this elongation of the “a” in the U.S. is something that has increased over the years. In fact, it seems to be a phenomenon that has been bleeding into the pronunciation of other words which don’t appear to have any overt connection to other languages at all. For example, the American pronunciation of a name like Anna sounds to me like “Onna” and I have even heard names like Suzanne and Maryann pronounced “Suzonne” and “Maryon”. I also remember Tom Hulce in the movie “Fearless” pronounce haggle as “hoggle”. The American “a” in this context is coming to sound more like the “o” in “hot” than the “a” is the Italian “pasta”. It’s a slight distinction but it can be noticeable. Is this a general trend in American speech, a kind of modern vowel shift?

  16. I’m Australian and have lived about 9 months each in the USA and Canada. Most Australians cannot easily distinguish between USA and Canadian accents. While in North American I learned to listen for “oat n about” (not “aboot” to my ears). In the USA I always found myself picking up a local accent and got so good at imitating one that many didn’t realise I was foreign. Oddly, while in Canada, I couldn’t for the life of me pick up the local accent or even attempt to imitate it. This surprised me since I still couldn’t always tell the difference when meeting new people. A final surprise came when I was about to leave Canada for Mexico. I realized was now pronouncing “Mexico” with a “Candian o” – and have retained it to some extent 10 years on! My “o”s now feel rounder or more u- or w- coloured but I’m not sure how exactly to describe it. It’s common for people to inquire about my accent but nobody thinks I sound Canadian.
    On “oat n aboat”, a similar shibboleth exists for distinguishing Australians and New Zealanders. Ask them to say “fish and chips”. To Aussie ears NZers say “fəsh and chəps” or even “fush and chups”. To NZ ears Aussies say “feesh and cheeps”.

  17. Chuck: I think you’re conflating different phenomena. Americans have always used the “ah” vowel in pasta and lava; plaza varies (I’m not sure whether the variation is geographical). I’ve never heard the women’s names pronouced as you suggest; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a few people pronounce them that way, but names are notoriously idisyncratic. And I saw Sideways and didn’t notice the strange pronunciation of “haggle” — it may be there, but if so it’s an accident of the moment. Nobody says “hoggle.”

  18. The sound of the American “ah” often does sound more like a short “o” to me, but that is, I think, both a result of the way I hear sounds and, I suspect, just how easy it is to pronounce that vowel slightly farther back in the mouth. I don’t think “Onna” is at all uncommon, and I heard both Suzanne and Maryann pronounced with the “o” on CNN (see Suzanne Malveaux). I’m sure “hoggle” was just an isolated case but it always stuck out in my mind. Nonetheless, the quality of the “a” does sound distinctly different from the similar sound in European languages I am familiar with — I speak some Italian and Russian and have some familiarity with German the “a” in “pasta” is shorter than the “a” in “pasta” as Americans say it. Perhaps it is just the length of the “a” that makes it sound like a short “o” to me.
    By the way, I experience a similar sort of mishearing where I live as people from other parts of Canada and even of my province think that we say the “a” in “father” like “lather” whereas to me it sounds like others say “fother”. They would probably say they pronounce it “fahther” and we say “f(ae)ther” but I think we say “fahther” and they say “fother”. Ears are funny things sometimes.

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