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Canadian English: Phonetic Peculiarities

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John Doe

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1. Introduction

2. History

3. Spelling and dictionaries

4. Phonemic incidence

5. Regional Variation

5.1 Western and Central Dialect

5.1.1 Canadian raising

5.1.2 The low-back merger and the Canadian Shift

5.1.3 Other features

5.1.4 British Columbia

5.1.5 Prairies (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta)

5.1.6 Ontario Ottawa Valley Toronto

5.1.7 Quebec

5.2 Maritimes

5.3 Newfoundland

1. Introduction.

It is common knowledge that over 300 million people now speak English as first language. It is the national language of Great Britain, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Canada (part of it).

English was originally spoken in England and south-eastern Scotland. Later it was introduced into a number of other countries which are situated both in Great Britain and overseas.

Nowadays two main types of English are spoken in the English-speaking world: English English and American English. According to British dialectologists (P.Trudgill, J.Hannah, A.Hughes and others) the following variants are referred to the English-based group: English English, Welsh English, Australian English, New Zealand English; to the American-based group: United States English and Canadian English.

Canadian English (CanE) is the variety of North American English used in Canada. More than 25 million Canadians (85 percent of the population) have some knowledge of English. Approximately 17 million have English as their native language. Excluding Quebec, 76% speak English natively. The phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and lexicon for most of Canada are very similar to that of the Western and Midlands regions of the United States. Сanadian English also contains elements of British English in its vocabulary, as well as several distinctive Canadianisms. The spelling is a blend of American and British spelling. Many areas have also been influenced by French, and there are notable local variations. However, Canada has very little dialect diversity compared to the United States and other English speaking countries.

2. History

The term "Canadian English" is first attested in a speech by the Reverend A. Constable Geikie in an address to the Canadian Institute in 1857. Geikie, a Scottish-born Canadian, reflected the Anglocentric attitude prevalent in Canada for the next hundred years when he referred to the language as "a corrupt dialect," in comparison to what he considered the proper English spoken by immigrants from Britain.

CanE is the product of four waves of immigration and settlement over a period of almost two centuries. The first large wave of permanent English-speaking settlement in Canada, and linguistically the most important, was the influx of British Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, chiefly from the Mid-Atlantic States. The second wave from Britain and Ireland was encouraged to settle in Canada after the War of 1812 by the governors of Canada, who were worried about anti-English sentiment among its citizens. Waves of immigration from around the globe peaking in 1910 and 1960 had a lesser influence, but they did make Canada a multicultural country, ready to accept linguistic change from around the world during the current period of globalization. The languages of Canadian Aboriginal peoples started to influence European languages used in Canada even before widespread settlement took place, and the French of Lower Canada provided vocabulary to the English of Upper Canada.

3. Spelling and dictionaries

Canadian spelling of the English language combines British and American rules. Most notably, French-derived words that in American English end with -or and -er, such as color or center, usually retain British spellings (colour, honour and centre), although American spellings are not uncommon. Also, while the U.S. uses the Anglo-French spelling defense (noun), Canada uses the British spelling defence. (Note that defensive is universal.) In other cases, Canadians and Americans stand at odds with British spelling, such as in the case of nouns like tire and curb, which in British English are spelled tyre and kerb. Words such as realize and recognize are usually spelled with -ize rather than -ise. (The etymological convention that verbs derived from Greek roots are spelled with -ize and those from Latin with -ise is preserved in that practice.)

Canadian spelling rules can be partly explained by Canada's trade history. For instance, the British spelling of the word cheque probably relates to Canada's once-important ties to British financial institutions. Canada's automobile industry, on the other hand, has been dominated by American firms from its inception, explaining why Canadians use the American spelling of tire and American terminology for the parts of automobiles.

The first truly Canadian dictionaries of CanE were edited by Walter Spencer Avis and published by Gage Ltd. Toronto. The Beginner's Dictionary (1962), the Intermediate Dictionary (1964) and, finally, the Senior Dictionary (1967) were milestones in CanE lexicography. Many secondary schools in Canada use these dictionaries. The dictionaries have regularly been updated since, the Senior Dictionary was renamed Gage Canadian Dictionary and exists in what may be called its 5th edition from 1997. Gage was acquired by Thomson Nelson around 2003. Concise versions and paperback version are available.

In 1997, the ITP Nelson Dictionary of the Canadian English Language was another product, but has not been updated since.

In 1998, Oxford University Press produced a Canadian English dictionary, after five years of lexicographical research, entitled The Oxford Canadian Dictionary. A second edition, retitled The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, was published in 2004. Just as the older dictionaries it includes uniquely Canadian words and words borrowed from other languages, and surveyed spellings, such as whether colour or color was the most popular choice in common use. Paperback and concise versions (2005, 2006), with minor updates, are available.

The scholarly Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP) was first published in 1967 by Gage Ltd. It was a partner project of the Senior Dictionary (and appeared only a few weeks apart from each other). The DCHP can be considered the "Canadian OED", as it documents the historical development of CanE words that can be classified as "Canadianisms". It therefore includes words such as mukluk, Canuck, bluff and grow op, but does not list common core words such as desk, table or car. It is a specialist, scholarly dictionary, but is not without interest to the general public. After more than 40 years, a second edition has been commenced at UBC in Vancouver in 2006.

4. Phonemic Incidence

The pronunciation of certain words has both American and British influence.

  • The name of the letter Z is normally the Anglo-European (and French) zed; the American zee is not unknown in Canada, but it is often stigmatized.

  • Canadians side with the British on the pronunciation of lieutenant /lɛi'tɛnənt/, shone /ʃɒn/, lever /'li:və/, and several other words; been is pronounced by many speakers as /bi:n/ rather than /bɪn/; as in Southern England, either is more commonly /aɪðɚ/ than /i:ðɚ/.

  • Again and against are often pronounced /ə'geɪn(st)/ rather than /ə'gɛn(st)/.

  • The stressed vowel of words such as borrow, sorry or tomorrow is /ɔr/ rather than / ɒr/.

  • Words such as fragile, fertile, and mobile are pronounced as /frædʒaɪl/, /fɝtaɪl/, and /mobaɪl/. The American pronunciation of fertile as /fɝɾl/ is also becoming somewhat common in Canada.

  • Words like semi, anti, and multi tend to be pronounced as /sɛmi/, /ænti/, and /mʌlti/ rather than /sɛmaɪ/, /æntaɪ/, and /mʌltaɪ/. Often, a Canadian will use the former in general use, but the latter in order to add emphasis.

  • Schedule can be either /'ʃɛdʒul/ or /'skɛdʒul/; process can be either /'prosɛs/ or /'prɒsɛs/.

  • Words like drama, pyjamas, pasta tend to have /æ/ rather than /ɒ/.

  • The herb and given masculine name basil is usually pronounced /bæzəl/ rather than /bezəl/.

  • Many Canadians pronounce asphalt as "ash-falt" /æʃ.fɒlt/. This pronunciation is also common in Australian English, but not quite so in General American English or British English.

5. Regional Variation

There is no single linguistic definition that includes Canada as a whole. The provinces east of Ontario show the largest dialect diversity. However, Canada has very little dialect diversity compared to the United States and other English speaking countries. Northern Canada is, according to Labov, a dialect region in formation, and a homogenous dialect has not yet formed. A very homogeneous dialect exists in Western and Central Canada, a situation that is similar to that of the Western United States. William Labov identifies an inland region that concentrates all of the defining features of the dialect centred on the Prairies, with periphery areas with more variable patterns including the metropolitan areas of Vancouver and Toronto. This dialect forms a dialect continuum with the far Western United States, however it is sharply differentiated from the Inland Northern United States. This is a result of the relatively recent phenomenon known as the Northern cities vowel shift, which shifts many vowels in the opposite direction as the Canadian vowel shift.

5.1. Western and Central Dialect

As a variety of North American English, this variety is similar to most other forms of North American speech in being a rhotic accent, which is historically a significant marker in differentiating different English varieties.

Like General American, this variety possesses the merry-marry-marry merger (except in Montreal, which tends towards a distinction between marry and merry), as well as the father- bother merger.

5.1.1. Canadian Raising

Perhaps the most recognizable feature of CanE is Canadian raising. Diphthongs are "raised" before voiceless consonants. For example, IPA /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ become [ʌɪ] and [ʌʊ], respectively, before [p], [t], [k], [s], [f]. It is found throughout Canada, including much of the Atlantic Provinces. It is the strongest in the Inland region, and is receding in younger speakers in Lower Mainland British Columbia, as well as certain parts of Ontario. The nucleus of the diphthong is generally fronted in Ontario, and pronounced further back in the Prairies.

Because the nucleus of the diphthong is raised to a mid position, speakers of dialects that do not possess Canadian raising will hear that the diphthong sounds different, and will approximate it with the closest sound in their dialect, which is usually /o/. As a result, the Canadian pronunciation of about to American ears, may sound like "a boat", or sometimes even exaggerated to "a boot". This is more noticeable in Eastern Canada (with the exception of Newfoundland) and least so in Vancouver. However there is no region in Canada that pronounces it like [əbut] "aboot". It is actually [əbʌʊt], a sound that is absent in most dialects in the U.S. Many Canadians do not possess this feature, and defining the dialect by this would exclude parts of Atlantic Canada and include some adjacent portions of the U.S., as this feature also exists in the U.S. as well (particularly in areas near the border such as the Upper Midwest), although it is much less common. Some dialects raise only /aɪ/. Raising of /aɪ/ (as in spike) is increasing in the U.S., and unlike raising of /aʊ/, is generally not noticed by people who do not have the raising.

Because of Canadian raising, many speakers are able to distinguish between words such as writer and rider--a feat otherwise impossible, because North American dialects turn intervocalic /t/ into an alveolar flap. Thus writer and rider are distinguished solely by their vowels, even though the distinction between their consonants has since been lost. Speakers who do not have raising cannot distinguish between these two pairs.

5.1.2. The Low-back Merger and the Canadian Shift

CanE also contains the cot-caught merger, which also occurs in the Western U.S. Almost all Canadians have this merger. Speakers do not distinguish between the open-mid back rounded vowel /ɔ/ and open back unrounded vowel /ɑ/. The merger causes speakers to not only produce the vowels in words like cot and caught identically, but also fail to hear the difference when speakers who preserve the distinction (e.g. speakers of Conservative General American and Inland Northern American English) say these words. This merger has existed in Canada for several generations.

This creates a hole in the short vowel sub-system and triggers a sound change known as the Canadian Shift, mainly found in Ontario, English-speaking Montreal and further west, and led by Ontarians and women; it involves the front lax vowels /æ, ɛ, ɪ/.

The vowels in the words cot and caught merge to [ɒ]. The /æ/ of bat is retracted to [a] (except before nasals: e.g. man is realized as [mæn] or [meɘn], but never as *[man]). Indeed, /æ/ is lower in this variety than almost all other North American dialects; the retraction of /æ/ was independently observed in Vancouver and is more advanced for Ontarians and women than for people from the Prairies or Atlantic Canada and men. Then, /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ are lowered in the direction of [æ] and [ɛ] and/or retracted; studies actually disagree on the trajectory of the shift.

Many of the features contained in the shift move the vowels in opposite directions to that of the Northern Cities vowel shift (NCVS), found across the border in the Inland Northern U.S., which is causing these two dialects to diverge. For example, the Canadian shift causes the a in map to be shifted towards [a] which is the vowel that someone with the NCVS would use in mop. Thus a Canadian would most likely perceive [map] as map, whereas someone speaking an Inland Northern U.S. dialect would most likely perceive it as mop. Because of this, a very noticeable difference in accent can be detected just by crossing the border between two adjacent cities in this area, and means that a person from Windsor, ON would have an accent more similar to someone from Denver, thousands of miles away, than they would have with someone from Detroit, just across the border.

5.1.3. Other Features

Traditionally diphthongal vowels such as /oʊ/ (as in boat) and /eɪ/ (as in bait) have qualities much closer to monophthongs in some speakers especially in the Inland region. However, the continuing presence of slight offglides (if less salient than those of, say, British Received Pronunciation) and convention in IPA transcription for English account for continuing use of /oʊ/ and [eɪ]. Like the Northern U.S., /o/ and /aʊ/ are conservative--they are pronounced back and rounded. However, /u/ is fronted after coronals. /u/ is becoming more fronted in recent generations.This fronting is led by women, and is strongest in Ontario and British Columbia.

Unlike most varieties of North American English, in this dialect /æ/ (as in bat) is raised more before velar stops rather than /d/. For example, bag has a vowel that is similar to the vowel in beg. Before nasals, /æ/ is often diphthongized to [eə] or a similar sound.

Some older speakers still maintain a distinction between whale and wail, and do and dew.

5.1.4. British Columbia

British Columbia English has several words still in current use borrowed from the Chinook Jargon. Most famous and widely used of these terms are skookum
and saltchuck. In Yukon, cheechahko is used for newcomers or greenhorns. A study shows that people from Vancouver exhibit more vowel retraction of /æ/ before nasals than people from Toronto, and this retraction may become a regional marker of West Coast English.

5.1.5. Prairies (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta)

A strong Canadian raising exists in the prairie regions together with certain older usages such as chesterfield and front room also associated with the Maritimes. Aboriginal Canadians are a larger and more conspicuous population in prairie cities than elsewhere in the country and certain elements of aboriginal speech in English are sometimes to be heard. Similarly, the linguistic legacy, mostly intonation but also speech patterns and syntax, of the Scandinavian, Slavic and German settlers — who are far more numerous and historically important in the Prairies than in Ontario or the Maritimes — can be heard in the general milieu. Again, the large Métis population in Saskatchewan also carries with it certain linguistic traits inherited from French, Aboriginal and Celtic forebears. In Saskatchewan, some terms are derived from immigrant groups or are just local inventions: shinny (elsewhere ball hockey or street hockey), slough, ginch/gonch/gitch/gotch (underpants), bluff (small group of trees isolated by prairie), bunny hug (elsewhere hoodie). In farming communities with substantial Ukrainian, German, or Mennonite populations, accents and sentence structure influenced by these languages is common.

5.1.6. Ontario Ottawa Valley

The area to the north and west of Ottawa is heavily influenced by original Scottish, Irish, and German settlers, with many French loanwords. This is frequently referred to as the Valley Accent. This dialect is heavy with slang phrases and terminology. Toronto

Although only 1% of Torontonians speak French, only about 60% are native speakers of English. As a result Toronto shows a more variable speech pattern. Although slang terms used in Toronto are synonymous with those used in other major North American cities, there is also a heavy influx of slang terminology originating from Toronto's many immigrant communities. These terms originate mainly from various European, Asian, and African words. Among youths in ethnically diverse areas, a large number of words borrowed from Jamaican patois can be heard, owing to the large number of Jamaican immigrants in Toronto's urban neighbourhoods.

5.1.7. Quebec

  • Many people in Montreal distinguish between the words marry and merry.

  • A person with English mother tongue and still speaking English as the first language is called an Anglophone. The corresponding term for a French speaker is Francophone and the corresponding term for a person who is neither Anglophone nor Francophone is Allophone. Anglophone and Francophone are used in New Brunswick, an officially bilingual province.

  • Quebec Anglophones generally pronounce French street names in Montreal as French words. Pie IX Boulevard is pronounced as in French («pi-neuf»), not as "pie nine." On the other hand, most Anglophones do pronounce final Ds, as in Bernard and Bouchard.

  • In the city of Montreal, especially in some of the western suburbs like Cote-St-Luc, Hampstead or Westmount, there is a strong Jewish influence in the English spoken in these areas. A large wave of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union before and after World War II is also evident today. Their English has a strong Yiddish influence; there are some similarities to English spoken in New York. Italians and Greeks living in Montreal have also adopted English and therefore have their own dialect.

  • Words used mainly in Quebec and especially in Montreal are: stage for "apprenticeship or internship", copybook for a notebook, dépanneur or dep for a convenience store, and guichet for an ABM/ATM.

5.2. Maritimes

Many in the Maritime provinces – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island – have an accent that sounds more like Scottish English and, in some places, Irish English than General American. The phonology of Maritimer English has some unique features:

  • Pre-consonantal [ɹ] sounds are sometimes removed.

  • The flapping of intervocalic /t/ and /d/ to alveolar tap [ɾ] between vowels, as well as pronouncing it as a glottal stop [ʔ], is less common in the Maritimes. Therefore, battery is pronounced as [bætri] instead of [bæɾ(ə)ri].

  • Especially among the older generation, /w/ and /ʍ/ are not merged; that is, the beginning sound of why, white, and which is different from that of witch, with, wear.

  • Like most varieties of CanE, Maritimer English contains Canadian raising.

5.3. Newfoundland

The dialect spoken in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, an autonomous dominion until March 31, 1949, is often considered the most distinctive Canadian dialect. Some Newfoundland English differs in vowel pronunciation, morphology, syntax, and preservation of archaic adverbal-intensifiers. The dialect can vary markedly from community to community, as well as from region to region, reflecting ethnic origin as well as a past in which there were few roads and many communities, and fishing villages in particular remained very isolated. A few speakers have a transitional pin-pen merger.


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2. Boberg Ch. The North American Regional Vocabulary Survey: Renewing the study of lexical variation in North American English. – New York: American Speech, 2005. – 275 p.

3. Chambers, J.K. Canadian English: 250 Years in the Making in “The Canadian Oxford Dictionary”, 2nd ed. – Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004. – P.1197 - 1236.

4. Crystal D. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English language. – London: Cambridge University Press, 1995. – 489p. p.



7. Peters P. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. – Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. – 303
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