Tag Archives: Canadian English

What about Canadian, eh?

I felt a bit bad about not mentioning Canadian English in my BBC article on American English. And then someone who didn’t know I was Canadian sent me an email smugsplaining Canadian to me, so I responded. But I decided I really needed to do an article on Canadian English. So I pitched it to the BBC, and they said “Sure!” So. Here it is:

Why is Canadian English unique?


Mind your idioms

Originally published in Active Voice, the national magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English has many quaint and curious phrases, clichés, and idioms, and we quite often see them misconstrued. Ours can be a very unforgiving game. You don’t have free reign to pawn off whatever one-of usages will tie you over, or do just any linguistic slight of hand (or vocal chords). No, you have to tow the line and stick to the straight and narrow, or your straight-laced readers will develop a deep-seeded dislike for you and give you short shift – they will wait with baited breath to see you get your just desserts and be hoisted on your own petard without further adieu, and the value of what you have to say will be a mute point.

Heh heh. Let me put that right:

You don’t have free rein to palm off whatever one-off usages will tide you over, or do just any linguistic sleight of hand (or vocal cords). No, you have to toe the line and stick to the strait and narrow, or your strait-laced readers will develop a deep-seated dislike for you and give you short shrift – they will wait with bated breath to see you get your just deserts and be hoist with your own petard without further ado, and the value of what you have to say will be a moot point.

Of course, that’s all well and good as long as we’re all playing the same game. But when we’re dealing with international audiences, the phrasing we use in hopes of striking a home run with our readers (or even just stealing a base) may seem to them to be not just cricket, and you won’t strike out – you will be dismissed.

We Canadian editors may be a bit smug about our position seemingly straddling the British-American fence. After all, we all know about our/or and re/er and ise/ize, and we may feel that, having mastered aluminium with an i and orientate with the ate and perhaps revise for study, estate agent for real estate agent, and some food terms – rocket (arugula), courgette (zucchini), marrow (summer squash), swede (rutabaga) – we can count on our intuitions with British.

But we run the risk of taking something for an error or typo when it’s really the correct British form. A bit over a decade ago, Orrin Hargraves came out with an excellent guide to British-American differences, Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions; let me share with you some of the benefit of that smart volume: If you want to make a home from home in British English, and make a good job of it, don’t take the attitude of the know-all; know when to leave well alone if you want to cater for your readers and get on with them. Knowing your phrasal idioms can make the world of difference and give you a new lease of life – and if you don’t know them, you can rub your readers up the wrong way, and they might have a go at you and want to get shot of you. It will be more than a storm in a teacup; you will end up down at heel.

Which means, first of all, you will not render the above in a Canadian way: do not change it to home away from home, do a good job, know-it-all, leave well enough alone, cater to, get along with, make a world of difference, a new lease on life, rub your readers the wrong way, give you a tongue-lashing, get rid of you, tempest in a teacup, or down at the heels.

The best idea, of course, is to get a native British speaker – or, as occasion demands, an American speaker to add American idioms and weed out Canadianisms: don’t slip up and start talking about writing the odd test in pencil crayon, for instance (“Ohhhh, you mean taking the occasional test using a colored pencil! What was that other weird stuff you said?”). But at the very least, always look twice before crossing the idiom.

oot & aboot

Canadians who have ever encountered American perceptions of Canadian speech will be familiar with the idea that Canadians say, for instance, “oot” and “aboot” instead of “out” and “about”. What’s up with that, eh?

I mean, really. Canadians can hear each other perfectly well and have no problem telling whether someone is saying mouse or moose. If we walk into a shoe repair shop and say, “I’ve come about a boot,” it doesn’t sound like we’ve just said the same thing twice. Not to us, anyway. But it does to some Americans.

This is due to two things: categorical perception (I’ll get to that in a moment) and something linguists call Canadian raising. No, that doesn’t simply mean we were raised in Canada. What it is is that before voiceless consonants, many Canadians raise the first part of the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ so it is really like the vowel in up. Americans don’t really take great notice of our different pronunciation of the vowels in eyes and ice because there’s no other vowel the ice vowel sounds closer to, but the diphthong in out has moved up to where it falls within the range of sounds the Americans in question process as “oo”.

And this is what linguists call categorical perception. All speakers of all languages do it: a given sound is not always made exactly the same by all people at all times, so we learn (at a very early age) to process whole sets of sounds as the same sound, and we generally take no notice of the differences between sounds in a set. The /p/s in pot and spot are different, for instance – the one in pot has a puff of air after it, whereas the one in spot does not. Hold your hand in front of your mouth as you say both and you’ll feel it. This difference is a phonemic difference in many languages – in Thai restaurants, for instance, you’ll probably notice that there are p’s and ph’s but they both sound like “p” to you. Well, the ph one is like the one in pot, and the p one is like the one in spot.

Likewise, the /l/ in Calgary is quite a different sound from the one in loud, but we tend to take no notice. And of course we know how speakers of many other languages can’t make a good distinction between our beat and bit (Russian acting teacher Sonia Moore referred to sections of scenes as bits, but her accent led her students to think she was saying beats, and that has passed into standard acting vocabulary). And so on.

So while Americans and Canadians both have “oo” and “ow” sounds, the borders between them are different. And many Canadians raise the first part of the diphthong before a voiceless consonant, pushing it into where Americans hear it as a version of “oo”.

But I should say that not all Canadians do the same thing. The ice raising is more widespread – I grew up with that in Alberta. But raising before voiceless consonants is not common with /aʊ/ in Alberta and the rest of the west (especially not in the higher socioeconomic strata) – it’s more standard in Ontario and east. (Do you do it? Say loud and lout and see if you can hear a difference.)

Nonetheless, Albertan out can still sound like “oot” to many Americans, especially northern and northeastern Americans, who use a lower and more front vowel for “ow” (sometimes even more like /æo/, i.e., starting with the vowel in cat) so that all Canadian versions of “ow” sound kind of “oo”-ish to them.

But you know how it is. So many people think they’re the only ones without an accent, and whatever sounds so to them must be so. And this idea among Americans that Canadians say “oot” and “aboot” is so firmly rooted that some Americans won’t even listen carefully. “You’re from Canada? Say out.” “Out.” “He said ‘oot’! Oot! Oot! Oot! Canadian, eh? Eh? Eh? Oot! Oot! Oot!” Really, it gets to sound like apes and jungle birds. Makes me want to give them a boot…


A fellow member of the Editors’ Association of Canada recently posted a link to the New York Times “After Deadline” blog on usages that should have been corrected. The January 12 post referred to a news headline from December 31: “Good Players, Eh? / New Met spurs discussion on best Canadians.” The blogging editor’s comment: “This use of ‘eh’ as an all-purpose Canadian reference is both clichéd and condescending. Let’s stop.”

Condescending? What’s up with that, eh? Next they’re going to say that Canadians don’t like being called Canucks or that Canadians are Americans too or something. I mean, yeah, when I was in the US, it got a bit annoying whenever I would say eh and my friends would exclaim, “He said ‘eh’!” But, still, I wear that eh like a badge of pride! It’s Canadian, eh? (Or, as that famous book by Mark M. Orkin puts it, Canajan, Eh?)

I mean, think about the quintessential Canadian humour: SCTV‘s Bob and Doug Mackenzie, with their archetypal “Take off, eh!” For that matter, think about how often Canadian newspapers use eh to emphasize Canadianness. (How often? Go to a Canadian newspaper’s website and do a search on eh. Here are some recent examples from The Globe and Mail: “How Canadian was that, eh?”; “Canada 150, eh”; “A Canadian eh-book reader”; “Welcome to the Walk of Fame, eh?”; “What’s the score, eh?”; “More than bacon, eh?”; and many, many more…)

Why is eh so quintessentially Canadian? Probably for the same reason that sorry is the other quintessentially Canadian word (you know, what you say when someone bumps into you or gets in your way): we just don’t think it proper to be so cocksure of ourselves and disregarding of others (translation: we’re passive-aggressive). After all, eh started its life (by the 18th century in England) as specifically an interrogative, which is still its only current definition in the Oxford English Dictionary: asking for repetition, or inviting assent. It is as the invitation of assent that it has taken root in Canada. We’re not a nation hard of hearing; we’re just always wanting to show we’re listening. We seek the assurance of the other.

It’s like a verbal reach-out-and-touch. It’s actually functionally similar to uptalk (that way some people – especially young adult females – talk as though nearly every sentence is a question, which is really just to keep drawing on the interlocutor’s assent), but of course it’s much less annoying, partly because we don’t use it that much. As the American Heritage Dictionary says, it’s “Chiefly Canadian Used to ascertain or reinforce a listener’s interest or agreement.” Or, as Marion Johnson (“Canadian Eh,” Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 21 (1976): 153-60) puts it,

The general conversational function, of eh, therefore, is to question the situational assumptions associated with different speech acts, thereby showing that these assumptions are held in a weak rather than a strong form. In this way, a speaker can avoid an attitude of officiousness and at the same time avoid unfriendly formality. This interpretation of eh fits well with Canadians’ general conception of themselves as a rather cautious, rather retiring, but basically good-hearted nation. We are not afraid to form and express our own point of view, we just don’t like to force it too much on other people.

And there are so many ways we use it, eh! How do we use it? Let me count the ehs. Actually, I don’t need to; Elaine Gold has done so already (see her paper “Canadian eh?: A survey of contemporary use“). Here are her ten usages, with her examples:

1. Statements of opinion Nice day, eh?
2. Statements of fact It goes over here, eh?
3. Commands Open the window, eh?
Think about it, eh?
4. Exclamations What a game, eh?
5. Questions What are they trying to do, eh?
6. To mean ‘pardon’ Eh? What did you say?
7. In fixed expressions Thanks, eh?
I know, eh?
8. Insults You’re a real snob, eh?
9. Accusations You took the last piece, eh?
10. Telling a story This guy is up on the 27th floor, eh? then he gets
out on the ledge, eh . . .

The most commonly used types, according to a survey she did, were I know, eh; Thanks, eh; What a game, eh; and Nice day, eh. The narrative style, in the last kind, was generally seen as a mark of a less educated user.

But the general use of eh is certainly not the mark of an uneducated user. I think we can all accept that members of the Editors’ Association of Canada are not insufficiently educated, and I’ve had no difficulty finding instances of eh in emails to the EAC’s listserv. For example, “Jelly bean houses, eh? Very cool.”; “Okay, I stand corrected. Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, eh?”; “Well, it’s all relative, eh?”; “Let’s hope there are no more, eh?”; “Pretty rough treatment for dissenting senators, eh?”; “Kind of dense, eh?”; “I guess that’s not the correct way to go about it, eh?”; “Yes, I know that’s no excuse, but … everyone needs editors, eh?”; and “how ’bout them verbs, eh!”

As the last example shows (in case there was any doubt), eh is colloquial. In fact, it’s the acme of colloquial: it clearly implies, even demands, colloquy (which is from Latin for “speaking together”). But it is, at least, our word – it may have come from elsewhere, it may be used elsewhere, but no one else uses it as a badge of identity, eh? Consider this quote: “Canadians will readily acknowledge this tag as being quintessentially ‘Canuck,’ but many will then go on to either disclaim usage or to make disparaging comments about others’ usage of it.”

Wait, does that sound not quite right? Well, that’s because it isn’t quite right. The quote, from an article by Miriam Meyerhoff in Language in Society volume 23 (page 367), actually begins “New Zealanders will readily acknowledge this tag as being quintessentially ‘Kiwi,’ but…”

Uh-oh. Not only are they claiming it as theirs, they’re even being more self-effacing about it than we are (some Kiwis even think it vulgar, apparently). What’s up with that, eh?