The Identity of Canadian English

Seminar Paper, 1995

32 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Origins of the Canadian Language

3. The Characteristics if Canadian English
3.1. The historical vocabulary of Canadian English
3.2. Phonological features of Canadian English
3.2.1. The consonant system The aspiration of voiceless stops The variable (VtV) The variable (ntV) The velar nasal /i/ The deletion of the semivowel "jod" /j/ The opposition between voiced /w/ and aspirated /hw/ The phoneme /l/ The postvocalic /r/
3.2.2. Vowels in Canadian English Vowel neutralization The Canadian diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aƱ/ The Canadian Raising Stress features
3.3. The Canadian spelling
3.4. The Canadian grammar
3.4.1. The syntax of Canadian English Prepositions The ‘ have you’ and ‘ have you got’ question forms

3.4.2. The morphosyntactic structures of Canadian English Past perfect variants of the verb to sneak and the irregular verb to dive Past tense variants of the verb to prove and the irregular verb to drink

4. The Americanization of Canadian English
4.1. Linguistic symmetries
4.2. Linguistic asymmetries

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The linguistic situation of Canadian identity has been subject of numerous debates and still there seems to be no real agreement on certain subject matters. Experts say that

"for historical reasons, Canadian English [is] the type of English associated with Southern Ontario, formerly Upper Canada, [that] has become the basis for a national norm, an imperfectly described but recognized standard across Canada As such, it ... has spread widely across the country, to be heard with increasing frequency among the educated, non-regionalized young in every province from the Ottowa River to the Pacific, including Newfoundland"[1]

However, opinions differ as to what really constitutes the uniqueness of Canadian English. The problem of a separate Canadian linguistic identity becomes best apparent in the various ways in which Canadian English has been defined by linguists as quoted by Görlach:[2]

"Canadian English is a fairly recent hybrid which resembles American English in some respects and British English in other while exhibiting much that is singularly Canadian. It is, in fact, the composite of these characteristics which gives Canadian English its unique identity." (Avis 1973:43)

"Canadian English ... is not a composite of archaic or rustic features or a potpourri of British and American speechways but a true national language." (Bailey 1982:152)

This paper does not focus on the attempt to reconcile opposing views, but rather tries to show how far the Canadian English is both like and unlike American English as it resembles and differs from British English, yet, at the same time is distinctively Canadian, exisiting "in its own rights and [owing] its existence to the Canadians who have made it what it is."[3]

However, in their struggle for a distinct linguistic identity "Canadians tread an ... apparently arbitrary path between British and American usage," thus Orkin writes, "with a strong leaning toward the American pattern."[4]

Though the development of Canadian English towards a distinct linguistic identity is considered to be "not yet complete,"[5] it is the aim of the following to introduce the main linguistic characteristics of Canadian speech, focusing on the impossibility of separating phonological and grammatical Canadian features from the British and, especially, American influence.

2. The origins of the Canadian language

"The English language in Canada, Canadian English," argues M. H. Scargill, did not develop "by accident, but because of [various events] and the influence of all the people who have used Canadian English over the years The vocabulary, the grammar, the pronunciation of a language, or variety of it is never the product of chance. It is the product of history."

The settlement history of English-speaking Canada contributed largely to the linguistic duality of Canadian English. In this respect, the influence of the United States and the United Kingdom has been extremely significant to the settlement of Canada from the beginning.

Shortly after the War of Independence (1775-1783), American settlers moved north to the wilderness of Upper Canada (later called Ontario) from the northern states of the US, mainly Western New England and Pennsylvania in order to live under the stability of the British Crown. Around 1800, the population of Upper Canada was almost entirely made up of former Americans, the so-called Loyalists, and Ontario was to become the populous heartland of English-speaking Canada. From 1900 to 1915 almost a million Americans entered the newly opened provinces Alberta and Saskatchewan, thousands appear to have gone to the Maritime Provinces.

During the later stages of settlement, a great stream of British immigrants, who came from Northern England, Scotland, and Ireland, began to flow into the country. Although they brought along with them various dialects, these newcomers could not avoid coming into contact with already established Canadians, and their children adopted the speech habits of the communities they settled in. In 1846, the British novelist James Taylor wrote :

"Most English people reside in Upper Canada; but some of those who came young, and have been a few years amalgamated with the natives, have so assimilated their customs, manners, and dialect to those of the country that it is difficult to distinguish them, - only that they become rather more Yankified extreme."[6]

The linguistic change that took place in Canada during the colonial period was by no means one-sided: many contemporary British voices considered the Canadian speech habits to be rather corrupt in termes of vocabulary and pronunciation, superimposing British terms and phrases onto the Canadian language, especially in the areas of politics, government administration, justice, law, defence, church, education and arts. British English always had a strong influence on the language of educated Canadian speakers as it was, according to Woods, felt to be "correct, desirable, and prestigious," whereas their American English was "honest and homey."[7]

3. The characteristics of Canadian English

The strong influence of both, the United States and England, historically, has left its mark on the linguistic situation of English Canada. Native people, other immigrants as well as French Canadians also contributed largelyhad to the overall heterogeneous situation. Gaelan Dodds de Wolf thus writes "that Canada is not now and never has been a monolingual nation of English speakers. Indeed, during the seventeenth and a good part of the eighteenth century, Canada was in name and fact a colony of France and the first European colonists were French-speaking, that is, francophones."

Thus, the distinctiveness of Canadian English defines itself not only by any linguistic item differing from British and American English usage, but also by the fact that native Indian words or slightly modified French terms had to be adopted.

With the close of the eighteenth century, an increasing number of so-called Canadianisms - nowadays well established - began to appear. Although Canadianisms are as well represented at the levels of pronunciation and grammar, the traditional definition of Canadianisms is confined to lexical meaning or sphere of reference as

"that part of Canadian English which is neither British nor American ... for there are hundreds of words which are native to Canada or which have meanings peculiar to Canada. As might be expected, these words refer to topographical features, plants, trees, fish, animals, and birds; and to social, economic, and political institutions and activities. There is a surpisingly large number of these Canadianisms: some of them have national currency; others are more or less regional; still others are confined to special fields of activity.”[8]

3.1. The historical vocabulary of Canadian English

The distinctiveness of Canadian English from either British or American English is most easily demonstrated by means of vocabulary that is significantly Canadian. American Loyalists and British settlers felt the need to designate objects, places and concepts that were new to their European experience as they could not avoid coming into contact with people whose language, manners and customs were unfamiliar to them: the Indians and the French.[9]

From a linguistic point of view, Canada's fishing branch of industry is the best linguistic evidence as it provided one of the first words that entered the Canadian English language.

By the very beginning of the sixteenth century, it was the need of Catholic Europe for fish that brought European fishermen to Canada-to-be, among them were the French. One example of a direct adoptation from French language is inconnu (or connu)"unknown," a fish that is still caught in rivers and lakes of the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

In the early nineteenth century, Canada's fishing industry then moved from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast. With that, Canadian English gets names for fish that were not known in the Atlantic Ocean and which have no English or French names. Accordingly, European fishermen adopted local Indian names, as illustrated by the term qualla meaning "striped," a dog salmon.[10]

Names for animals and birds are equally well represented in the Canadian language, e.g. cabri, the pronghorn antelope, siffleur, a whistling marmot.

Moreover, Orkin observes that North American birds have received rather derisive names "because a bird deemed to be inferior as food or game." Thus, Canadians call the gadwall in Saskatchewan and Manitoba a trash duck. However, not all bird names are derogatory, e.g. the sea goose, a tiny phalarope in Newfoundland. A considerable number of Canadianisms are words used by the early explorers and settlers to identify features of the landscape, e.g. the muskeg of the hinterland meaninga swamp or the land of Little Sticks, a region of stunted trees at the southern edge of Barren Lands.

Similarly, there are Canadian words for trees and plants: Douglas Fir, Canada's largest tree; hackmatack, denoting several species of coniferous trees; pembina, a highbush cranberry.

Some of the Canadian terms reflect well the social, economic and political life of the country, such as shivaree, a celebration to honour or to mock a newly married pair; boom dozers or logbroncs, tugs which help in the assembly of booms or rafts (forest industry) and acclamation, an election without opposition.


[1] Gaelan Dodds de Wolf, Social and Regional Factors in Canadian English: A Study of Phonological Variables and Grammatical Items in Ottawa and Vancouver (Toronto: Canadian Scholar's Press, 1992) 2, 34.

[2] Manfred Görlach, Studies in Varieties of English 1984-1988 (Philadelphia: John Benjamins’ Publishing Company, 1991) 110.

[3] M. H. Scargill, A Short History of Canadian English (Victoria, B. C.: Morriss Printing Company, 1977) 7.

[4] Mark M. Orkin, Speaking Canadian English (Toronto: General Publishing Company, 1970) 146.

[5] Dodds de Wolf 1992, 6.

[6] Walter S. Avis, "Canadian English in its North American Context, " The Canadian Journal of Linguistics" 27:1 (1982): 7-10.

[7] Howard B. Woods, " A Synchronic Study of English spoken in Ottawa: Is Canadian English becoming more American?" Focus on Canada, ed. Sandra Clarke (Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Co., 1993) 153.

[8] Dodds de Wolf 1992, 23-24.

[9] Avis 1982, 11.

[10] Scargill 1977, 15, 17-18.

Excerpt out of 32 pages


The Identity of Canadian English
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz  (Englische Philologie)
Language and Identity
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Canadian English, Linguistik Amerikanistik, Amerikanische Sprachwissenschaft
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Kirsten Vera van Rhee (Author), 1995, The Identity of Canadian English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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