Canada, eh? A Sociolinguistic Study of the Invariant Tag "eh" in Canadian English

Seminar Paper, 2018

29 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of Contents













1. Introduction

The invariant tag eh is regarded as characteristic of Canadian English, although the usage of eh is similarly common in varieties of English outside of Canada, such as British, Australian and New Zealand English. However, despite its status as a typical marker of Canadian English (Boberg, 2010; Levey, 2010), there is comparatively little research about its usage and specific functions. Nevertheless, it can be assumed that there are considerable discrepancies in the use of the invariant tag eh as recent research points to differences in terms of register as well as the age of the speaker. In fact, eh is often associated with vernacular Canadian English (Boberg, 2010; Denis, 2013; Gold, 2005) and, furthermore, appears to be in decline among younger speakers (Levey, 2010). Accordingly, it is more likely used as well as accepted in less formal settings and by a comparatively older speech community.

Therefore, this paper seeks to specifically examine the contemporary usage of eh with regard to the assumed differences in register and age of the speakers by means of an empirical study. On the basis of a questionnaire that draws on Gold’s 2004 Toronto survey, the variation in the use of eh is investigated among a relatively heterogeneous group of Canadian English speakers. Thereby, the differentiation between using eh in a formal and informal setting is also included as this paper aims at analyzing the differences in terms of the perceived formality of the various types in particular. However, in order to provide an understanding of the diverse communicative functions of this invariant tag as well as to emphasize significant differences in the usage of and attitude towards eh, the main findings of recent literature are presented at first. Subsequently, the methodology of this study as well as the development and distribution of the designed questionnaire are elucidated. The main part then illustrates the results of the survey and compares them with findings of earlier studies, such as Gold’s 2004 survey, which consisted of similar questions but did not cover the differences in register and age.

2. Recent literature and findings on eh in Canadian English

As mentioned above, only few studies have recently investigated the contemporary use of and attitudes towards eh among speakers of Canadian English (Denis, 2013; Gold, 2005, 2008), but these have still disregarded potential differences in terms of register and age to some extent. Instead, their focus lied mainly on “understanding the particular semantic/pragmatic effects associated” (Columbus, 2010, p. 289) with this invariant tag. For example, Elaine Gold’s 2004 study on the usage of eh conducted among students at the University of Toronto has shown a significant variation in the use according to the different types of eh. Furthermore, studies indicate that there are also regional discrepancies in the usage of eh as results of earlier surveys suggest that this element is used more frequently by speakers in central Canada than in the west (Gold 2005).

2.1. Communicative functions of the invariant tag eh

As a discourse marker, the sentence-final tag eh is syntax-independent and used in various communicative settings of spoken English. Whereas the final determination of all various meanings constitutes a rather challenging issue, the main uses of this element according to the dictionaries are considered to be “eh as a question tag or the narrative eh” (Wright, 2006, 10 Different Constructions Of Eh section). However, following Columbus’ definition of discourse markers as “units of meaning which point to more than the propositional meaning of an utterance” (2010, p. 288), it becomes apparent that eh also allows for the expression of different meanings depending on the respective communicative situation of an utterance. In fact, recent studies (Columbus, 2010; Denis, 2013; Gold, 2005) have shown that “[t]here is a wide range in the rates of recognition and use of the different types of eh and in the attitudes towards” (Gold, 2005, p. 10) this invariant tag. In her 2004 survey, Gold differentiates between ten distinctive contexts of usage of eh: statements of opinion, statements of fact, commands, exclamations, questions, to mean ‘pardon’, fixed expressions, insults, accusations and story-telling.

These categories of communicative situations in which eh is used also reveal (some of) the various meanings of eh since Gold’s study draws on earlier research done by Gibson (1977), who investigated the ways in which eh can be used and also suggested eight different meanings of this tag (as cited in Gold, 2008). According to Gibson, eh can express utterances that seek to obtain agreement or confirmation, imperatives and exclamations or ‘pardon’. Moreover, eh can be used in polar interrogatives, in wh-questions and in anecdotal utterances (as cited in Gold, 2008). Hence, the invariant tag eh fulfills a broad range of communicative functions and allows for the expression of diverse meanings.

2.2. Differences in the usage and attitudes

However, the respective communicative situation is not the most decisive factor for the usage of eh. Instead, recent studies (Denis, 2013; Gold, 2005, 2008) suggest that both regional differences and socio-economic aspects have a significant impact on the distribution of eh as a discourse marker. Additionally, age and sex of the speaker constitute influential factors. In fact, Denis (2013) argues that men use this invariant tag much more frequently than women. Moreover, a study of the usage of sentence- final tags among different age groups by Tagliamonte (2006) “revealed that speakers below the age of 30 used eh far less often that older speakers” (as cited in Levey, 2010, p. 123). Most notably, however, substantial variation exists in terms of occupation and place of residence of the speakers as Denis (2013) emphasizes in his study. According to his data collected from the Toronto English Archive, speakers of a higher socio-economic status use eh less frequently (Denis, 2013). Moreover, there appear to be significant differences between urban and rural areas, where eh is supposedly used much more often. However, it is important to note that the collected data partially comes “from oral histories recorded in the 1970s and 1980s” (Denis, 2013, p. 5) and therefore, the results would have to be compared to data of contemporary usage.

Nevertheless, it is consistently stated that eh is stereotypical of Canadian English as well as primarily perceived as representative of vernacular Canadian speech and associated with negative attitudes in some cases (Boberg 2010; Denis, 2013; Gold, 2005; Levey, 2010). In fact, certain types of eh, such as the narrative eh, evoke a rather negative impression of the speaker being “uneducated, rural, and lower class” (Gold, 2005, p. 10), while other usages are more widely accepted. Therefore, the use of eh is obviously influenced by numerous sociolinguistic factors and varies significantly as does the attitude towards the different types of this discourse marker.

3. Methodology and aims of the study

Thus, the objective of this study was to examine the actual usage of eh and to determine whether there are notable differences regarding the speakers’ age and register. Hence, it was conducted by use of an online questionnaire, which made it possible to reach a broad and rather diverse group of participants. However, in order to provide comparable results, the target group of this study significantly differed from Gold’s respondents of her 2004 survey. The 63 participants who answered all questions, were on average older and of a high socio-economic status. However, some respondents also belonged to the age group of under 30-year-olds. Thereby, the discrepancies in the usage of eh among different age groups can be examined.

Overall, the survey consisted of 44 questions, which solely focused on the ten types of eh as suggested by Gold (2005) for ease of comparison. These different categories which were investigated in this study and the given example sentences are shown in Table 1.

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Table 1: Types of eh investigated in this study (based on Gold 2005)

Most of the questions used to collect information about the participants’ knowledge of a particular type of eh, their own usage of this type and their personal attitude towards the usage of eh in the specific context were based on Gold’s 2004 survey. However, as the study also aimed at analyzing the differences between using eh in an informal and in a formal setting, ten questions regarding the respondents’ assessment of each category’s level of formality were added to the questionnaire in order to examine if there are perceived distinctions concerning the register of the ten distinct types of eh. Drawing on Gold’s 2004 survey, the initial four questions aimed at gathering personal information of the respondents, namely their age, sex, whether they are Canadian-born or not and whether English is their first language or not. The remaining 40 questions were equally concerned with the ten different types of eh and asked the following four questions regarding each category:

- Have you heard this type of use?
- Do you use it yourself?
- Would you use this form of eh ?
- Your attitude to this usage is

While the first two questions were used to gather information about the respondents’ knowledge and use of eh in the specific context, the other two questions both aimed at examining the acceptance of eh in various communicative situations. When asked about their personal attitude towards the use of a specific type of eh, the participants had to choose if they have a positive, neutral or negative feeling about the speaker when hearing eh in the respective context. In contrast, when asked if and in which situation they would use a specific type of eh, they had to make assumptions about their own language use. Thus, the added question (Would you use this form of eh?) aims at examining the perceived formality of the various types of eh since the respondents had to decide whether the respective use of this tag is, in their opinion, accepted in formal and informal settings equally – which is implied in responses stating they would generally use it – or only suitable in informal communicative situations – which is indicated in responses stating they would use it ‘only in informal settings’.

Although Gold points out that “[o]ne problem with this method of self- reporting is that many speakers are unaware of their own use of eh” (2005, p. 3), these questions still provide valuable insights into the actual usage of the different types of eh among speakers of Canadian English. By comparison with data from earlier studies, especially with Gold’s 2004 survey, the assumed differences in the usage of eh in terms of register as well as the age of the speakers are examined. As the questions and sample sentences are based on Gold’s study, a direct comparison between the different age groups is enabled. Moreover, the analysis of the participants’ assessment of the formality of each type of eh contributes to the understanding of both its usage and the sociolinguistic factors which could have a significant impact on the way eh is used.

4. Analysis of findings

Overall, 63 participants, of which 41 were females and 22 were males, answered the questionnaire. In stark contrast to Gold’s 2004 survey, 82,5 percent (52 respondents) were over 30 years old and only 11 people were aged between 20 and 30. Similar to her study, Canadian-born (66,7 percent) as well as non-Canadian- born (33,3 percent) people took part in this questionnaire. However, the 21 respondents who were non-native Canadian English speakers were all Austrian- born and had lived in the country for at least 10 years. Moreover, all participants of this study belonged to the group of so-called white-collar workers and had completed a post-secondary education.

4.1. Overall results of the survey

Overall, the questionnaire revealed very clear and convincing findings, which indicated three types of eh as most frequently recognized and used as well as most commonly associated with a positive attitude towards the speaker. These constructions are eh after statements of opinion, after exclamations and in fixed expressions. Accordingly, the results regarding the respondents’ knowledge of eh, which are shown in Table 2, reveal very high recognition rates for these three types. However, they also show a distinct differentiation between the various expressions. Whereas eh is equally well-known after statements of opinion as well as after exclamations and over 95 percent of the participants reported to recognize this type, the recognition rates of eh in questions are appreciably lower, at around 50 percent. Likewise, just over half of the respondents indicated to have heard the usage of the narrative eh.

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Table 2: Recognition of the ten types of eh (decima l numbers of the percentages are rounded)

Similarly, the figures shown in Table 3 illustrate significant differences regarding the usage of eh. The same three categories, which were most well-known to the participants of this survey, constituted the most frequently mentioned constructions when asked about the respondents’ personal use of this tag. Thus, more than 82 percent stated that they use eh after exclamations sometimes or often. Not surprisingly, the least known types were also reported as least frequently used, and almost 80 percent of the respondents indicated that they never use the narrative eh. Interestingly, there is also a significant gap in the frequency of use between the three most commonly used expressions and the other constructions. Whereas nearly three quarters of the respondents stated that they use eh in fixed expressions, only 56 percent reported the usage of eh after accusations, which constitutes the fourth most commonly used type. This points to the fact that only certain types of this invariant tag are commonly used in everyday language.

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Table 3: Usage of the ten types of eh (decima l numbers of the percentages are rounded)


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Canada, eh? A Sociolinguistic Study of the Invariant Tag "eh" in Canadian English
University of Innsbruck
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canada, sociolinguistic, study, invariant, canadian, english
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Anonymous, 2018, Canada, eh? A Sociolinguistic Study of the Invariant Tag "eh" in Canadian English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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