Canadians speak like Americans and write like the Brits. Canadian English is a blend of these influences, along with indigenous vocabulary and internet pronunciations.
Canadian English has a lot of similarities with British English and American English. Even so, many Canadian sounds come off as strange to Americans and Brits.
Canadian English has been the product of many waves of migration and settlement for more than two centuries. No wonder there are so many obvious influences from the U.S., Britain, and Ireland.
At the same time, modernization and globalization have played a significant role in the langue spoken north of the US border. Modern-day Canadian English is a further blend of street and internet linguistic flavors that are neither British nor American.
Origin of Canadian English
Canadian English exists because of three key historical events:
- The Paris Agreement (1763) ended the Seven-Year War and opened up the majority of eastern Canada to English settlers.
- The American Revolution (1775-83) encouraged many British crown loyalists to move from American to Canada.
- Finally, the Industrial Revolution in Britain drove even larger groups of settlers to the Great White North.
Alexander Graham Bell and Mabel Hubbard Bell looking toward the sea from Sable Island | McCurdy, Arthur W. (Arthur Williams), 1898.
Canadian English Differentiating Features
Pronunciation: Tomayto vs Tomatoh
For people that live outside the US, the Canadian accent and the American accent are virtually indistinguishable. In numerous areas of Canada and the United States, the T sound in specific positions may be voiced as a D as in these examples:
- Butter sounds like budder.
- Water – wader
- Kitty – kiddy
- Teeter-totter – teeder-todder
Upon a closer look, however, there are distinctive features in pronunciation between English spoken in Canada and the US. These include pro-duce (produce) for Canadian English as Americans say praw-duce. Both Americans and Canadians will say ‘tomayto’ (tomato) as Brits say ‘ tomahto.’
Although most aspects of Canadian pronunciation follow North American patterns, Canadians borrow equally from British forms. For instance, in Canada, they pronounce fertile, mobile, hostile, and futile in the same way as one would pronounce the suffix ‘ile’ in profile.
In the US, these words are pronounced in the same way as brutal, hostel, and noble.
For Canadians, the vowel sound in shone is said the same way as gone, similar to the Brits, and not bone in America.
Other words with unique Canadian pronunciations:
- News: Canadians like the Brits say nyoos while Americans say noos
- Anti: Canadians say anty like the Brits while Americans say an-tai
- Vase: In Canada, you have a flower vozz, while in America, it is a flower vase
- Drama: This is dra-hma in Canada and draw-ma in the US
- Lever: You pull a lee-ver in Canada and lev-er in the US
- Route: This is raout in America and root in Canada
- “Z“: Zed in Canada and Zee in the US
Vocabulary: ATM vs. Bank Machine
Canadian English is not just a mix of words borrowed from British and American vocabulary. There are words that you will only hear in Canada.
A blank stare is what you will get if you use these words in New York or London:
- Bachelor apartment – Canadian for studio apartment
- Bank machine – Canadian for ATM
- Chesterfield – Meaning couch or settee
- Parkade – Meaning car park
- Eavestrough – Canadian for gutters
- Washroom –meaning loo
- Loonie – meaning two-dollar coin
- Two-four – a beer crate that holds 24 bottles
Exclamation: Huh vs. Eh
Canadians will say eh as in pretty surprising, eh? Americans say, huh? Both words serve as a question tag or a request for someone to repeat what they said. Both words push for an agreement or guarantee from an audience and to enforce commands.
Canadian Accent Features
Canadian raising is a Canadian phonetic phenomenon that differentiates it from other English genres. The diphthongs of / ay / and / aw / are raised to the mid vowels when they precede obstruents like / p /, / t /, / k /, / s /, and / f /.
If anyone is trying to identify a Canadian accent, they can focus on these sounds. Canadians will utter two half vowels—diphthongs—higher in the mouth compared to other Americans or Britons.
Canadian raising is what led to the stereotypes aboot for about and oot for out. Canadians say that these words are more like aboat and aot. However, one chooses to interpret it, in Canada, about and out have a more pronounced “ou” sound than in the US or across the Atlantic.
To the American audience, the Canadian pronunciation of about sounds more like aboot because, in America, the pronunciation of / aw / is done with the tongue lower in the mouth. In Canada, /aw/ is pronounced with the tongue raised to the mid position when preceding the obstruents shown earlier. This Canadian raising often goes unmissed among Americans and Brits.
In Canadian English, bot rhymes with bought. Caught rhymes with cot, pond with pawned, and so forth. This is the famous low-back merger, and although it is popular in America, it is more of a Canadian linguistic peculiarity.
This phonological occurrence describes the collapse of the distinction between vowel sounds pronounced in the lower and back parts of the mouth. As a result, the sound of caught is indistinguishable from cot. In Britain and parts of the US, the low back merger is a quick way to identify a Canadian.
However, the low-back merger can be heard loud and clear across the border in Seattle and the rest of the west coast. The phonetic pattern is reportedly a birth child of the Canadian Shift, a continuous change in modern Canadian English that involves lowering and retrieving short vowels in words like stalk, talk. In Canada, the head will sound like had in America and hat like hot.
/ æ / for /ah/
One other different thing is how Canadians adapt or Canadianize words borrowed from other languages by replacing vowel sounds /ah/ with / æ /.
British English speakers will say / ah / when voicing words like lava, avocado, or saga and / æ / when saying pasta, mantra, or kebab. Americans use /ah/ in all these words. Canadians use / æ / in all of them. However, young Canadians have started to use the American / ah / in taco, eyes, and mafia.
The Impact of Indigenous Languages on Canadian English
Not every word in the Canadian English dictionary has its roots in American or British English. Many of the words are loan words from the languages of indigenous tribes that moved freely between Canada and the US.
Some of Canada’s indigenous loan words that you may also find across the US include caribou, chipmunk chinook, inukshuk, husky, igloo, kamik, kayak, moose, moccasin, mucky–muck, muskeg, raccoon, powwow, saskatoon, skunk, teepee, and toboggan.
Granted, most of them do not occur very often in everyday Canadian speech, and their numbers are surprisingly small, compared to a larger vocabulary from European languages.
Therefore, the great influence of indigenous languages on Canadian English is not found in common nouns or other parts of everyday vocabulary, but in names of places from Mississauga to Niagara, Ontario, Ottawa, and Quebec, among others.
Mohawk Indians serving with the Canadian Corps on the Western Front in WWI 1914-18
Canadian English displays a balanced combination of American and British spelling standards, demonstrating the continuing belief of many Canadian educators and the government that British English is better than American.
Canadians often use British “-our” spellings with words such as vigor, color, or labor. They use ‘re’ in center, theater, or specter. Canadian English also uses the British version of cheque as opposed to the American check, travelled for traveled and grey for gray.
However, in Canada, the word is program and not programme as in the UK. Defence and defense are used interchangeably.
In formal settings, odor will be used in the place of odour and favorite as a better version of favourite.
A few other British spellings are rarely occurring in Canada. For instance, Canadians have adopted the American form of “ize” instead of the British for “ise” for “analyze,” “organize,” “civilize“, “localize” and “specialize.”
Advances in technology tend to increase American influence on Canadian spelling, and American spelling is more common with American spelling applications in word processing programs. Similarly, there has been a greater exposure to global English written on the Internet among young Canadians.
Except for Newfoundland, Canadian English is remarkable for its relative absence of territorial variety, with fundamentally the same form of English spoken by many people across the provinces from Victoria to Halifax.
Contrasted with Britain and the eastern United States, regional linguistic differences are little and inconspicuous and decline from east to west. However, In the Maritimes, unmistakable accents and phrasings remain on Cape Breton Island, in a few pieces of Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.
Quebec English is exceptionally different because of its near absence of Loyalist impact and its influence from French. In the Ottawa Valley that isolates Quebec and Ontario, you may likewise find an unmistakable traditional tongue reflecting Scottish and Irish influences.
Further west towards British Columbia, virtually no differences are found in Canadian English, with a couple of exemptions, similar to the Prairies’ indigenous people. North of the country, there are distinct forms of English spoken by numerous Indigenous individuals, mirroring Indigenous dialects’ impact on Canadian English. However, the majority of the non-Indigenous populace is too modern to have formed a solidified form of English dialect.
Under the Official Languages Act of 1969 English and French have equal status and are two official languages of Canada which makes Canada a bilingual country. Across Canada, each resident has the right to be served in French or English by government organizations, be it in the courts, in school, or on radio and TV. Public, social, and government communications are dispensed in both English and French.
However, two regions—New Brunswick and Quebec—have linguistic provisions in their laws. New Brunswick is legally considered bilingual, and Québec is constitutionally monolingual, French. Québec laws preclude businesses from requiring any language apart from French when hiring workers or selling products and services.
To the rest of the world, Canadian English is a hodgepodge of vocabulary, pronunciation, and rules. To Canadians, it is true linguistic freedom.
To learn more about English language dialects and how we tailor our English translations to specific regions, read this article.
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