Writing Monday’s post about Singlish reminded me of all the times I’ve put my foot in my mouth trying to make myself understood in a foreign country. (In my defence, the French words for highlights and ugly people differ by a single vowel, so is it really my fault the hairdresser was so confused by my request? :oops:)
I’ve embarrassed myself in English-speaking countries all over the world by not appreciating differences in word meanings. But not today. Today I finally get to be the expert, because this post is all about Canadian English: that madcap fusion of British and American English (with a bunch of unique Canadianisms thrown in for good measure.) Ready? Let’s go!
The Canadian accent
For a country this size, there are surprisingly few regional variations in pronunciation. I have no idea why this is so, especially when you consider the astonishing range of accents in England, a country so tiny you could fit it into Canada 37 times and still have a bit of space left over.
The speech of Maritimers (those from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island) has a slight Scottish lilt. The area around Ottawa (the nation’s capital, pronounced Oddowa) sounds vaguely Irish; this is known as the Ottawa Valley Twang. But it’s in Newfoundland where you’ll find the greatest divergence from the standard flat Canadian accent.
Known as “The Rock,” Newfoundland was England’s first permanent colony in North America. The majority of settlers came from the southeast of Ireland and the West Country area of England, and the Newfoundland accent is steeped in the sounds of these regions. Let’s just say that in a crowd of Canadians, it’s easy to pick out the Newfoundlander.
The isolation of this Atlantic province meant that its language developed in a vacuum, resulting in several dialects of what linguists call Newfoundland English. It boasts a rich and distinctive vocabulary incorporating words from Irish, French, Inuit, and First Nations languages, as well as some words that are particular to Newfoundland.
Below is a video of a traditional Newfoundland folk song* called “I’s the B’y” (“I’m the Boy/Guy”).
Canadian spelling is a somewhat arbitrary mixture of standard American and British spellings. For the most part, we follow British conventions (preferring colour to color, centre to center, and travelled to traveled.) However, we’ve adopted the US –ize ending, so we write organize instead of organise.
I’ve heard that Canada’s trade partnerships influenced some spelling choices: our strong ties to the American automotive industry resulted in US spellings for related terms (curb instead of kerb) while we use British spellings for banking terms (cheque rather than check.) I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly would explain why we use American car terminology (hood and gas instead of bonnet and petrol, for example.)
Years ago, on a shopping trip in the United States (which we call “the States” or “the US,” never “America”), a saleswoman told me she knew I was Canadian because although I sounded just like her, I said I was “on holiday” (like the Brits) instead of “on vacation” (like the Americans.) These days, the lines have blurred somewhat and both terms are common, but sometimes we appropriate American terminology and other times we go with British.
Here are a few everyday terms that are used in my part of Canada. (As I mentioned before, it’s a huge country. The vocabulary I discuss in this post is common in southern Ontario; it might be different in other parts of Canada.)
- Chocolate bar: what most Americans call a candy bar.
- Click: kilometre, or kilometre per hour (“He was barrelling down the 401 doing 150 clicks.”)
- Homogenized milk or homo milk: milk containing 3.25% milk fat, known in the States as whole milk.
- Joe job: a low-paying job with no future.
- Keener: an over-zealous student (usually derogatory).
- Pop: carbonated non-alcoholic beverage. Also soft drink, although I have a friend in Montreal who calls it soda.
- Twenty-sixer: a 750 mL (26 oz) bottle of liquor.
Linguist Dane Jurcic of the University of Toronto writes that “there are approximately two thousand words or expressions that are native to Canada, or which have a meaning peculiar to or characteristics of Canada.” Here’s a small sampling of these Canadianisms:
- Back bacon: what Americans call Canadian bacon.
- Canuck: a Canadian.
- Double-double: a cup of coffee with two creams and two sugars.
- Eh?: It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Canadians really do say it. Tacked onto the end of a sentence, it means “do you agree/understand?”
- Humidex: an index used by meteorologists that measures perceived heat (temperature plus humidity levels.)
- Hydro: short for hydroelectricity. (“Turn off the light — you’re wasting hydro.”)
- Loonie: The one-dollar coin, so named because there’s a loon (bird) on one side (the other side features Queen Elizabeth). The two-dollar coin is called a toonie — get it?
- Mickey: a 375 mL bottle of liquor.
- Molson muscle: beer belly; named for a major Canadian brewery.
- Poutine: French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. Originated in Québec.
- Runners: running shoes; sneakers; trainers.
- Ski-doo: a genericized snowmobile brand name that can also be used as a verb.
- Timbits: small, bite-sized doughnuts (called donut holes in the US) sold by the ubiquitous Tim Hortons chain.
- Tuque: a French Canadian term for a knitted winter cap.
- Two-four: a case of 24 beers.
- Washroom/bathroom: public toilet, restroom, WC.
Comments? Questions? Attempts at sounding Canadian? Bring it on!