Life / Health

Sah-ry about my vowels, eh? The Canadian accent is undergoing a transformation

Social media is responsible for part of the shift, and we're not necessarily speaking more like Americans, expert says.

Our speech is changing in several important ways, Memorial University of Newfoundland linguistics professor Paul De Decker explains.

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Our speech is changing in several important ways, Memorial University of Newfoundland linguistics professor Paul De Decker explains.

You can always spot a Canadian by their accent, eh? Unlike Americans, Canadians speak pretty much the same way from north to south and coast to coast (with a few exceptions, notably Newfoundland).

But our speech is changing in several important ways, as Memorial University of Newfoundland linguistics professor Paul De Decker explains. And yes, the way we talk to each other online is changing the words we use IRL. But contrary to popular belief, we're not becoming more American.

Sah-ry, excuse my vowels

Canadian vowels are shifting. We're saying pit more like pet, pet more like pat, and pat more like pot. This is most obvious in words like pillow (pellow) and milk (melk), especially in Ontario, De Decker said. The ubquitous Canadian “sore-ey” is sounding more like “sahrry.” This is actually how people pronounce vowels in California, De Decker said. But before you go blaming Hollywood for homogenizing our speech, get this: Americans who live on the southern shores of the Great Lakes are in the midst of an almost opposite shift (pot is sounding more like pat, pat more like pet, and so on).

Goodbye Canadian dainty

Pronouncing the “h” in whale, saying “tch-yune” instead of “tune” and talking about shed-yule-ing appointments used to be hallmarks of Canadian speech, but they're fading, De Decker said. Many older people were taught to articulate these and many other words, like tom-ah-to, “properly” (read: Britishly) in school, putting on a now nearly-defunct accent that was known as Canadian Dainty.

I was like, good gracious, my accent is changing

You've probably been doing this without even realizing it. We're increasingly using “was like” instead of “said” to describe either spoken or inner dialogue. So we say, “I was like, 'You go girl!'” Not “I said, 'You go girl!'” “I was like,” serves a practical purpose, De Decker said. It helps us share the monologue that's going on inside our heads with the outside world, without resorting to awkward phrases like, “I said to myself.”

Social-media speak, lol

Given how much conversing we do online, we can think of that as part of our changing accent, De Decker explained. We're dropping punctuation so much that when someone does end a message with a period (“Please send me the updated draft. Thanks.”) it can seem harsh or even rude. We now use “lol” the exact opposite way, to soften a statement and tell someone we meant it in good fun, De Decker added. Some people even pepper their oral speech with internet abbreviations. (Think “lol” “IRL” “OG” and “b-t-dubs” for “by the way.”

Getting off the chesterfield

Some words that were once as Canadian as poutine are downright disappearing. Chesterfield is a classic example – it's being almost entirely replaced by couch. Every year, De Decker collects data on young Newfoundlanders who recognize the word “mauzy,” a local term for a miserable, grey, drizzly day. Every year, fewer and fewer know what it means.

There's no one idiosyncrasy of speech that screams Canuck, said Memorial University of Newfoundland linguistics professor Paul De Decker.

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There's no one idiosyncrasy of speech that screams Canuck, said Memorial University of Newfoundland linguistics professor Paul De Decker.

What is a Canadian accent?

It's subtle. There's no one idiosyncrasy of speech that screams Canuck, De Decker said. It's a “constellation of features,” many of which are found elsewhere, especially New England and the British Isles. But if they're all together in one person, that person is likely Canadian.

First is the iconic Canadian tic, “eh,” which is being replaced by “hey” in some places, De Decker said. "Eh" serves an important function, he added. We tack it on to statements that aren't really questions (“Looks like freezing rain, eh?”) to indicate we want someone to respond and keep the conversation going.

We also have distinctive “ah” sounds. Canadians pronounce cot and caught precisely the same way, while many Americans drag out the vowel in caught into “c-awh-ot.”

Canadian Raising is the thing Americans mock as “oot” and “aboot.” We pronounce some I and O sounds higher in the mouth. You can hear it in the I in rice (it sounds a lot different than rise, for instance), and about (which has a raised “ow” that is quite unlike, say, the “ow” in around.)

Finally, there are a few dead-giveaway Canadianisms: couch over sofa, pop over soda, runners over sneakers, tap over faucet. We don't settle the check, we pay the bill. To Americans who say bathroom or restroom, the Canuck preference for washroom is adorably stuffy and genteel. Canadian coinages include hoser, keener, and De Decker's personal favourite, “Take off!” — so useful for situations when f—k off just isn't appropriate.

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