News / Canada

Regional differences in Canadian English ‘alive and well’

Canadian English may have less regional variation than its British and American cousins, but a recent Metro News survey shows our tongues are still tied by geography.

In June, Metro ran a feature series on Canadian English, examining our dialect's past, present and future with the help of McGill University linguist Charles Boberg. The story included a survey — completed by nearly 1,200 readers — tracking differences in language from coast to coast.

According to Boberg, the results show the country can be broken down into five linguistic regions: B.C., the Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

"Regional identities are alive and well," he said.

For example, western residents refer to a summer house as a "cabin," while "cottage" dominates east of Manitoba. And while much of the country prefers the terms "ATM" and "notebook," Atlantic speakers used the words "bank machine" and "scribbler," respectively.

Quebecers were the only respondents to prefer the term "soft drink" over "pop."

The chart below lets you compare vocabulary from province to province. It's set to illustrate the cabin vs. cottage divide in Ontario and Alberta, but you can choose any combination of provinces and any of the survey's 19 questions.

If the interactive chart does not display properly on your device, click here.

"What is most remarkable about these data, perhaps, is their everyday character: These are not the specialized, now often obsolescent vocabulary connected with traditional rural occupations or local landscape features, the type of variable that was used in the past to identify the older dialect enclaves of eastern Canada," Boberg said.

"Rather, they are words that most Canadians use in their daily speech."

There were also differences within regions, or between different provinces. Saskatchewan in particular had a number of breaks with its neighbours; three quarters of Saskatchewan respondents referred to a hooded sweater as a "bunnyhug" and residents also used "all-dressed" to refer a pizza loaded with toppings — a term that has little traction outside Quebec.

"Maybe there's some Montrealers that moved to Saskatchewan and started the first pizza place," Boberg joked.

While our previous series noted that Canadian English is being colonized by American speech patterns (the U.S. pronunciation of lieutenant as "loo-tenant," for example), Boberg believes regional differences function to resist linguistic incursions.

"While in some cases we see American terms like notebook or ATM driving out unique Canadian words, in other cases we see Canadianisms hanging on," he said.

"Moreover, while the pressure to homogenize our speech is very strong in today’s interconnected, globalized world, regional differences somehow survive, even as we develop our vocabulary for new concepts like pizza toppings and banking technology, suggesting that we have a need to belong to smaller, local communities and to symbolize that membership through social behaviour, including our choices in language."

Notes on Methodology

  • Although 1,192 readers completed the survey, the final sample size was reduced to 842. Users who grew up outside Canada, grew up in more than one province, currently live outside the region where they grew up, or failed to answer one of the questions were excluded for clarity of interpretation.
  • Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nunavut, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories are not visible in the chart, as there was not a statistically significant number of respondents from those areas. However, respondents from Atlantic Canada were included in Boberg's broader, regional analyses.
  • An interpretative table, prepared by Boberg, showing the top answers in each region can be found here.

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