The past, present, and future of Canadian English: What our accent tells us about being Canadian

Have you ever boarded an international flight and seen Canadian flags on every other backpack? It’s a tradition so longstanding that it’s allegedly been co-opted by Americans looking to mooch off Canada’s global reputation for niceties and politeness. However, in recent years, the practice has been advocated against by some Canadians who feel that our urge to display the flag abroad is simply an embarrassing reminder of our nation’s most self-conscious trait: the desire to not be mistaken for American.

This quirk is indicative of a much deeper fear, one that has plagued anglophones north of the border since 1776. With most of our population clustered along the American border, our children raised on a steady diet of American media, and the exodus of our celebrities to Hollywood—cueing the classic refrain of, “But you know they’re Canadian, right?”—one could say that our country’s greatest fear is becoming America.

At the root of it all is the North American accent that Canadians and Americans seem to share. While certain regional dialects persevere on both sides of the border—take Newfoundland or Texas, for example—to anyone outside of the two countries, the difference between a Canadian and American accent is non-existent. The pronunciation of “about” as “aboot” is likely the only Canadianism they know.

Then enters Canadian English. This unique dialect separates Canada from the US, but many Canadians will tell you that they don’t always notice the difference.

As Canada’s population becomes more diverse, new immigrant communities are beginning to leave their mark on our English. Reflected in Canadian English is the story of immigration to Canada. It’s also the story of community, and how Canadians struck out on their own to build a new identity.

Ever since the US declared its independence, Canadians have been both consciously and subconsciously creating a speech community to remind the world we’re our own country.

Tracing our roots

English came to North America on the tongues of colonizers. Anglophone settlers from England, Scotland, and Ireland, who began to arrive in the late 1500s and continued to pour in steadily throughout subsequent centuries, brought many varieties of English to North America.

To this day, in the British Isles alone, there are over 37 unique dialects of English, but none of those accents sound like ours. So when did Canadians lose our British accents?

According to Jack Chambers, a sociolinguist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, the answer is simple: we never did.

“North America was founded by English-speaking people in the 18th century,” Chambers said in an interview with The Pigeon. “We sound the way we do because the founding accent that was imported from Great Britain was an 18th-century accent.”

When British colonizers arrived in North America, they cut themselves off from the language spoken at home, which continued to morph and change without them.

“The people who live in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa […] sound much more British than North Americans. That’s because their accent [is based on a British accent from] 100 years later, in the 19th century,” Chambers said.

In doing so, settlers preserved a way of speaking that would have been otherwise lost. Our accent stems from one of the world’s oldest forms of spoken English.

Of course, as Chambers notes, “language never stands still.” In 18th-century North America, dozens of varieties of English began to bump up against each other as people from across the United Kingdom suddenly found themselves neighbours.

While adult settlers kept their original accents, Chambers says that Canadian-born children began to speak the same way. This set the English of the colonies on a new path, growing into the Canadian and American accents of today.

Sisters, not twins

Detroit, MI, and Windsor, Ont., sit back to back, the two cities spilling together across the Canadian-American border. They share natural resources like the Detroit River, infrastructure like the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, and industry, with both cities acting as historic centres of automobile production. Together, the region forms one of the largest urban hubs in North America.

Yet, as Chambers notes, people in the two cities speak in ways distinct to the countries they belong to.   

In Windsor, people pronounce the word “back,” with an “ah” vowel. Only a few minutes away, people in Detroit sound noticeably different, pronouncing “back” like “be-yeah-ck.”

This uniquely American nasal pronunciation is a product of the Northern Cities Shift, a transformation of vowel sounds that is changing the accent of the American Great Lakes Region. The change can also be seen in the difference between the vowels in the word “cot,” as in bed, and “caught” as in ‘to catch.’

“In Canada, we have one [“ah”] vowel,” Chambers said. “We say, ‘the baby is sleeping in a cot,’ and ‘I caught the robber,’ and they sound exactly the same.”

While the Northern Cities Shift has spread from east to west through the states along the border, Chambers says that the English spoken on the Canadian side has shown no sign of being affected.

“People in Detroit sound like they’re from Detroit, and people from Windsor sound like they’re from Windsor,” Chambers said.

“The reason that difference comes along in the first place is because language is one of the ways we show who we are. And if you live in Windsor and sound like you’re from Detroit, you’re not showing your Windsor-ness. Usually [it’s subconscious]—people don’t even think about it.”

Because the people who founded Canada and America came from the same towns and developed North American English together, logically, there shouldn’t be sweeping differences dividing us. Yet the distinctions remain stubbornly persistent, existing on either side of an invisible border.

The most well-known of these distinctions is the difference in terminology, with Canadians frequently touting words like double double, “keener,” “two-four,” and “toonie” as signs of undeniable Canadiana. These terms not only divide Canada from the US, but vary wildly across the country, even as the Canadian accent remains remarkably stable from province to province.

Pronunciation can also differ between Canada and the US. In June 2019, the Toronto Transit Commission was inundated with customer complaints when its communication system pronounced the word “avenue” as the American “ah-ven-oo,” rather than the Canadian “ah-ven-yew.”

Beyond the difference in vocabulary, the stereotype of the “aboot” phenomenon is an exaggeration of a characteristic of northern speech called Canadian Raising. This is when Canadians ‘raise’ their ou vowel, changing the word “out” to sound similar to “oat,” and “wife” to sound something like “woyfe.”

“One interesting thing is that [Canadian Raising] is spreading in the northern states,” Chambers noted, “so northern Americans are starting to sound more Canadian.”

The reign of Canadian Dainty

The Mid-Atlantic accent of Golden Age Hollywood emerged when many American actresses started speaking British-inspired English. This accent flourished in the 1930s and 40s, lending old-world glamour to those who spoke it. 

Away from Hollywood, to the north, this quasi-British accent was far from new. Before the Second World War, British English carried a sense of superiority and respectability, and Canadians had been retroactively enforcing British pronunciation in their speech for decades. This was known as Canadian Dainty, an accent that lasted 100 years, spanning Canadian history from 1850 to 1950, according to Chambers.

The accent, which imposed British features over our natural speech, was intended to enforce differences between Canada and America and strengthen the country’s British identity.

It also highlighted socioeconomic differences: while middle- and upper-class citizens adopted the British influence, working-class Canadians kept an accent more similar to today’s.

“Accents are pretty much class based,” Chambers said. “[During the time of Canadian Dainty] children who went to middle-class and upper-class schools in Canada in the first half of the 20th century were told to say ‘rother,’ instead of ‘rather.’ They were told to say ‘tomahto’ instead of ‘tomato.’ They were corrected.”

“It led people in the United States to say, ‘Oh, Canada sounds more British than we do.’”

He notes that the accent wasn’t faked—it was taught. Even today, Canadian children are told to use British spellings, and to pronounce the letter “Z” as “zed,” not “zee.” British preservation still serves as a way for Canadians to stake out their own identity in relation to the US.

Canadian Dainty faded away after the Second World War when being British fell out of vogue—but its legacy still raises questions around the roles that class and race play in the politics of the Canadian accent.

Just as standard Canadian English fosters a sense of national identity, unique speech communities within Canada preserve ethnic or regional cultures.

Across North America, distinct accents exist in many Indigenous communities, for whom it can bolster a sense of togetherness and help maintain ethnic identities. However, many Indigenous speakers often face discrimination, with their accent being labelled as less intelligent and less correct than “standard” Canadian or American English.

A study by researchers at Dartmouth College in the US, which included Indigenous peoples from the Northwest Territories, found that many Indigenous people employ code switching, the practise of situationally changing their language to avoid such stereotypes. One interviewee recalled being made to take English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in school because of her accent, despite her first language being English.

Canadians also have a classist history of judging regional accents. On the East Coast, Newfoundlanders, whose accents remain starkly distinct within the country, have faced considerable ridicule from the rest of Canada. The accent is heavily influenced by a history of Irish immigration to the province, and Chambers notes that Irish English features occur most heavily in “Canadian working-class English.” 

In 2019, The Simpsons was widely criticized in Canada for making jokes about “stupid Newfies,” drawing from these stereotypes.  

The future of Canadian English

In the last decade, Canadian English has seen new attention, with emerging awareness of what has come to be called “Toronto Slang”—a way of speaking in the city that reflects the growing influence of immigrant communities in Canada.

Arriving in Canada amidst the wave of diverse immigration that began after the 1960s, Toronto Slang developed from Jamaican Patois, and is heavily influenced by Somali and Arabic, reflecting the languages of Toronto’s Black diasporic communities.

The slang includes words such as ‘mans,’ ‘wah gwaan’ and ‘wallahi.’

Kardinal Offishall walks listeners through Toronto slang in his 2001 hit, “BaKardi Slang.”

In recent years, as Toronto, Ont., has enjoyed a rise in global popularity off the back of the Toronto Raptor’s NBA successes and singer Drake’s hometown-proud persona, social media has helped spread this slang to a wider audience.

Raven Wilkinson, a Jamaican-Canadian graduate of Carleton University who wrote her Master’s thesis on Toronto slang, noted the importance of recognizing Toronto slang’s roots, and the role it plays in the community that it originated from.

She said that Jamaican Patois’ genesis was in colonial Jamaica, where slaves hybridized the languages of oppression—English, French, Spanish, and Dutch—and their own West African languages to create a new dialect, allowing them to “hide in plain sight.”

“These are remnants of really traumatic times […] the way that people connect with each other through [this] language emerged from slavery, and from colonialism.” 

The line between popular slang and cultural appropriation is one that many Canadians adopting Toronto slang fail to consider. Celebrities like Drake and comedian Lily Singh have been criticized for failing to recognize the slang’s heritage, and presenting “Toronto slang” as something that belongs to the city instead of its people, erasing its history. The phenomenon of Black erasure is regrettably familiar, permeating modern culture.

“When [non-Black people] see something that Black communities are doing, they often co-opt it to try [to] align themselves with what’s cool,” Wilkinson said. “The problem is the lack of reflection [towards] these terms and phrases, and why people speak it. It’s more than just fun or entertaining.”

The experiences of Toronto’s Black communities are reflected in the Black communities of London, England, where the Jamaican diaspora, along with many of London’s vibrant immigrant communities, has created “Multicultural London English,” a dialect that is strikingly similar to what is found in Toronto.

“There’s actually a lot of debate about people from London thinking that people from Toronto are stealing their slang,” noted Wilkinson. “Like I said, it’s problematic to think that [the dialect is] just from those places, because it’s not.”

However, Wilkinson feels that Toronto slang is still special to the city. The hybrid nature of the slang and the distinct way it’s spoken reflect the unique composition of the communities it comes from.

“You can just tell when someone is from the [Greater Toronto Area (GTA)] based on how they’re saying things,” she said. “Even if they don’t speak in slang, they still have an accent that identifies them as being from the GTA.”

Derek Denis, a sociolinguist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, studies Toronto slang and the ‘GTA Accent,’ which he considers part of an emerging Multicultural Toronto English. It’s something called a multiethnolect, a hybridized way of speaking associated with the coming together of many ethnic communities.

The phenomenon has been witnessed in multicultural cities across Europe, led, as all languages are, by the youth.

“[In multiethnolects] you’ll see features that we can directly trace to an immigrant language,” Denis said. “We see that with the borrowing of Patois words [and] the borrowing of Somali [in Toronto].”

He also notes a subtle linguistic shift in Multicultural Toronto English, which could explain how youth in the GTA have developed a unique accent, whether or not they use the slang.

“[English in Toronto has] many second language speakers,” Denis said. “There are some features that are consistent across the board [in second language varieties of English]. One of those is called monophthongization.”

This is what happens when English diphthongs, or complex vowel sounds, shorten to monophthongs, or stable vowels. In standard Canadian English, Denis notes that the ‘ooh’ vowel in words like ‘ghost’ or ‘goat’ are diphthongs, but in the GTA, those vowels are becoming monophthongized, changing the long ‘ooh’ to a clipped ‘o.’

As to whether Toronto slang will eventually integrate deeper into English across the country, the way British dialects have, Denis doesn’t deny the possibility—although, as language develops all around us, its meanings and usages begin to change.

“Think of a word like ‘cool,’” Denis said. “A hundred years ago it was ‘slang,’ but most [English] speakers wouldn’t think of it in that way now.”

Sounds like home

For now, Toronto slang tells a story much like that of Canadian Dainty, and of Canadian English as a whole. Speakers use it to represent their identity: they take their heritage, the languages of their neighbours, and their Canadian upbringing, and turn it into something that is uniquely theirs.

Canadians developed, and continue to develop, distinct accents because language is rooted in community. It reflects who we want to be, and it tells us who we are.

 “We do not learn accents from media, from television, from radio, or from movies,” Chambers said. “We have to have face-to-face interaction before we change anything in the way we speak. We have to think the person we’re speaking to is our peer, someone who is just like us.”

For Wilkinson, Toronto slang means home.

“I remember [in] that first month of moving back to Toronto from Ottawa, I heard two guys on the street speaking Toronto slang, as I was like, ‘Yes, I feel so much more at home now,’” she said.

“You just feel like you’ve found someone who’s part of your people. [Toronto slang] makes you feel like you’re part of a group, and that’s what people want.”

“That’s how you become part of a community.”

Like this article?

We’ve got even better things in store, with the help of our incredible donors.

Our donors make what we do possible. By making a monthly contribution to The Pigeon, you would be directly helping us to further our cross-Canadian coverage. We devote a portion of our earning specifically towards paying marginalized contributors, like we did in our recent Tracing Threads project. Other ways we spend donor contributions include upgrading our website, reaching out to new readers, and paying research expenses.

Can you become a monthly donor for as little as $10 a month today?

With your financial help, we can continue to share unique stories, prioritize marginalized voices, and create positive change in the Canadian media landscape.


New Canadian documentary profiles Pride celebrations in small towns

In conversation with creators of the acclaimed documentary film Small Town Pride.

‘My veil is a magnet for hate’: A young Muslim’s journey wearing hijab and facing Islamophobia

"As I write this, I am mourning the four Muslims killed for simply believing in Islam less than two hours from where I live in Ontario. This time, it hurts so much more."

6 Muslim youth reflect on safety and solidarity in the wake of the London attack

Since the June 6 attack, these young Canadians have felt scared and shaken. But they say this isn't the first time Islamophobia has touched their everyday lives.

Related Articles