Secret Canadian
January 3, 2010 12:52 AM   Subscribe

Are there any two countries in the world that are as linguistically and culturally similar as the United States and [Anglophone] Canada?

I'm American. I recently learned that a very good acquaintance, of many years, is Canadian. Over dozens of interactions with him, I never had any reason to believe he wasn't American. That led me to wonder if there are any other pairs of nations on earth where natives of one could easily pass for natives of the other.

For the purposes of the question I guess I'd ignore instances where the Western notion of the nation-state isn't quite as strong, i.e. cross-national tribal groups in Africa.

I have a number of ideas (Germany-Austria, France-Francophone Belgium, various Latin American nations) but don't have enough grasp on the various dialects to know how different they are.

Thanks!
posted by downing street memo to Society & Culture (52 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Australians and New Zealanders are close. There are a few different words that would also give it away (chilly bin versus esky), and the different accent for NZers might give it away, but I've worked with people from NZ who I wouldn't have picked except for that.
posted by AnnaRat at 1:13 AM on January 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Greece ~ Southern Cyprus
posted by neworder7 at 1:23 AM on January 3, 2010


Germans and Austrians? I know the accent is different, but I haven't spent enough time in both countries to be able to tell if there are intrinsic cultural differences that would make it easy to identify one or the other. (For that matter, perhaps also the German-speaking Swiss, but I don't know if you're asking for entire cultures.)
posted by the luke parker fiasco at 1:46 AM on January 3, 2010


Schwäbischer in the south of Germany and northeastern Switzerland are somewhat distinct linguistically and culturally from other Germans and Austrians, but the analogy with Canada and the US is okay.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:54 AM on January 3, 2010


There are lots!

The Romanian speaking part of Moldova (other parts speak Russian) and Romania are pretty similar in language and culture.

I'm from Sarajevo, Bosnia. Despite the fact that now many people claim that Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian are different languages, they're essentially the same. There are some different dialects, but they are not necessarly defined by the country they're in. So someone on the Bosnian side of the border will typically sound exactly the same as someone on the other (Croatian or Serbian) side of the border. And the culture's pretty much the same. If you were dropped blindfolded into some town in one of the three countries, you wouldn't necessarily be able to tell which one you were in right away. Later, you might tell from the presence of a mosque or a Catholic or Orthodox church, but this isn't foolproof. In much of Serbia, the Cyrillic alphabet is used, but this tends to have a one-to-one correspondence with the Latin alphabet . . . so much so that crossword puzzles work in either alphabet.

I'd also add the "Russian" half of Ukraine and Russia itself. Hungarians in western Romania with Hungarians from Hungary.

There are generally cases too where one *could* tell the difference. But this exists with the Canadian / American dichotomy too - you're not likely to think someone with a rural Mississippi accent is Canadian. And you might notice something un-American coming from the mouth of a Newfoundlander.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:00 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Germans and Austrians?

The dialect differences are actually rather vast. Austrians speak Dialekt at home, which has markedly different vocabulary and vowel systems, and also varies depending on area. Most educated people can shift to Hochdeutsch if they want to but will quickly shift back to Dialekt when talking among friends, something I learned when a student in Salzburg. For example:
High German "Das darf nicht wahr sein" (that can't be true) = Dialekt "Des deffa niet waa saahn". I would call the relationship something more like British English and really thick Jamaican.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:20 AM on January 3, 2010


This is true for people from most Latin American countries. A Colombian could easily live in Mexico and pass for Mexican, for example. There may be accent differences from country to country but (and part of this problem with this question is) regional differences within the country itself may be greater.

Likewise, a native of Oklahoma easily sticks out among a group of native New Yorkers and your Canadian I doubt would fit in among a group of Louisiana natives.

Regarding the original question of Canadians and Americans. I met someone last year and afterwards asked "He has a strange way of speaking. Where is he from?". Answer "He's from Canada"
posted by vacapinta at 2:26 AM on January 3, 2010


AnnaRat - I'd have to disagree on Australia and New Zealand. A Kiwi trying to pass as an Aussie would blow his cover as soon as the conversation turned to rugby; and an Aussie trying to pass as a Kiwi would fail the "fush'n'chups" shibboleth.

In general, though - yep, Aussies and Kiwis are pretty close culturally. I think nearly all of the points of difference are linguistic.

(And one more thing - most Aussies haven't heard of chocolate fish. Yum.)
posted by The Shiny Thing at 2:35 AM on January 3, 2010


French-speaking belgium or swiss people could easily be taken for French, if their accent is neutral enough. There are only minor differences in language (numbers are the easiest way to recognize them). And I they are also culturally very close.
posted by rom1 at 2:53 AM on January 3, 2010


I guess the other obvious ones would be England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland (Northern), Ireland (Republic). I am not sure that anyone from these individual countries would thank you for mistaking them for one of their close neighbours as each has its own unique identity but within the terms of your question they are probably a very good example.
posted by Horatio72 at 2:58 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Surely North Korea and South Korea fit the criteria?
posted by Houstonian at 3:09 AM on January 3, 2010


Spain vs Mexico (Mexican immigrants in Spain are rarely identified as such straight away, although the opposite is not true)

Indonesian New Guinea vs. Papua New Guinea

Monaco vs. France

Swedish-speaking Finland vs. Sweden

North vs. South Ireland

A lot of countries in western and central Africa: the borders there are purely due to administrative decision in the colonial era and do not reflect the cultural and linguistic boundaries (e.g. Mali vs. Mauritania, Congo vs. RD Congo, Chad vs. Sudan, Namibia vs Botswana, etc)

Actually in all these cases except for Mexico/Spain you can see a pattern: you will see a fuzzy cultural/linguistic border and an opportunity for cultural integration whenever borders have been negotiated over an already populated region, as an afterthought between political parties.
posted by knz at 3:12 AM on January 3, 2010


Czechs and Slovaks.
posted by mdonley at 3:47 AM on January 3, 2010


Czechs and Slovaks

While the culture is similar, those do not speak the same language... The reason why the countries split was that there *was* a cultural border. The previous state of affairs was what was artificial and not stable.
posted by knz at 3:53 AM on January 3, 2010


I stand corrected. Thanks, KNZ.
posted by mdonley at 4:08 AM on January 3, 2010


Surely North Korea and South Korea fit the criteria?

Strangely enough, on today's North Korea-related post on MetaFilter, I link to a book I just read about North Korea, which includes interviews with escapees from North Korea. They have many problems adapting to South Korea, and the book lists three reasons - relative to this conversation - which I recall:

1) Many North Koreans have a "rough, guttural accent" that stands out in South Korea.

2) North Koreans are *substantially* shorter than South Koreans, due to a lifetime of poor nutrition and poor health care.

3) The Korean spoken in South Korea is loaded with Americanisms and loanwords from Japanese and other languages to the extent that North Koreans have a tough time understanding.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:10 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Surely North Korea and South Korea fit the criteria?

No. Not anymore. This is, in fact, one of the biggest worries about any future attempt at unification.
posted by smorange at 4:10 AM on January 3, 2010


I'm no expert but I'm not sure about the Belgium/Swiss/France comparison. French people I've spoken to say the Belgian accent/way of speaking, at least, is markedly different. (Of course, that might just be national pride speaking.)
posted by nicoleincanada at 5:00 AM on January 3, 2010


I guess the other obvious ones would be England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland (Northern), Ireland (Republic). I am not sure that anyone from these individual countries would thank you for mistaking them for one of their close neighbours as each has its own unique identity but within the terms of your question they are probably a very good example.

Agreed. We'll never admit it, but us Irish and the British are so similar about so many things (we watch the same TV, listen to the same music, shop at the same shops, etc) that it verges on ridiculous.
posted by macdara at 5:11 AM on January 3, 2010


Malaysia and Singapore are very close, culturally and linguistically, we seperated 45 years ago but the culture has advanced almost along the same lines since then.

This is for the South East Asian countries at least - my peers and I can tell within moments whether someone originated from Indonesia, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Phillipines, or... (Singapore / Malaysia) - the accent gives it away - but trying to tell the difference between a Singaporean and Malaysian is generally a hopeless task.
posted by xdvesper at 5:13 AM on January 3, 2010


Scottish and Irish people, obviously. Even the English can't tell 'em apart.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:54 AM on January 3, 2010


I agree with NicoleinCanada. France is closer to French-speaking Swiss (called Romandie) than to Belgium. The French-speaking Swiss inhabitants speak the same french as we (French) do. Whereas Belgium people have a very different accent and also, they use specific words that French people might not understand. French people immediately notice a Belgian or a French-Candadian, which is less likely about a french-speaking Swiss.
posted by OrangeCat at 6:12 AM on January 3, 2010


Swedish-speaking Finland vs. Sweden

Finnish Swedish has a very distinct accent, and anyone using it will immediately stand out in Sweden. I imagine the opposite is true in Finland.
posted by harujion at 6:18 AM on January 3, 2010


southern holland and dutch speaking belgium have the same language and similar accents (soft g)
posted by jannw at 6:21 AM on January 3, 2010


Argentina and Uruguay. As with many of the above examples, yes, there are differences, but in many contexts they're not immediately noticeable.
posted by veggieboy at 6:22 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


I dunno; I think there are certain shibboleths that could winkle out Canadians from USAins. Having even a residual interrest in hockey might be one of them. Similarly, under certain circumstances in Scotland and Northern Ireland, knowing that being asked about your favourite team is more about sectarian survival than sport.
posted by scruss at 6:34 AM on January 3, 2010


I guess the other obvious ones would be England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland (Northern), Ireland (Republic). I am not sure that anyone from these individual countries would thank you for mistaking them for one of their close neighbours as each has its own unique identity but within the terms of your question they are probably a very good example.


I can't really see an English person thinking that a Scots acquaintance is actually English, though. Likewise, I've got Irish friends from Dublin who went to Belfast and were thrown out of a bar for their own safety, because it would be obvious to everyone that they were Southerners (and therefore Catholic - it was a Protestant bar).

I could certainly pick a Welsh accent, and pick that someone was Irish or Scottish as opposed to English, even if I couldn't tell whether they were Irish or Scottish specifically.
posted by Infinite Jest at 6:55 AM on January 3, 2010


There is a very distinctive Canadian accent. Just listen to them say "out" or "about" or "boat."

And this doesn't take into account those Canadians who live in the Maritime Provinces, whose accents are wholly different from Americans' (and, of course, Americans' accents differ significantly).

You can't really say that Anglophone Canada is linguistically the same as the United States.
posted by dfriedman at 7:06 AM on January 3, 2010


There is a very distinctive Canadian accent. Just listen to them say "out" or "about" or "boat."

You know a lot of Americans pronounce those words the "Canadian" way too, right? The differences between two countries are smaller than the differences within countries. Canadians sound more familiar to me than a Southerner does.
posted by spaltavian at 7:12 AM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


"I can't really see an English person thinking that a Scots acquaintance is actually English"

Depends. An upper middle class Scottish accent from, say, Edinburgh doesn't have much of a Scottish burr to it. Anyone going through the old grammar school system or public schools stands a fighting chance of losing their regional accent, especially if they move about a bit post-education.

There are Irish, Welsh and Scots who can sound English, and vice versa. In extremis, an Aussie can occasionally sound like a cockney and vice versa, in my experience (and I write this as someone who's lived in Australia and London).
posted by MuffinMan at 7:19 AM on January 3, 2010


Spain and Andorra. Since the official language of Andorra is Catalan, it's not unusual to mistake them for a native of catalunya. You can make similar claims about Andorra and Occitan France, but my langue d'oc isn't good enough to make that kind of judgement. Going back to your original example, I know a number of Andorran people who, upon first meeting them and for some time afterwards, I assumed to be Catalan.
posted by elizardbits at 7:44 AM on January 3, 2010


There are certain clusters of Spanish-speaking countries that are linguistically/culturally rather similar (especially among mestizo/"mixed race" urban populations): Uruguay/Argentina is a good example, as is the Central American cluster of Nicaragua/El Salvador/Honduras. In the later case, the differences are mostly in terms of certain vocabulary items that could easily be masked by adopting a "when in Rome" stance in one's choice of terminology.

I wouldn't include the Spain/Mexico pairing that knz does, though--I don't see how the few but marked differences in accent and grammar could go unnoticed.
posted by drlith at 7:45 AM on January 3, 2010


Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador are very linguistically and culturally similar. As a friend from Honduras once put it "We Central Americans are all one people, except for Costa Ricans, who think they are from Europe." Oh and I disagree with the person above who thought that a Mexican would blend in easily in Spain.
posted by emd3737 at 7:49 AM on January 3, 2010


In other words, exactly what drlith said.
posted by emd3737 at 7:56 AM on January 3, 2010


Probably not exactly what you're looking for, but cultural speaking, San Marino and Italy are nearly identical.
posted by TBAcceptor at 8:18 AM on January 3, 2010


There is a very distinctive Canadian accent. Just listen to them say "out" or "about" or "boat."

You realize this is a stereotype about Canadians that American TV uses for laughs, right? I'm Canadian (from Toronto, granted), and I don't say "oot." That said, Americans know I'm not American by my accent (an accent I never knew I had!).

The "eh" thing, however, is not a stereotype. That's a dead giveaway for Canadianness.
posted by pised at 8:32 AM on January 3, 2010 [3 favorites]


Malaysia and Singapore are very close, culturally and linguistically.

Malaysia/Brunei too.
posted by arcticwoman at 8:37 AM on January 3, 2010


Paraguay and western Argentina, if the pair of speakers are both speaking Spanish. The media that they are exposed to (chiefly Argentinian) shapes their culture, at least for the younger generations. However, compare a person from Buenos Aires and a person anywhere outside of Asuncion and you will think they are from different continents. A speaker from Buenos Aires generally has a Spanish/Italian influence and a more metropolitan lifestyle, which affects his/her culture, while there is a good chance that someone from a more rural Paraguayan town may not speak Spanish at all, but rather the native tongue of Guarani.
posted by BasileusPY at 8:48 AM on January 3, 2010


I'm Canadian (from Toronto, granted), and I don't say "oot."

I'm an American who's lived in Toronto for a number of years, and I will say that there is definitely a thing a lot of Canadians do with that "out" sound that is markedly different from the flat US way of saying it. Not nearly everyone, mind you, and it's not the full "oot" sound that the stereotype would have you believe; it's more a kind of front-of the mouth "eowt" as opposed to an American back-of-mouth "aaut". I wish I could describe it better, but the stereotype is based on something real.
posted by transient at 9:31 AM on January 3, 2010


You realize this is a stereotype about Canadians that American TV uses for laughs, right? I'm Canadian (from Toronto, granted), and I don't say "oot."

You need to travel in your own country—even in your own province—a bit more. I didn't hear the stereotypical "aboot" and the like in Toronto, but it was definitely there in more rural areas of Ontario I've traveled in. The strength of the accent is exaggerated for humorous effect in the American TV stereotype, but it's not as if that stereotype was just created out of whole cloth.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:36 AM on January 3, 2010


And don't forget that within many countries, there are regional differences and socioeconomic differences within the language. You can hear a good example in the movie Les Noces de Papier (Paper Wedding). (A French Canadian lawyer convinces her university professor sister to marry an undocumented immigrant to get him legal status.) With my high school textbook French, I can roughly understand the lawyer and the professor, but I can't understand the Joual-speaking cops.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:46 AM on January 3, 2010


In other words, Canada is unique because it is not unique.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:28 AM on January 3, 2010


I'm sorry, but any Canadian who claims that at least some Canadians don't say "aboot" doesn't know much about Canadian English.
posted by dfriedman at 12:21 PM on January 3, 2010


I'm Texan.

I don't get the thing about Scotland/Ireland/Wales/England. I've only been a couple of times, but I can pretty easily differentiate the accents. Maybe less with Welsh vs English when speaking English. The only thing that's difficult for me, strangely, is that I can't tell the difference between a West London (I think, I'm not all that straight on regional London accents) and Australian accent.

I know the cultures must be relatively similar, and I'm sure some urban dwellers might have more generic accents, but still.
posted by cmoj at 12:43 PM on January 3, 2010


I think the Canadian v American accent can be easily spotted by either an American or Canadian say "Sorry." Speaking as an American living in Canada, I can pick an American out of a crowd by this one word.

Also, I think, speaking as an ex-pat, you tend to learn to blend in with the culture in which you live. I've spent several years living as an expat in a couple different countries now and part of the whole allure is learning cultures different to what I'd experienced while growing up. So that the Canadian referenced in the OP has likely done something similar, not out of necessity but just by sheer exposure. It's usually pretty important to be able to communicate effectively to pick up local idioms and turns of phrase.

As a side note, and as an outsider having lived in Austria, I'd have to say that Austrians and Germans ARE similar in their culture/everyday life, but the moment one of them speaks, you're able to tell the difference. I'm certain, though, that either could live in the neighboring country, lose the edge of their accent, and be thought of as native after some time
posted by kirstk at 2:40 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


You realize this is a stereotype about Canadians that American TV uses for laughs, right? I'm Canadian (from Toronto, granted), and I don't say "oot." That said, Americans know I'm not American by my accent (an accent I never knew I had!).

But you do say "aboat." No Canadians say "aboot," but Anglophones from coast to coast say "aboat." But as an American in Canada since 1997, I can tell you that there are other, more defining (as in uniquely Canadian) Canadian shibboleths. One is the way Canucks say "sorry." No American says "sooorry." That's a dead giveaway. Another is Canadian "COM-po-site" versus American "com-POS-ite."

Others aren't as universal among Canadians but still things that only Angolophone Canadians will say. You will never hear an American say that he's driving a "zed 28." You will never hear an American waxing nostalgic about his days "at university" (or having two daughters "in university") or asking a professor "which faculty" he teaches in. You will never hear an American speak of being "on pogey."

The "eh" thing, however, is not a stereotype. That's a dead giveaway for Canadianness.

Depends on how it's used. Many, many Americans will end a question with "eh" ("So you're off on vacation now, eh?") but will never, ever, utter a statement like, "I was on the 404, eh? And this d-bag cuts me off, eh?"
posted by ethnomethodologist at 3:30 PM on January 3, 2010


Canadians who are skeptical of the about difference: compare saying rider and writer, and house (v) and house (n). It doesn't sound to us like -oot, but it exists, even in Toronto. (And, of course, in many border states.) It is stronger in more rural areas, but it's not restricted to them.

The "sorry" phenomenon is that many (but not all) Canadians keep the o sound in front of r, while most USians do not. See also borrow, Laura, etc.

Canadians also tend to borrow words with a and pronounce it like the a in father compared to the USian pronunciation which uses the a in spa. See drama, taco, pasta (first a).

Speech wise, you can certainly confuse the two accents, because the differences are just tendencies, but culturally, I think that there's a much bigger difference than many people imagine.
posted by jeather at 5:17 PM on January 3, 2010


In terms of Latin America, you can usually tell most Latin Americans from the others although Uruguay and Argentina are hard for me to differentiate.

However, as a Puerto Rican who was born and raised in Puerto Rico if it weren't for all our anglicisms and our fast manner of speaking, I wouldn't be able to tell between a Cuban or a Puerto Rican. Therefore, yeah they can be clearly differentiated if they are using slang/anglicisms peculiar to each country, but at least in the US, we don't use them that much unless in the company of other Puerto Ricans.
posted by lizarrd at 6:53 PM on January 3, 2010


An Urdu speaking Pakistani could pass for an Urdu speaking Indian and vice versa. The same could probably be said for Punjabi speakers of both countries. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a similar situation between people from India and Bangladesh.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 8:30 PM on January 3, 2010


A lot of European languages have local dialects that are quite variable from one valley or even one village to the next. That is the usual result of leaving a more-or-less stable population in place for a few hundred or a thousand years.

The result is that people familiar with these dialects can often place native speakers within just a few miles of their home village just by listening to them speak.

Just for example, I traveled in Germany & Austria with a friend who grew up in Bavaria. If you check the maps of dialects spoken in the area you will see one linguistic area (Austro-Bavarian) taking in fairly large chunks of southern Germany (ie, Bavaria), Austria, and parts of northern Italy and eastern Switzerland. Another large group (Allemanic) straddles the border between southern Germany and Switzerland, including a little chunk of Austria.

(Here is an overview of the general situation throughout the German speaking countries, with maps, here (Upper German), here (Central German), and here (Low German). As you can see there are a large number of linguistic areas but they cross national boundaries rather freely.)

So on the one hand, these language groups cross national boundaries, without question.

On the other hand, nearly every little valley has its own home style of speech, and the variants are very easily identified by others from the greater linguistic region. This article describes the situation quite well.

So I remember the day as we were traveling through southern Germany and Austria, when my Bavarian friend came out from talking with some museum staff member and said, "Ah, finally, I can speak my home dialect with people!"

This was within 25 miles or so of where he grew up.

Even though his dialect would be classified as Central Austro-Bavarian--a group that takes in large sections of southern Germany and a majority of Austria--in reality only with a couple dozen miles of his home city was it his own home dialect.

So to actually address your question: You definitely have linguistic groups in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and adjoining countries that freely cross national borders. But you also have very, very localized dialects with variants of pronunciation, speech rhythm, and vocabulary that identify quite specifically a person's home town or area.

One reason we don't have that same hyper-localization of dialect in the U.S./Canada is that the expansion across entire huge portions of the continent happened so quickly (in historical terms) that just one or two major dialects (the ones that happened to win out due to certain historical accidents) were spread across huge areas of the continent.

So the linguistic variety you might see over tens of miles in a place like Great Britain or the Germanic speaking world, you might see over thousands of miles in the U.S./Canada.

And if you are looking for areas more directly analogous to Canada/U.S. in a place like Europe, you might have to look at a much smaller scale--like instead of thinking "Germany/Austria" you might have to look at just one city or metro area that sprawls across national lines.

An example might be a place like Basel, where the metro area spills into Switzerland, France, and Germany and the local dialect is Basel German.
posted by flug at 10:57 PM on January 3, 2010


Another Canadian/US shibboleth is "project". Canadians usually say "pro-ject", while Americans say "prah-ject". Which I discovered many years ago when I phoned a US tech support line and started by explaining that "I [was] working on a project..." and the woman on the line replied with, "Ah, you're calling from Canada."
posted by djfiander at 6:03 AM on January 4, 2010


I'd have to disagree on Australia and New Zealand. A Kiwi trying to pass as an Aussie would blow his cover as soon as the conversation turned to rugby

I've never "tried to pass as an Aussie", but I have spent time amongst Aussies and never been picked as a Kiwi. It may surprise you to learn that there are both Kiwis and Aussies who don't give a flying fuck about rugby, so in some circles, the subject never comes up.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:35 PM on January 4, 2010


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