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December 16, 2006 7:05 AM   Subscribe

Why doesn't Canada have more regional English-language accents?

In Canada, to the best of my knowledge, there are only two English-language accents — the Newfie accent and the Peter Jennings accent everyone else has. My Albertan relatives and a guy I dated who was from Yellowknife sound exactly like Ontarian born-and-bred me.

In the U.S., by contrast, there are so many, many accents that even some cities have their own, and New York alone has several.

Why is this? Is our population simply not big enough? After all, how many accents would the U.S. have if it only had one-tenth of the population? Perhaps the various regions aren't populous enough so that they can mostly interact just with each other and so develop a particular accent?

Hope this isn't too open-ended a question, but I figured there must be some specific criteria/conditions necessary to the development of a regional accent.
posted by orange swan to Society & Culture (43 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Hmm, it turns out that Wikipedia claims there are five Canadian accents: Newfie, Cape Breton, eastern, Quebec, central/western, and Ottawa Valley.

I did forget about the Cape Breton accent and yes, it does indeed exist. I can't speak to the Ottawa Valley accent. But I know quite a few people from Quebec and the maritimes, and have been there, and I can't say I agree that they have a distinct accent.
posted by orange swan at 7:33 AM on December 16, 2006

I always figured accents developed because of long periods of isolation, both geographical and social/economic.

When I think of specialized accents in the US, I can see a couple hundred years where generation after generation were too poor to go anywhere, sitting around developing their twang without realizing it was any different than people elsewhere.
posted by mathowie at 7:35 AM on December 16, 2006

My housemate lived in the Ottawa valley for a while, and I think he has a bit of a different accent than me (Kitchener), and my Toronto-born and raised father has a bit of a different accent too. The accents on this page that are from Canada all sound a bit different to each other (English 28,29,30,42,53,61)... but I don't think they're very different yet, maybe because Canada isn't as old of a country as the US?
posted by glip at 7:40 AM on December 16, 2006

I saw a program on this. It had something to do with the lack of isolation of English speaking groups. There is a distinctive English accent emerging in Montreal among Italian immigrants. If I remember correctly it was because they spoke Italian and English to each other and French to non-Italians. Other immigrant populations haven't had this kind of exclusive in-group English development, and their accents are rapidly normalized. Sorry I don't remember the details very well. It was a few years ago. But I think it was Talking Canadian.

There are little clues to the Western accent, though. For the word "won" I (Ontario-raised) say "one" and my Manitoba-raised partner says "won" (like won-ton). Westerners also say "right away" differently (sort of like "rad away").
posted by carmen at 7:40 AM on December 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

As an American living in Canada, I've wondered the same thing a few times. Here's what I've come up with:

I also think the smaller population must play a role; additionally, Canada's population is much less widely distributed than the US's (90% of Canada's population is concentrated within 160 km of the US border), making for less regions in which regional accents can develop.

Also, with the exception of Quebec, Canada was settled mostly by the British, and more recently than the US. The US was variously settled by the British, French, and Spanish, with significant regional ethnic enclaves (like German) from relatively early on. For example, the northern Minnesota accent has a definite Scandinavian ring to it, and it just so happens that the area was settled largely by Scandinavians. One could probably argue that the various New York City accents are also tied to the nationalities that tended to settle there in the Ellis Island days (Italian comes to mind as an obvious one).

I'm no language expert, though, so I hope this is at least marginally helpful to you.
posted by AV at 7:53 AM on December 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

One could argue that there are at least two accents in Newfoundland alone. Check out the samples here.
posted by misteraitch at 7:56 AM on December 16, 2006

I'd say the Ottawa Valley definitely has its own accent! I lived there for about five years as a kid, and now say some things a little bit differently than my husband, who spent his entire childhood closer to Toronto (Prince Edward County). People I know who have lived in the Ottawa Valley their whole lives definitely have a thicker accent than I do, so it definitely exists!

My husband's extended family, who live in New Brunswick (Maritimes) definitely have a different accent than either of us do.

Two of my girlfriends who also spent their entire childhoods in Prince Edward County tried to tell me that there were different accents depending on what region of the County you were from. I don't believe that, considering that the County is 1048.3 square kilometers (according to Wikipedia ), but I didn't spend my entire youth there so who knows?
posted by melissa at 7:57 AM on December 16, 2006

There's supposed to be a distinctive Montreal Anglophone accent -- the people who speak it pronounce "merry," "Mary," and "marry" all differently.

(I'm a Montreal Anglophone, but I moved to the states at 12, and I say "merry" and "Mary" the same way but "marry" differently).
posted by Jeanne at 8:11 AM on December 16, 2006

I answer phone calls from around the province of Manitoba, and I can often identify whether a person is from Northern Manitoba, Southern Rural Manitoba, or one of the Francophone communities (the accent is distinct from Quebecois). It's worth noting that each of the accents is linked to separate waves of immigration into the area: North=Hudson's Bay Company, Francophone=Metis/North West Company, South=Selkirk settlers and Eastern European immigrants. I was born in Northern Manitoba, and will tend to switch to my old Northern accent when talking to someone from the North. So yeah, there are more accents than you've listed. They are less pronounced (ha) in Canada's urban centres for some reason.
posted by teg at 8:15 AM on December 16, 2006

Unless it was said by someone pretending to be a fisherman, I've never heard a Canadian say "oot and aboot", and I know Peter Jennings didn't say it, but I've had Americans call me on it. "Ah-Boot, hah. Say that again." We don't recognize our own accents, thinking we speak like everyone in TVLand. My rural cousins seemed to have stronger accents, some lingering trace of the old Scotsmen, from those of us who grew up in the small city within the same county. This was during the 60s and 70s. Accents everywhere are probably leveling as we spend more time watching television than speaking to people around us. My Newfoundland raised sister-in-law can turn hers off and on, depending on whom she's speaking to.

I grew up on the border with Michigan, separated by a river and a bridge. I can remember standing with a group at the ballpark during some tournament, asking a player from the Port Huron or Saginaw or Marysville team to repeat "Pepsi" or "hockey", because we were all so amused by his twang. I've never understood why the accent was so distinct across that border when people living hundreds of miles away in other parts of Canada seemed to speak the same as we did. A few generations back there was regular migration and resettlement across the river, so we were basically the same people, yet to us the "Yankees" talked so funny.
posted by TimTypeZed at 8:26 AM on December 16, 2006

I'm not an expert either, but I think AV's comment above makes a very good point. Many of the most distinctive US accents come from areas with significant amounts of non-British settlers (New York, Upper Midwest, Pennsylvania, South, Northern New England). I couldn't tell you how (or if) the accents are directly related to the foreign languages spoken there, but there would certainly have been more isolation due to the different backgrounds, no?
posted by Rock Steady at 8:49 AM on December 16, 2006

There's also a pretty dramatic split between Prince Edward Islanders who grow up in the capital city, Charlottetown, who have the bog standard Eastern Canadian-type accent and those from more rural areas, especially Tignish on the northern tip.

The country / city accent split also has slight class undertones to it as well, but no one really mentions this.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:10 AM on December 16, 2006

I wanted to rebut the notion that because Canada was mainly settled by Brits that that led to a more homogeneous accent. Britain probably has more dialects and accents than Canada and America put together. Lots of them are significantly different, enough so that they can be difficult to understand.

In trying to find some numbers, I stumbled across this interesting page on Canadian English. They suggest Canadian English was more heavily influenced by the Loyalists that fled the newly-independent USA than by the subsequent British (mostly Scottish and Irish) immigration.
posted by carmen at 9:28 AM on December 16, 2006

I think it's two things:

1) the length of time canada has been a country -- Canada is younger than the US, and so has fewer regional accents simply because there has been less time for them to develop. Much like the US has far fewer regional accents than, say, Britain or Japan.

2) (though related to the first) -- in the time that Canada has existed, population mobility has been comparatively high. When mobility patterns are fixed, accents develop because outside influence is minimal. When mobility is high, populations are continually mixing and so the development of a fixed "regional" accent is less likely to occur.

Britain and Japan providing the perfect opposite example to the US and Canada -- both have been around in some form for over a thousand years, and both are island nations meaning (especially in the case of Japan), the influx of new people was comparatively limited until recently (yes, yes, England is a mongrel people composed of various immigrant groups over the last thousand years, I know). Both Britain and Japan have distinctive accents down to the town level, far more diverse than the broad "regional" accents of the US or Canada.
posted by modernnomad at 10:01 AM on December 16, 2006

Not that I've met a metric ton of people from Guelph, but the handful that I have seem to share a pretty distinct phrasing, if not quite an accent: it's sort of halfway? Between valley girl? And "typical" eastern Canadian?
posted by sonofslim at 10:13 AM on December 16, 2006

I've never heard a Canadian say "oot and aboot", and I know Peter Jennings didn't say it, but I've had Americans call me on it.

Because we don't. It's actually a phenomenon called Canadian raising.
posted by squeak at 10:23 AM on December 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

From my experiences in Toronto:

Adult urbanites from Toronto sound like Peter Jennings.

Kids and hicks sound more like stereotypes of fuckin-A hoser Canadians. Kids especially seem to have the sing-song almost valley-girl thing sonofslim mentioned mixed with a stronger sense of oot vs. owt. At least kids out in wild and wooly North York.

Michael "This is MUTINY, eh" Hogan on Galactica has more of a hick accent but without the singsong, if you want an example. Or Bob and Doug Mackenzie.

Have a grade-A great day, eh.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:35 AM on December 16, 2006

Here's a theory, based on zero study, but along the lines of what modernnomad has said: Many areas in the east of the US began to be settled in the 1600s and 1700s. In Canada, only the Maritimes and Quebec would have settlements this early. The populations of early villages would have been drawn from unique regions and religious denominations. When newcomers arrived later, they adopted the way the earlier settlers spoke. By the mid-1800s, when much of Ontario was being settled, and before western Canada was, emigration to North America had ramped up, and the initial settlers to any given place would be drawn from a much greater pool, with no group from one small old country place dominating. Also, by this time transportation was improving and soon (well, within three generations anyway) mass communication on radio and in film would become influential, so people weren't as isolated. I don't think that most of the western parts of the US settled after the railroad are thought to have strong accents in the way that New England or Georgia are.
posted by TimTypeZed at 10:40 AM on December 16, 2006

TimTypeZed, it's more like "oat" and "a boat"... at least to my Appalachian (a'pple-at'-chin) ears.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:51 AM on December 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Canada's accents aren't as many or as widely different as in the UK, but Wikipedia is wrong about the central and west. The west coast accent is not the same as the prairie twang. That said, not everyone has the twang, and not everyone on the coast is the same either, because people move around a lot. Go to small town Alberta or Saskatchewan and take note. You'll hear the twang, as I did againthree years ago when I went on an extensive camping trip on the prairies.
posted by Listener at 11:25 AM on December 16, 2006

There's definitely at least one Maritime accent that isn't a Newfoundland or Cape Breton accent.
There's definitely a Montreal anglo accent.
There's definitely an Ottawa Valley accent.
There's most definitely a southern Manitoba Mennonite accent.
There are a lot of accents in Canada.

I think the reason there's a perception of there being only one or two all-encompassing Canadian accents is because the vast majority of outside observers don't bother to get to know Canada very well.
posted by loiseau at 11:31 AM on December 16, 2006 [3 favorites]

I'm from England, but I live in Vancouver - there are a ton of different accents here, even amongst people born and bred in or near Vancouver. (Vancouver) Islanders and others from the nearby islands seem to have a noticeably (but subtly) different accent from the Mainlanders, and people I know from North Van seem to have different accents, too. One of my friends is from Kelowna (BC), and he has a much drawlier, chewier accent than the Vancouverites. It's fairly hard for me to get any consistent sense of place out of the accents since Vancouver has so many immigrants, domestic and foreign, but there are definitely way more than 5 Canadian accents - I've heard at least 15 to 20. Again, though - mainly subtle differences rather than anything really striking. More on the order of difference you'd hear in an area about 100 to 150 miles square in the North of England, where you can get noticeably different accents by driving 10 to 15 miles, especially across county and town border lines.

As for the "boot/aboot" thing - I've never heard that, either, it's always sounded somewhere between "ow" as in "cow", and "oat" as in "boat" - not a million miles away from the way the (some) Scots pronounce it. Which, given the large number of people here of Scots descent, may not be too far from the truth.

All of this is purely anecdotal, and not based on fact - but there you go.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:37 AM on December 16, 2006

There's supposed to be a distinctive Montreal Anglophone accent -- the people who speak it pronounce "merry," "Mary," and "marry" all differently.

That sounds like it could be a British thing. As a Brit I pronounce all these words differently, but here in the States they basically sound the same.
posted by ob at 12:23 PM on December 16, 2006

Huh. I can tell, at first listen, if someone lived most of their lives in much of Manitoba ("Oh yah, oh yah"), Hamilton ("I put an appo in the barrow"), Newfoundland ("Me bye, me bye"), the West (because they sound like me), Cape Breton, Ottawa, southern Alberta or Saskatchewan or if they're an anglo from Montreal. And there are a number of other fairly distrintc Ontario accents.

I lived most of my life in Victoria and now live in Vancouver and can't notice any difference between regional BC accents, but I have heard (as Jon Mitchell attests) that they exist.
posted by solid-one-love at 1:04 PM on December 16, 2006

I can recognize Alberta, Ottawa Valley, New Brunswick, Cape Bretton and at least two Newf accents. I can also tell when people are from Toronto because they are more likely to pronounce the last T and from out west because they'll say CalGARY (as in the name Gary).
posted by furtive at 1:34 PM on December 16, 2006

I can definately vouch for the Ottawa Valley accent. I've concluded that I've picked one up, as I regularly get people asking me if I have some type of accent, which inevitably brings the response and discussion of "no, I was born and raised in Ottawa".
posted by Meagan at 2:03 PM on December 16, 2006

Canada has a tonne of accents, although they're less distinct, perhaps, than the American ones. Also the uraban-dwellers tend to have even less of an accent, and when people move to the city, the accent drops quickly (unless they're drunk/tired).

I had a friend from Alberta--only lived there till he was 8 or so but every time he visits he comes back with a mid-western US accent (think Fargo or the mom from bobby's world, but subtler). Also interspersing "guy" a lot.

My mom's family is in the interior of BC, and I pick up their accent on and off, and have since I was a toddler. My Onartio-born-and-raised friends say it drives them nuts (i.e. is very apparent) but only in certain words.

I like a glass of melk with a toasted baggle, or maybe a caw-fee. Ironically, I buy a behg of baggles.

My (anglo-Montreal) step-mom and my (urban Toronto/Vancouver) dad used to argue over how to pronounce my name Sah-rah or Sair-ah (I'll respond to either, but can tell the difference).

I've also noticed that kids who grew up with parents/grandparents speaking another language (in Toronto, where that's super-common at least) often develope a trace of the accent...even if they can't speak a word of the language. That might be universal.
posted by sarahkeebs at 2:43 PM on December 16, 2006

There is certainly a Maritime accent, although it isn't that strong in the population centres.

As for the "boot/aboot"

The oot problem is due to the way Americans hear the sound Canadians make. Or, as somebody said at languagehat's site:
The aboot thing is really cool. Most Canadians do not hear a big difference between the American and Canadian pronunciation of "about." The American vowel sound is a bit longer, maybe a bit lower, but nothing to write home about. Americans, however hear the Canadian version strongly as "aboot," yet to a Canadian, the American imitation sounds much further from the Canadian word than the American about.

I encountered the same thing speaking Klingon, where American Klingon speakers often hear my o (we're told it should sound like o in mosaic, and that's how I pronounce it) as a u (there are many minimal pairs in Klingon) so they hear tIpuSmoH ("make them few") when I say tIpoSmoH ("open them"). Yet I hear their o and u sounds as distinct and recognizable. It's as if Americans and Canadians draw the boundary between o and u sounds in a different place, with the Canadian boundary closer to the u and the American boundary closer to the o. Does that make any sense?
posted by Chuckles at 4:03 PM on December 16, 2006

There's supposed to be a distinctive Montreal Anglophone accent -- the people who speak it pronounce "merry," "Mary," and "marry" all differently.
That sounds like it could be a British thing. As a Brit I pronounce all these words differently, but here in the States they basically sound the same.

Aaaah the merry-mary-marry merger, and it started in the Midwest and has spread through out North America, and quickly too - when I was young it sort of marked a person as from the prairies. Almost all Americans say it now. I hear many (most) Canadians now say it too, Actually native New Yorkers pronounce all three separately too, we're the last holdouts on the North American continent. I was listening to someone talk about a turtle's cair-pace on the radio and it took me fifteen minutes to figure out she was saying carapace. I suspect the Montreal Anglophones may have less contact with phonemic changes elsewhere on the continent.

I also note that the Canadian rising is sometimes heard in New England, (listen to the Car Talk guys) when you realize how similar it sounds, even when the rest of the accents don't it is kind of funny.
posted by xetere at 4:44 PM on December 16, 2006

Travel in educated urban circles and you could get the impression everyone in Canada has the same accent, but if you go and stand in a Sask Wheat Pool Elevator, Co-op, or local diner in rural Saskatchewan and you will notice a quite pronounced difference in dialect.
posted by Deep Dish at 4:55 PM on December 16, 2006

Cool item!

Is our population simply not big enough?

Papua New Guinea has about 6-7 million people and they speak hundreds of languages. Accents and dialects probably abound as well, making the linguistic landscape even more interesting. I think PNG has about 10% of the world's languages and fewer people than the five boroughs of NYC.

So a small population can, in fact, support an amazing amount of linguistic diversity.
posted by jason's_planet at 5:26 PM on December 16, 2006

Montreal itself has at least four anglo accents. McGill types have their own typical rather nasal-forward yap - I can hear it meters away. Working people from the Point don't sound like Westmounters. There's an obscure, hilarious small book about oddities in Italian-Montreal English. I've known folks who merely had a lot of Italian friends and ended up saying things like "close the light". And of course Montreal anglos pick up a lot of French expressions like dépanneur, autoroute and régie that nobody uses in English elsewhere.

Another variety of Canadian English nobody's mentioned is the Native Canadian accent, but there's probably a range of those as well.
posted by zadcat at 10:46 PM on December 16, 2006

There's also a distinctive old-timey Jewish Montreal accent. (I'm not sure I was ever really conscious of it as a Montreal thing until Stephen Lack startled me by busting it out incongruously for his trader character in All The Vermeers in New York.)
posted by tangerine at 1:18 AM on December 17, 2006

I've known folks who merely had a lot of Italian friends and ended up saying things like "close the light".-zadcat

I don't think that's exclusive to Italians from Montreal as I heard it all the time in French Immersion High School from Alberta French teachers and Anglo students. Bugged the crap out of me.
posted by megamanwich at 2:39 AM on December 17, 2006

Zadcat -- do you happen to know the name of that book about Italian-Montreal English?
posted by jules1651 at 12:29 PM on December 17, 2006

I've noticed a different accent in every part of Canada that I've spent any length of time in. There is a big difference between the BC coast, the BC interior, and Alberta. On top of these differences, there are differences between urban dwellers and small town/rural dwellers.

As an example, when I (a native British Columbian) first met my girlfriend in Ottawa (her hometown), I noticed both her urban Ontario accent and her faint Albertan accent that she acquired having recently spent a year there.
posted by ssg at 1:47 PM on December 17, 2006

Response by poster: Travel in educated urban circles and you could get the impression everyone in Canada has the same accent

Perhaps this is the key to why I thought there weren't a variety of accents in Canada.
posted by orange swan at 2:20 PM on December 17, 2006

I've noticed a different accent in every part of Canada that I've spent any length of time in. There is a big difference between the BC coast, the BC interior, and Alberta. On top of these differences, there are differences between urban dwellers and small town/rural dwellers.

I think I've told this story here before, but. I was in a pub on Rose St in Edinburgh, back in '88, doing the crawl with a couple of friends. I was at the bar waiting to order some beers, and struck up a conversation with another guy waiting there, a Scotsman. After chatting for a couple of minutes (it was busy in there), he said 'You're Canadian, right?' I was pleased that he hadn't guessed American, as so often happened. He then went on to guess, with me confirming at each step, that a) I'd spend some part of my early life in southern Ontario and b) that I lived or had lived for a long time in British Columbia, all from nuances of my accent. I swear this guy'd never met me or my friends before -- he just had The Skill (or the training). I bought him a beer.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:29 PM on December 17, 2006

jules1651: it was just a booklet written by one John Trivisonno, whom I don't know.
posted by zadcat at 5:03 PM on December 17, 2006

Zadcat: I hear you on the Native Canadian accent, which is hard to describe. Where I live (Toronto), the type of Native Canadian accent I hear most sounds similar to the general Ontario rural accent -- which makes sense, I guess, at least in reference to on-reserve Native people. A little like the 'hockey hoser' accent, but modulated differently.

Graham Greene, and to a lesser extent Lorne Cardinal (the actor who does Davis on Corner Gas), have the accent I'm thinking about.

To hear Lorne as Davis, see this YouTube video.

On the urban Ontario accent: When vacationing in the US as a kid, other kids my brother and I ran into at campsites always said we sounded like we were from Ohio. Whatever that means...

Having spent two summers working in Ottawa, I think it's the influence of the Franco-Ontariens in the region, plus other French speakers from elsewhere who work in the captiol region.
posted by onshi at 11:38 PM on December 17, 2006

I've definately noticed a Southern Ontario accent. I lived in Waterloo/Kitchener for a while, and I can hear that accent compared to the Manitoba accent I'm used to. I notice it more in my female friends than in males. They sound like Avril Lavigne, for comparison. She grew up in Napanee in Southern Ontario, I believe.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 10:28 AM on December 18, 2006

Another American living in Canada weighing in: the mister's brothers who still live in Ontario and the brother who lived there longer than the mister all have different accents than him. The mister definitely has a BC accent (he moved here in his mid-20s, 30 years ago).

One of my SILs grew up in Barriere, BC and her accent is definitely different than the mister's or her husband's, I'd call it a more typical Canadian accent.

Another SIL is Quebecoise and her accent is strongly accented by that. I don't know if English or French Canadian was her first language. Her son by my Ontarian BIL sounds like a Valley Girl. Weird, eh?

I've heard a few people from Alberta and Saskatchewan and they sound like farmers, a bit Swedish or something like that. "Prairie twang" is a good way to put it.

I've heard a Newfie or two speak and man, they're almost incomprehensible. It seems to have a strong dose of Scots thrown into it. They also talk fast and that doesn't help and that makes it more difficult.
posted by deborah at 9:16 PM on December 18, 2006

I've heard a few people from Alberta and Saskatchewan and they sound like farmers

I've met more than a few Saskatchewan people who have very much the same kind of accent as the North Dakotan characters in the Coen brothers' movie Fargo.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:27 AM on December 19, 2006

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