Our yods are toast. Our "eh?" is disappearing from adolescent speech. Young women are showing signs of abandoning our prized raised diphthongs. But gotchies -- or gonchies, west of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border -- is a vibrant all-Canadian word for underpants.
Indeed, at least 2,000 words in our everyday speech now merit the lexical accolade of "Canadian English." And, national-linguistics-pride-wise (multiword modifiers functioning syntactically as a single word appear with statistically significant high frequency in Canadian English-language newspapers), the good news doesn't stop there.
The folks of Nova Scotia's rural Lunenburg County are hanging on to the only non-rhotic dialect spoken by mainland Canadians of European descent. (They don't pronounce the letter "r" after vowels, in words like "car" and "world.")
The first Chinese-Canadian English dictionary has been compiled by Chinese linguist Xu Hai.
Canadian lovelorn newspaper advertisements tend to be different from personal ads published in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States. (For one thing, Canadian men never refer to themselves as "guys.")
Moreover, the fears of anglophone Quebeckers that their English is being invaded by French words and grammatical syntax is hogwash.
All these matters of the Canadian tongue are on the agenda this weekend with sociolinguists from across the country and around the world, gathered at the University of Toronto for the first full-fledged academic conference on Canadian English that, oddly enough, has ever been held.
The conference, Canadian English in the Global Context, is a celebration of Prof. Jack Chambers, the academic giant of Canadian English who 32 years ago coined the term "Canadian raising" to describe how we pronounce the ou diphthong in "house" and "about." Chambers, 65, formally retires this year from U of T's department of linguistics.
It also celebrates what Katherine Barber, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, terms the coming of age of Canadian English, an affirmation by linguists and Canadians themselves that their variant of the world's most spoken language has "cast off the yoke of both external and internal colonialism."
How we speak as anglophone Canadians -- after 250 years of chumming around together -- has become solidly us, and, as Chambers said in a recent interview, national speech is a more profound glue of national identity than national literature.
Thus for 2½ days, CanSpeak's Henry and Henrietta Higginses will present papers on topics ranging from vowel production in Winnipeg to linguistic resistance on the New Brunswick-Maine border; from teaching Canadianisms to immigrants to analyzing Canadian English as a minority language in Quebec; and from Canadians' all-but-vanished yods -- except on CBC national news -- to the use of "eh?"Yods? Yes, say goodbye to yods.
A yod is what linguists call the palatal glide one brings to the pronunciation of words such as "news" (nyooz), "tune" (tyoon) and "student" (styoodent) as opposed to the glideless (and yodless) nooz, toon, stoodent.
Historically, says Prof. Sandra Clarke of Memorial University, the palatal glide has been cited as "emblematic of Canadian linguistic identity" while glideless pronunciation has been denigrated as "American-like." She rejects as overly simplistic the notion that Canadians, by going yodless, are adopting more American speech norms. Rather, she says, it is a product of "linguistic globalization" within the English-speaking world.
Interestingly, Clarke found a considerably higher incidence of undropped yods by television newsreaders and reporters than what occurs both formally and informally in general Canadian speech, and they were "significantly more characteristic of CBC rather than CTV . . . of national rather than local media; and, surprisingly, of male newscasters rather than female."
Just how much linguistic globalization may be nibbling away across the board at the pronunciations and other linguistic idiosyncrasies of what is considered Standard Canadian English nobody knows for sure.
University of Fribourg sociolinguist Peter Trudgill points out that an important part of the formations of all colonial Englishes are the multiple dialects that settlers brought with them from Great Britain and Ireland which became blended together into a new dialect. Thus the specific ingredients of one dialectical stew produced American English; of another, Australian English; of another, Canadian English, and so on.
The young play an absolutely pivotal linguistic role in what happens. In what Trudgill calls a tabula rasa dialect contact -- where there's no prior-existing population speaking the language -- by the time the second generation of settler-children comes along, everyone sounds the same. Not surprisingly, most anglophone Canadians outside Newfoundland sound pretty much the same -- and sound more like Americans than other English-speakers -- because the major source of immigration during the formative years of Canadian English was the northeastern United States.
The research of University of Toronto linguist Sali Tagliamonte points to how the young today might be foreshadowing changes in Canadian English. Tagliamonte studies how Toronto adolescents speak. Much of her research focuses on the use of "like" and "just" ("He's, like, cool," "I decided to just do it") and what linguists call intensifiers, words like "really" and "so" ("He's really cool," "She's so uncool").
She has found astounding parallels in adolescent speech patterns on both sides of the Atlantic, occurring at the same time and at the same rate of change, suggesting today's young Canadians are encountering a, like, dialectical stew that is really global.
Tagliamonte has also found a marked absence of the traditional Canadian "eh?" in what linguists call the "utterance final tags" of Toronto adolescent speech. "Right now," she says, "virtually none of my adolescents use 'eh?' They're using 'right?' " As in, "Nice day, right?"
Is the adolescent-absent "eh?" an age-specific phenomenon resembling "like," or is it clearly more permanent?
The use of "like" seems to peak with 16-year-olds. Tagliamonte has measured its frequency as being as high as 4 per cent of all words used by teenagers in her study group, a more frequent usage than "and," which borders on mind-blowing. Currently, however, the use of "like" begins to decline with first-year university students.
When it comes to research into "eh?" there's been a kind of linguistic black hole. Prof. Elaine Gold of the University of Toronto says there was a brief burst of academic interest in it during the 1970s, but since then, nothing.
Her 2004 survey of Toronto university students' familiarity with 10 different categories of "eh?" -- from "Nice day, eh?" to "This guy is up on the 27th floor, eh? . . ." -- shows that about 85 per cent of Canadian-born students indicate they use "I know, eh?" (while only 16 per cent say they use it with the guy on the 27th floor, referred to as the narrative "eh?").
Gold says a problem with research based on self-reporting is that many of the students are unaware of their own use of "eh?" Thus the frequency of use may, in fact, be higher than reported, all of which indicates that "eh?" isn't on life-support after adolescence.
At the same time, a comparison of Gold's survey with surveys done 25 years ago of "eh?" use in Ottawa and Vancouver points to something language nationalists might not want to know -- "eh?" seems to be a Central Canadian, not a national, phenomenon. Usage rates in Vancouver are much, much lower.
Which brings us to young women in Vancouver -- and elsewhere, but they've been studied more thoroughly in Vancouver -- who are abandoning the Canadian raising.
When Canadians say words like "nice" and "about," they raise their tongues higher in their mouths, closer to the palate, than Americans do. This produces an "i" sound that rhymes with "white" rather than "wide." It also produces an "ou" diphthong that results in a different pronunciation for "house" as a noun than for "house" as verb (Americans give the verb-house pronunciation to both noun and verb). It's how we recognize ourselves in the dark when we can't see the maple leafs sewn on our backs.
Certain young women have been discovered to be dropping their diphthongs -- and moving them to the fronts of their mouths for a sound like "abowt" -- which has large significance for linguists, because young women, for a variety of reasons, are most likely to create permanent changes in language use.
In any event, the Canadian raising has had a relatively long life, first written about by U.S. linguist Evelyn R. Ahrend in a 1934 scholarly article titled Ontario Speech. And the mechanisms of English perpetually change, says Tagliamonte.
Although not -- by a long shot -- as fast as Quebec anglophones and their news media think.
University of Ottawa linguist Shana Poplack launched a thorough study of what's happening to Quebec English in a sea of French, after reports of anglophones' fears that their English was becoming "créolized," absorbing French words by the baquet and losing "grammatical integrity."
She interviewed anglophone Quebeckers of all age cohorts at great length, examined millions of their words, and concluded that, while French was an important part of their lives, it had no influence on their own language. In fact, people who told her they'd imported words into their speech like dépanneur (convenience store), autoroute (freeway) and vernissage (art-show opening) did not use them.
Language, says Poplack, is resilient.
But not absolutely impermeable in a country as multicultural as this one. Canadian English, which insouciantly has absorbed words as needed from Canadian French and aboriginal languages, also pilfers from the vocabularies of newer arrivals. Gotchies, or gonchies, has been around for 50 years -- from the Ukrainian word for long johns.
Speaking up for Canadian English
When Jack Chambers came to the University of Toronto's linguistics department 35 years ago, the study of Canadian English didn't exist. "Now it does," he says simply over lunch one day at his favourite Thai restaurant, on the edge of campus.
It exists because Chambers gave it life, the evidence being this weekend's first full-blown scholarly conference on Canadian English, and the tributes being paid to him by the academic linguistic community and former students.
In 1973, he tagged Canadians' most distinctive dialectical sound with a name, "Canadian raising." In 1975, he gave the first university course on Canadian English. Year after year he's unearthed the history of our speech, linguistically mapped our vowels and consonants, charted our pronunciations and vocabulary -- how we've rejected "leisure" rhyming with "measure," tossed out "serviette" and "chesterfield," largely eschewed "sofa" for "couch," and on and on.
Police sought his help to identify the speech of a mystery man apparently suffering from amnesia, and the voice of a killer captured on tape by his victim. Prominent doctors hired him to identify a colleague sending out anonymous poison-pen messages.
His passion is jazz, on which he's authored books (including the definitive biography of Miles Davis) and scores of articles, the most recent an analysis of Shakespeare's influence on Duke Ellington.
He's taught around the world, been lauded as an outstanding teacher, been celebrated for his love of language. Among the tributes to him posted on the conference website is one from a U of T colleague: "You cannot be replaced."