Origins of the Canadian accent: Canadian English and factors that contribute to linguistic change

Despite many linguistic similarities with our southern neighbour, the Canadian accent—or accents—can be as distinctive as our love of hockey, maple syrup, and good manners.

The origins of Canadian English can be traced back to the American Revolution in the late 18th century when roughly 45,000 Loyalists—American colonists still faithful to the British crown—resettled in modern day Ontario. This influx of native English speakers contributed to the majority of the modern Canadian accent, and explains why a standard Canadian accent is often similar to the English spoken in the midwestern United States.

The influx of Irish and Scottish immigrants to Canada in the late 19th century contributed to some of the regional differences in Canadian accents. English-speakers in the Maritime provinces tend to produce vowel sounds from the front of the mouth when pronouncing words such as car, hard, and bar—think Sean Connery.

English in Quebec, the only province where it is a minority language, also possesses some unique qualities that make it quite distinctive. For example, words with double r’s, such as marry and merry,are typically pronounced differently by Quebec anglophones than in any other region in Canada.

The evolution of language follows similar changes as the forces that shape biological, Darwinian evolution: Isolation, compartmentalization, and time mediate the distinction of language from accents, to dialects, to altogether different languages.

From the early post-American Revolution years until the early 20th century, trans-Atlantic communication required  the labourious exercise of handwriting letters. The rise of the digital era—from cell phones to mass media, Facebook, Instagram, and other forms of online communication—largely began to reverse the trend of English’s linguistic divergence.

“The interconnected nature of reality today can be seen in the homogeneity of the young generation,” Associate Professor of Linguistics Charles Boberg, an expert on Canadian English, said. “Everyone hears the same pop music, and watches the same shows. In the streets of London, you can sometimes hear young people speaking American slang.”

However, not all regional differences are declining. Languages, dialects, and accents provide speakers with an avenue to distinguish themselves from a homogenous blend of linguistic commonality.

“Accents and regional variations in pronunciation and spelling can be used as symbols of individuality and also as an avenue of social movement,” Boberg said. “The regions where we see language at its most malleable is in the middle class, which is logical considering this is the socioeconomic class associated with the most active upward mobility.”

There is also a gender dynamic at play: Women consistently outperform men in all areas of language. Studies have also found a correlation between gender and linguistic change. But, whether these observed correlations are caused by societal roles imposed on women or by the neurobiological differences between the sexes remains a topic of intense debate in sociolinguistic academia.

“The nature versus nurture debate definitely has a place in linguistics,” Boberg said. “Certainly there are factors in society which shape the difference between men and women. For the past century, that has been the chief focus of linguistics. But, recent genetic and prenatal studies have shown that perhaps some things are truly a result of purely biological differences.”

Canadian English has a decidedly unique history compared to its British and American counterparts, despite the fact that the trajectory of its evolution has been shaped by both. With regard to its future, one can only predict that Canadian English will continue to preserve a measure of its uniqueness.

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