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Wordsleuth (2007, vol. 4, 4): Loyalists to Loonies: A Very Short History of Canadian English

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 4, Number 4, 2007, page 32)

Many Canadians have but one, fearful, question about their language: is it becoming more American? In light of Canadian history, this is quite ironic, since the roots of Canadian English (other than Newfoundland English, which derives from the dialects of southwest England and of Ireland) are in the speech of the United Empire Loyalists who fled the United States during and after the Revolution.

At its origins, then, Canadian English was American English, so it is hard to know how it could become more American. This common origin explains why Canadians share so many words with Americans and sound more like Americans from the northern states than they sound like the British. Much of the vocabulary that distinguishes North American English from British English is an inheritance of older words that have survived over here but been superseded by other words across the pond (fall for autumn, diaper for nappie, etc.). Likewise, we retain some older pronunciations (herb with a silent h, for instance, which can be traced back to the Middle Ages). Both these phenomena are found in Canadian French as well.

But Canadian English is different from American English, and our history accounts for that. Ever since our arrival in Canada, English speakers have coexisted with French speakers and Aboriginal peoples. We have happily borrowed many words from both, a process that continues to this day. From early fur-trade borrowings such as voyageur to 19th-century borrowings like tuque, to our most recent acquisitions like poutine, Canadian English includes a lot of French! Words like saskatoon and sasquatch reveal our indebtedness to native languages.

In the 19th century, vast numbers of people from the British Isles were encouraged to settle in British North America to ward off any lurking nefarious American influence. Although their children inevitably ended up sounding like their playmates rather than their parents, some British linguistic traits managed to impose themselves. It is to this time that we owe our "British spellings," our use of zed rather than zee, and the pronunciations that some (but not all) of us use (leftenant, shedule, herb with an h). Scots in particular left their mark on Canadian English. In the Maritimes, southwestern Ontario and the Prairies, people use Scottish words like storm-stayed and a skiff of snow, but other Scottish words have made it into English across the country: bursary for a particular type of scholarship, bannock for a kind of quick bread (this usage probably thanks to the high numbers of Orkneymen in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company).

Another phenomenon of the 19th century was the hybrid language used on the west coast known as "Chinook Jargon." This mixture of several Aboriginal languages, particularly Nuu-chah-nulth and Chinook, with English and French facilitated communication between the various groups. It was widely used but has now died out, though remnants of it survive in such words as chum (salmon), Siwash sweater (a thick woollen sweater decorated with figures from Aboriginal mythology) and saltchuck (the ocean).

The 20th century brought waves of immigrants from non-English speaking countries, bequeathing words from Ukrainian, Icelandic, Italian and other languages to Canadian English. As we borrow from other languages, we continue to invent new words (stagette) from and apply new senses (download) to the existing English vocabulary.

Canadians may be consumed by the fear of being swallowed up entirely by US English, but we have already managed to maintain our linguistic distinctiveness despite living right next door to this behemoth for almost 250 years, with citizens travelling back and forth freely between both countries and Canadians bombarded constantly by a barrage of American publishing and media, the likes of which other English-speaking countries never experience. I believe that Canadian English will continue to survive and thrive.