How to recognize the Canadian accent?

Canada’s special. Free healthcare, well-thought immigration policy and no shortage of snow. South Park making fun of how Canadians would apologise for even being polite. And finally there’s that special way Canadians say about. It’s hard not to like Canada!

Today, I’m going to show you how to recognize the Canadian accent! Most people can’t tell Canadians and Americans apart by accent but you will be able to instantly tell a Canadian accent when you learn just a few of its distinguishing features. Think a-boot it.

The Canadian way to say about (aboot)

The easiest way to recognise a Canadian is to wait until he or she says about. If you hear aboot the chances are that you are dealing with a Canadian. You can also try out and about for double the fun. Yes, you guessed it – that’s oot and aboot in Canadian. Your native Canadian friends will never admit they say aboot – and they will be right. But to your ears their about will sound just like aboot. How’s that possible?

The Canadian Raising

Canadians have their own special way in which they pronounce /aw/ and /ay/ diphthongs before voiceless consonants (e.g. out, about, price, hike). In Canadian English those sounds are pronounced with a tongue raised higher than in the more familiar American accent. That’s why this phenomenon is called the Canadian Raising. Your ear immediately recognises the raising but unless you’re a native speaker of Canadian English your brain will equate the sound heard to closest sound known to you – the /oo/ sound. And that’s how the  Canadian version of about becomes aboot – but just for you.

The name of Canadian Raising is unfortunately somewhat misleading as this manner of speech although very common is not shared by all Canadians. Canadian Raising is also present in the Boston area and in the Upper Mid West.

But don’t let that worry you – there are other features of speech you can use to recognise a Canadian accent.

Hockey, forest and oranges in Canadian .. English

What’s the National Game of Canada? It’s actually Lacrosse, not hockey. In 1994 the Parliament of Canada declared hockey to be “Canada’s National Winter Sport”. Canadians are big fans of hockey and sooner or later will bring hockey up in a discussion. Pay attention how they are pronouncing hockey and you’ll be able to tell a Canadian accent.

Ask a Canadian and you’ll hear there is a reason why hockey is written with an o. Canadians will pronounce it as hoh-key while Americans say hah-key. By the same token forest becomes foh-rest in Canadian English vs fah-rest in American English and oranges become oh-ranges vs ah-ranges. Linguists describe this phenomenon as the lack of rounding of some back vowels.

Question or a statement – the Canadian eh

“How’s it going, eh?” – is a traditional greeting in Canada. Many Canadians, especially from Ontario love using the eh in questions and statements. Interestingly, “Hey, it’s gotten pretty warm down there in Florida, eh?” is an example of a question and a statement in one sentence.

Eh is said to be one of the most characteristic markers of Canadian English. Researches identified at least 8 categories of use for the Canadian eh. You are most likely to find eh in sentences that provide an opinion (e.g. the air is too dry, eh?), feature an exclamation (e.g. How about that, eh?) ask a question (What did you do, eh?) and even are imperative (e.g. Listen to me, eh?).

Bonus – the Canadian Shift

Have you heard about the Canadian Shift? It refers to the lowering of tongue in some front vowels such as /ae/ as in trap or /ɪ/ as in kit and /ɛ/ as in dress. As a result trap becomes trAHp, and dress becomes drUHs. It is relatively recent speech phenomenon, more common and pronounced among the residents of Ontario.

Now that you know all the tricks – you’re ready to tell Canadian Accent from the American one!

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2 thoughts on “How to recognize the Canadian accent?

    • Thanks! I totally agree that Canadians do not say aboot. That’s just how you sound to someone familiar with the American accent. Canadian /aw/ sound is pronounced with the tongue raised higher compared to the American /aw/ sound. That’s why your /aw/ sound is confusing to those not familiar with the Canadian way of pronouncing it. They incorrectly (!) equate it to the /oo/ sound since it is the closest sound they know. Also, not all Canadians speak that way. Finally, we all speak with an accent. It’s hard to agree what no or neutral accent could mean. If you thought that Californian English is neutral or accent free, you would be surprised to find out that it also has its distinguishing features such as the vowel shift or the the cot–caught merger.

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