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Canadian English

Linguistic features
Phonology & lexis


Historical outline John Cabot landed in Newfoundland in 1497 and so began the settlement of Canada by Europeans. Up to this date indigenous tribes peopled the country. Their languages are still extant in small ethnic groups within present-day Canada; their position is similar to that of the native Indians in the United States; their languages belong to the various language families of the North American continent which pre-date the coming of the Europeans. A special position is occupied by the Inuit (formerly termed Eskimos) in the arctic regions of northern Canada). The name Canada is of uncertain origin.

In 1534/35 Jacques Cartier captured the areas of the St. Lawrence river for the French and in 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec. Up to 1674 the administration of the French colony was a matter of a colonial company (compare the situation with the English in India). After this date the French crown took over the government of French Canada. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 established the position of the English in Newfoundland. In 1774 the Quebec Act established the province of Quebec officially. The Americans attempted unsuccessfully in 1775 to take over Quebec. Many loyalist Americans came to Canada after the American War of Independence (1783) and settled in the new province of New Brunswick. Due to the erratic settlement of Canada various centres of population developed. The constitution of 1791 acknowledged this and created two halves in Canada: Upper-Canada (mainly British) and Lower-Canada (mainly French). The Americans tried once again unsuccessfully in 1812-14 to conquer Canada. The necessity to form a unity to oppose America led to the unification of Lower and Upper Canada with the Provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: the Dominion of Canada was founded on 1.7.1867. Later other minor provinces were added such as those of the Hudson Bay Company (Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan). British Columbia joined in 1871. Canada remained a British colony (subject formally to the British crown) until the beginning of this century. In 1920 Britain recognised the right of Canada to sign international treaties on its own. At the Empire Conference in 1926 and later with the Statute of Westminster (1931) Canada attained, along with other dominions, formal independence from Britain but remained a member of the loose confederation of states known as the Commonwealth. The Maritime Provinces with Newfoundland had a rather peripheral status until being integrated fully into the Canadian state in the present century.

Main facts Population: c. 35 million inhabitants. Capital: Ottawa. Consists of 10 provinces and three territories. Of these Ontario with 13.5 million is the most populous followed by Quebec with over 8 million. The latter province is French-speaking as opposed to the remaining provinces. Canada is the second largest country in the world. Official languages: French and English. Most Canadians are the descendants of English immigrants (44.6%) or of French immigrants (28.7%). However other ethnic groups are also represented such as Ukrainians (2.7%), Italians (3.4%), Germans (6.1%), Dutch (2%) and Poles (1.5%). Interesting from the linguistic point of view is the small group of Scottish immigrants in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia who have maintained a variety of Scots Gaelic to this day and the Irish-derived population of Newfoundland.

Main linguistic features

Canadian English can be said to occupy an approximate position between American and British English. This can be explained historically, seeing as how Canada was under the influence of Britain for very much longer. Furthermore the Canadians do not like to be mistaken for Americans and so they tend to avoid the more obvious traits of English in the United States. Despite its great size there is not much deviation within Canadian English.


The most prominent of the dialect regions is the island of Newfoundland known locally as ‘The Rock’. This island has a history of seasonal migration from Ireland and the West Country of Britain: Workers came over in the summer to partake in the fish industry and returned in the winter and so there was - up until the 19th century - a continuous input of dialect features from the two areas just mentioned and many aspects of Newfoundland English can be accounted for given the Irish and West Country backgrounds of its original settlers.



There are one or two further particular areas in Canada which have a special significance linguistically. For instance, the Ottawa Valley west of the city of Ottawa in Ontario is noted for its Scottish and Irish settlement history and structures typical of Irish English are found there (as on Newfoundland), e.g. the perfective aspect I’m after washing the car, ‘I have just washed the car’.

The most populous area in Canada is that of Toronto and the surrounding conurbation on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. The brief remarks below refer to General Canadian English and not to the varieties on the eastern periphery.


The main feature is what is called Canadian Raising by which is meant that the diphthongs /ai, au/ are pronounced as /əɪ, ʊə/ before voiceless consonants and /ai, au/ before voiced ones, e.g. knife /nəɪf/ : knives /naɪvz/; house /hʊəs/ : houses /haʊzɪz/. /æ/ is raised somewhat to /ɛ/ (as in AmE.); /ɔ/ is unrounded to /ɑ/: stop /stɑp/.


Contains many elements from Indian languages such as kayak ‘canoe of Greenlander’; parka ‘skin jacket with hood attached’. The much quoted interjection eh? is supposed to be a shibboleth for Canadians but tends to be avoided because of its all too obvious character.