Canadian cityscape

The development of Canadian English through settlement

Canadian English is by and large the outcome of the two earliest settlement waves. The first wave was a direct result of the American Revolution in 1776, with about ten thousand so-called United Empire Loyalists fleeing the territory of the newly-founded United States. The Loyalists were New World dwellers who preferred to remain British subjects in what was to become Canada. They came from the mid-Atlantic states, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, upstate New York, on the one hand and New England on the other hand. This wave, peaking in the mid 1780s, settled the province of Upper Canada, now Ontario and their speech patterns are responsible for the general make-up of Canadian English today (that is, the notion of the ‘founder principle’), including its more ‘American’ than British twang.

The second wave started in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic wars and, until 1867 when Canada gained considerable independence from Britain (a process known as Confederation), was responsible for over a million immigrants from England, Scotland, Wales, and importantly, Ireland. There is some dispute as to the degree of influence of this wave, which was much larger than the first one. However, existing studies strongly suggest that the first (American) wave was most influential in everything but one area of language: that is, language attitudes—the evaluation of linguistic items as more or less ‘desirable’ and interference with consciously accessible language features.

From the start of the British and Irish migrations in the second wave to the mid-to-late twentieth century, all things British were considered superior by many Canadians. Irving Layton’s poem Anglo-Canadian, published in 1956, characterizes the phenomenon that linguists call ‘Canadian Dainty’ at its tail end. Layton’s poem refers to Kingston, Ontario, in the historical Canadian heartland and depicts—well, mocks—an extreme case of acceptance of the British prestige norm:

A native of Kingston, Ont,
–two grandparents Canadian
and still living

His complexion florid
as a maple leaf in late autumn
for three years he attended
Oxford

Now his accent
makes even Englishmen
wince, and feel
unspeakably colonial.

Today, Canadian Dainty is a thing of the past and only a vanishingly small minority still adheres to, in Layton’s words, an accent that makes even the English feel ‘unspeakably colonial’.

But the British connection did leave a trace on Canadian English in some isolated tokens. One of these is the use of tap for what Americans generally call faucet (the knob that turns on water). This term came in use in the mid-nineteenth century, when the first houses were equipped with running water. As a colony, Canada’s close economic ties to Britain ensured that not only British plumbers, but also their terms were imported. To this day, it is the majority term (about 80 percent and more) from coast to coast to coast and a Canadianism (see below for a typology). Very rarely, British traces are witnessed in the most formal speaking styles today: newsreaders at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will pronounce the first sound in schedule like the ‘sh’ in shoe, which is not done by 90 percent of Canadians, including other media outlets, who use the first sound in school for schedule.

Starting in the late-nineteenth century, Canada encouraged immigration from a much broader range of countries, while maintaining barriers against non-Europeans at first. After the Second World War, these remaining barriers were lifted and, today, Canadians come from all possible backgrounds. Census data show that in major cities up to 40 percent and more do not speak English natively. In Quebec, the province’s largest city Montreal—where French is the sole official language—is unrivalled in its international composition; here again about 40 percent do not speak French natively, though French is dominant elsewhere in the province.

However, recent studies have shown that second generation Canadians (i.e. children born to immigrant parents in Canada) are adopting a language system that is natively Canadian, regardless of ethnic background. There is evidence to say that second generation Canadians of Anglo-Irish, Chinese, and Italian descent essentially share the same linguistic system. This homogeneity points towards the unifying force of shared open social networks and shared communities of practice. Exceptions to this trend are those extremely close-knit neighbourhoods, such as Montreal’s Italian and Jewish quarters. Traditionally, local speakers have not gone much beyond these groups, which has led to the development of distinct linguistic features over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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