Canadian flag

The vocabulary and grammar of Canadian English

Vocabulary

Words are most accessible to speakers, and comments abound. Terms like washroom ‘public bathroom’, all-dressed pizza ‘pizza with all the available toppings on it’, garburator ‘in-sink garbage grinder’, parkade ‘car parking structure’, or the ubiquitous toque ‘woolen hat’ are easy to find and are sometimes used as ad-hoc identity markers in Canadian regions.

Historically speaking, about 70 percent of Canadianisms, which are defined as terms ‘native or of characteristic usage in Canada’, are comprised by noun compounds that are especially difficult to spot: for instance, butter and tart are ‘ordinary’ words, but butter tart ‘pastry shell with a filling of butter, eggs, sugar and raisins’ is a ‘type 1’ Canadianism. In the historical Canadian dictionary project, four basic types of Canadianisms are recognized: type 1: form origins in Canada; type 2: preserved in Canada; type 3: having undergone semantic change in Canada; and type 4: culturally significant terms. The Dictionary of Canadiansims on Historical Principles, first edition, lists about 10,000 Canadianisms from 1498 to 1965/6. The revision project, DCHP-2, includes terms until the present day, such as grow-op ‘grow operation of marijuana plants’, small packet ‘special rate mail item’, or the prototypical tag marker eh, with its many functions—for example, ‘eliciting opinion’ or ‘emphatic stress’.

Grammar

Variation in grammar—morphology and syntax—can also be found in Canadian English. Reported since the early 1980s, but never thoroughly studied, Standard Canadian English allows (to give just one example) the placing of as well sentence-initially. Thus, in a sentence such as The Canucks had good forwards that day. As well, their blue liners were better than last time, other standard dialects would usually accept as well only after ‘last time’, i.e. sentence-finally.

The study of Canadian English has come a long way since the first serious attempts in the mid-1950s. It has reached critical mass and is now in the position to tell the story of Canadian English and its varieties. 2010 marked a milestone with the publication of Charles Boberg’s The English Language in Canada, the first scholarly overview monograph on Canadian English. The book is a symbol of how far the field has come as a collective effort, while also serving as a springboard for further work on the ‘other’ North American English.

See more from Canadian English