English Sounds Different in England
I am on holiday in London, England. April 23rd was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Shakespeare’s prolific work inspired new vocabulary and phrases still used today. Have you ever “been in a pickle?” (The Tempest) or a victim of “the green-eyed monster?”(Othello) – you are quoting Shakespeare!
From Shakespeare to present day the English language continues to evolve. As a Canadian, spending time in London with my partner who is also Canadian, but has been in the UK for 13 years, I’ve noticed some of the subtle differences between our use of English.
These differences mark an interesting history of the relationship between Britain, Canada, and America.
In Vancouver, you will line up for the bus and when you get to your destination, you will get off at the next stop. In London you will queue and alight. In the UK chips are hot and covered in ketchup while crisps come in a bag. While I already knew in London to “mind” gaps and cars while crossing the street, today I learned that “bare sick” means very good (where, from my perspective it would be more likely to mean a bear was ill somewhere).
Where does Canadian English come from?
Canada was at first home to a multitude of indigenous languages pre-European contact:
The French started colonizing the St. Lawrence river in the 1600’s, bringing French as a new spoken language to Canada and creating the colony of New France.
England’s war with France ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which gave the “New France” of Canada to England. England allowed any person of French origin to stay in Canada, provided they pledged allegiance to the English king (this did not mean they needed to also speak English). Thus, at that time, there weren’t many English speakers in Canada.
However, after the American revolution, many supporters of the British crown, or Loyalists, started moving to Canada to continue their allegiance to Britain. These speakers of English spoke more like Americans, and were closer linguistically to using American English, but were defining themselves as being non-Americans.
After another war, this time in 1812 between the United States and Britain, Britain wanted strong loyalty from Canadians, and Canadians felt uniquely united against their American neighbours. Although Canadians never developed a distinctive accent on the same level as someone from Britain, we thus began messing with the tricky issue of spelling. To distinguish ourselves from the Americans, we spelled certain words with a British spelling:
There is also a French influence on Canadian English – words like toque and poutine (Canadian winter essentials!) do not exist outside of Canada. Our use of eh as a conversational filler is uniquely Canadian, although it does exist in British English, we arguably use it more often.”Nice day, eh?” French Canadians also use the word hein in similar contexts to eh.
As the BBC writes, “The core of Canadian English is a pervasive ambivalence”. While Canadians have remained subject of the Queen, our closest neighbour and trading partner is America. Canadians identify themselves as non-Americans – even when we act and sound like them much of the time. Usually a difference of a Z or an S, an extra U, or the RE at the end of the word. Do we use Canadian or American spelling? Which is right? It will depend on your computer settings which are more likely than not set to American English (does Canada even have a setting, or do we need to use British English?). When I am teaching which word to use, I usually tell learners that the most important part is consistency. Set it and forget it!
In London, I am often mistaken as American. Being from the Canadian West Coast I do admittedly sound more like someone from California than, say, Toronto. There is room for ambiguity if you are from North America because usually people cannot place your accent as distinctively as if you were from Northern Britain, Wales, or the West Country. Spoken English in Canada and the US is not as easily a signifier of status or wealth or where your family comes from.
And the more I think about it, that ambiguity itself is pretty special, even if that means we can’t really define Canadian English.