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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Eh? Linguists Turning Ear to Canadian English

TORONTO -- Get careless on a snowmobile here, and you could disappear down a rot hole; drink too much moose milk, and you will need a prairie oyster in the morning. Winter causes frostboil, and with spring comes the slob ice drifting down from the North.

Quite a country, eh?

Influenced by the French, affected by the Arctic tongues of the Inuit, inspired by the weather and pressured by the way hundreds of millions of Americans speak and spell, Canada has developed its own flavor of English over the years, and now linguists are in the middle of an extensive effort to document what English-speaking Canadians say, where they say it and what they mean.

A new Canadian Dictionary of English, the first in more than a decade, was published this fall, and another, the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, is due out soon. A University of Toronto professor is preparing a new linguistic map of Canada, and academics in Kingston, Ontario, are creating the first Canadian-English usage guide.

"Moose milk," a local moonshine, is an invention that should not be confused with "moose pasture," a worthless mining claim. A "rot hole" is a soft spot in a frozen lake; "slob ice" is the partially melted kind, chunks of which float in the ocean; "frostboil" is what happens to roads and pavement in the winter here.

And "prairie oyster"? That's a raw-egg drink used for hangovers, but for its other meaning, ask a Canadian. It is too vulgar to print.

To those who chart such things, there is little question that despite British roots and American influence, Canadian has arrived.

While Canadian English grammar deviates little, there are noticeable differences in pronunciation, spelling and vocabulary.

To compile the new dictionary, Thomson started with a U.S. dictionary, because the United States is a closer linguistic cousin than the United Kingdom.

The challenge was to filter out the Americanisms that Canadians do not use, include the British words and spellings that they do, fix the pronunciations of French words, because Canadians are more likely to accent them properly, and finally, to add Canada's own lexicon and history to the stew.

For example, alternate British spellings were added for words like honor (honour) and meter (metre), because Canadians use both.

Canadian English, Reich said, reflects the country itself -- the regional foods, encounters with the weather, hockey, a smattering of Inuit and of course, Americanisms such as the verb "to dis" that have been imported here like just another NAFTA product.

The French influence is also strong. Poutine, for example, bounced between both languages in Europe before being accepted into Canadian English. The French picked it up from the English word "pudding," and according to French linguist Annie Bourret, it later took on a figurative meaning to describe anything messy.

Then the name was given to a local dish in Quebec -- French fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds.

Then there is the "eh" phenomenon, the facet of Canadian English most recognizable to Americans and lampooned plenty, not least by the Canadians themselves.

Linguists do not put much stock in its importance as a part of speech. They say it is just another "discourse marker," an interjection like "y'know," or, among certain sets, "whatever." Such devices help keep the speaker and listener in concert and exist all over the world.


Mostly it seems to be a way to keep the conversation moving. "It gets inserted in the middle of sentences or clauses because people want to be certain that the person is paying attention and keeping up," said Jack Chambers, a University of Toronto linguist preparing a linguistic atlas of the country.