Greyhound Bus

Photo: Ildar Sagdajev

Can you get a feel for the local dialect of a city just by visiting there? The answer varies by city. There are towns like London or Liverpool where the accent is so pervasive that it would be hard to avoid. In New York or Boston, meanwhile, the traditional accent differs so strongly from General American speech that, regardless of the proportion of those who speak it, it holds a place in the our cultural imagination. But what if a city’s ‘local’ speech is unique in subtle ways? Here the picture is greatly complicated by inmigration.

‘Inmigration’ is, as far as I can tell, not a word used much out of the academic community. (My computer’s spell-checker certainly doesn’t recognize it). It’s a very useful way of describing transplantation within the borders of a single country. For linguistic purposes, after all, dialects between regions of one nation can be as distinct as between nations themselves. When African-Americans migrated north at various points in history, for example, the linguistic and cultural differences between the rural South and urban North would have been almost as great as if moving to another country entirely.

But let’s look at a more subtle example. This weekend I visited Vancouver. My initial thought while overhearing the conversations of passengers on the train was, ‘Wow, when you cross the border everyone suddenly sounds Canadian.’ But Vancouver has many inmigrants, as a waiter from Winnipeg would attest. Do these outweigh perceptions of whatever local ‘Vancouver’ accent may have once existed? (Which is sometimes attested as sounding ‘less Canadian’ than others.)

The point being, how we perceive dialects ‘on the ground’ can be very misleading. While living in New York City, I perhaps went days without hearing the traditional New York accent. Likewise, strolling through a street in a British coastal town one might make the assumption that ‘everyone here talks like Londoners,’ but how many London tourists, inmigrants and part-timers are contributing to that impression? What we hear on the street isn’t always the same as what we would hear in a local pub.


About Ben

Ben T. Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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22 Responses to Inmigration

  1. Sooryan FM says:

    Both Winnipeg and Vancouver have a cot/caught merged accent with the ROUNDED cot/caught Don/dawn Paul/pol collar/caller dollar/taller vowel. In both cities there’s ongoing CVS. Rounding of vowels which are unrounded in British English-RP is not frequent in Vancouver though (in Winnipeg you can hear Card and Father with the rounded vowel). Canadian raising (”about” pronounced similar to ”a boat” in RP) is minimal in Vancouver as well, but very present in Winnipeg.
    The most neutral accent in Canada (from the US point of view) is found in the city of St. John’s (whose ”townie” accent sounds like a general Mountain West US accent [think Denver, S.L.C or Phoenix]; c/c merger to the low central to back unmerged vowel, minimal or absent CVS and no Canadian raising…St. John’s NF inherited the cot/caught Paul/pol Don/dawn merger to [ä] from Dublin, in the popular Dublin accent both collar and caller are pronounced with the unrounded central vowel, but there is no merger since the vowel in caller is longer [ä:], while collar has [ä]; in St. John’s NF they just got rid of the vowel length distinction, so they ended up with the Cot/Caught low central-to-back merger.).

    Most urban people in Atlantic Canada sound more neutral than people in other parts of Canada:

    People in Vancouver and Victoria sound very British to me (rounding of the Cot/Caught vowel, dollar/taller vowel, and the Canadian vowel shift:
    hat [hat], have [hav], bad [bad]).
    In St. John’s and Halifax people just speak with the conservative North American low back merged [unrounded vowel] accent, like the one you can find in Vermont/Colorado/Utah/Arizona/Nevada. (but in rural areas of Atlantic Canada people speak VERY different, there are not only strong accents, but pure dialects!!).

  2. Sooryan FM says:

    In prof. Labov’s Atlas, you can read that ” in St. John’s NF and Tucson AZ, the cot/caught merger takes place in a more central position ([ä]).”
    In many inland places of the American West, you can hear a centralized cot/caught vowel, instead of the very back and raised rounded vowel typical of Western Canada, and Valley Girls/Surfer Dude sociolects.
    In merged places outside the Western region (Vermont, Central Ohio, Central Indiana) the cot/caught vowel is not very back either…(except in Boston and Pittsburgh which use the rounded back and somewhat raised vowel typical of Western Canada and Valspeak).

    • Larry Smith says:

      According to that same Atlas, central Ohio and central Indiana aren’t CC merged, but are instead “transitional” with regard to the merger.

  3. Sooryan FM says:

    Jessica Lucas (actress from Vancouver)… easily detectable Canadian accent, it makes her sound like an annoying Valley Girl (she should know VG accent is not prestigious, not even in L.A.):
    ”as well” [az wæl]
    ”lot faster” [lɒt ‘fastɚ]

    Ellen Page (actress from Halifax)…neutral North American English:

    • Kurt says:

      Cool story bro

        • Kurt says:

          m.m. said:
          “so brave”
          Right back at you 🙂

          It’s just that the whole taking-over-the-blog-with-really-huge-comments thing is getting really old and really annoying. Leave small comments or start your own blog dude. But I guess if Ben’s okay with it then I’m okay with it, because it is his blog after all.

        • Kurt says:

          Not to mention the fact that you’re stating your personal opinions/observations/impressions as if they are facts. That’s also very annoying. But you could say whatever you wanted on your own blog.

    • darren says:

      To me neither of these women have ‘typical’ Canadian accents…and have both spent a lot of time in the US…so the point isn’t really relevant.

  4. Gerard says:

    I have no evidence for this, but I suspect the stigmatization of Maritime Canadian accents as “dumb” contributes to the neutrality of the accent of many urban-dwelling East Coasters – cf. Newfie jokes, etc.

    • Gerard says:

      I once saw Matt Damon on Conan O’Brien’s show and he remarked that sometimes he had trouble doing a Boston accent as he had spent so much time trying to get rid of it. Anecdotal evidence only of course 🙂

    • Sooryan FM says:

      But now Newfoundland is richer than British Columbia,
      what comes around comes around…

      GDP per capita (C$, 2010)

      Alberta 70,826
      Saskatchewan 60,878
      Newfoundland and Labrador 55,138
      Ontario 46,303
      British Columbia 44,847

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  6. Ed says:

    I’m amazed that “immigration” is an academic word in the USA. The word is seldom out of the newspapers in the UK and virtually everyone knows what it means.

    I have thought much the same thing. I have sometimes wondered about linguistic research into dialect based on samples of just 15-20 people, which are not uncommon. One person with eccentric pronunciations can distort the whole thing.

    The earlier dialectologists came under a lot of criticism for focussing on small groups of speakers, but I don’t think that modern sociolinguists have made much of an improvement. In addition, the early dialectologists never claimed to be mapping the speech of whole communities: they were just interested in finding the “broadest” speakers, which is [truth be known] what most people get interested in dialects for.