Yes, Canada has Regional Dialects

Toronto skyline

Photo: Chris McPhee

On a train to Canada several months back, I overheard a young man scolding his American companion with the following: ‘Listen. Canada has different accents. Alberta has an accent. Toronto has an accent. We don’t all talk alike.’

I’ve received similar lessons several times since creating this website. So let me make my stance clear: I do, in fact, think there is regional variation in Canadian speech.

When it comes to Canadian English, my go-to source is Canadian linguist Charles Boberg. In 2008, Boberg did an acoustic analysis of Canadian speech, and found that there are indeed differences between regions. Sample findings include:

  • Almost all Canadians have Canadian raising (whereby the vowel in ‘about’ can sound slightly like American ‘a boat’).  But around Toronto the diphthong tends to be fronted (əbɛʊt or ‘a-beh-oot’), while in Western Canada and the Prairies it tends to be back (əbʌʊt or ‘a-buh-oot’).
  • The vowel in ‘goose’ is a back vowel (u:) in the Atlantic provinces, but a more fronted (ʉ:) elsewhere.
  • Atlantic Canadians, and many Eastern Canadians in general, have a fronted ‘a’ in words like ‘start’ (ɐɹ).
  • In the prairies, the vowel in words like ‘face’ is frequently a monophthong (fe:s or fehs) than elsewhere.

Boberg’s study doesn’t much delve into isolated dialects like traditional Newfoundland or the Ottawa Valley Twang; such outliers are either outside the spectrum of mainland Canadian English or spoken by a tiny fraction of the population. But as Boberg’s study makes clear, there is reason to believe that mainstream Canadian English is becoming more diverse. So why do ‘all Canadians sound the same?’

In my opinion, this impression results from Anglophone Canada lacking several things: it has no strong urban lect* (like Cockney), no vast areas with radically contrastive pronunciation patterns (like America’s North/South divide), and few ethnolects (like African American Vernacular English or Multicultural British English). Canada lacks the standard markers of dialectical diversity.

But Anglophone Canada is young. Its language differences, in my opinion, haven’t evolved to the point that we can talk about a ‘Toronto accent’ as if it were as sharply defined as ‘Scouse.’ But that will no change with time, and the evolution will be exciting to watch.

*At least Anglophone Canada doesn’t. It’s a different story in Quebec, which has Montreal’s distinctive working-class ‘joual.’

 Source: Boberg, C. (2008). Regional phonetic differentiation in Standard Canadian English. Journal of English Linguistics, 36, 129-154.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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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34 Responses to Yes, Canada has Regional Dialects

  1. Michael says:

    What about the First Nations people in Canada? Are there any distinguishing traits in any of their accents, perhaps influenced by their traditional languages?

    • I’m not sure about that, actually. My impression of First Nations English, in both the US and Canada, is that there is a slight tendency for Native speech to be more syllable-timed (roughly speaking, for syllables to be more equally weighed). But I’d imagine it varies tremendously.

      The Inuits are a whole different ballgame. Because they’re territory covers so many international boundaries, the English they learn is often quite different from place to place. Greenland Inuit activist Aqqaluk Lynge, for example, speaks with something of a British accent!

      • Diana Turner says:

        Depends on the Aboriginal language a person speaks or is influenced by–there are 11 main groups of First Nations, Inuit, and Metis languages and many community dialects (well over 50) within those. Many are in danger of dying out, but some are still quite strong, including Cree, Inuktituk, and Ojibwe.

    • Tori Russell says:

      My impression is that their accents tend to be more stereotypically Canadian than white Canadians accents. But this impression is only based on the speech of a few people I’ve seen on TV, so take it with a grain of salt.

      • Randy E says:

        One difference I’ve noticed between western Canadian and southern Ontarian accent is the way that the short “a” is pronounced before “n” and “m” (but not “ng”) as in my name, or in the word Canada itself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it documented by someone who knows what they’re talking about (i.e. not me), but I can often pick out a westerner just based on that alone. I don’t have the linguistic training to know how to describe it technical terms, but the way that southern Ontarians pronounce it seems like a milder version of the short “a” of Northern Cities Vowel Shift. For westerners, I think the short “a” before “m” and “n” sounds more like the Canadian short “a” does in other environments.

        One of the biggest giveaways that someone is from the East coast is how they pronounce the “ar” in words like “hard”, though that seems to be more pronounced with people from Nova Scotia than elsewhere in the maritimes, and I’m not sure how widespread it is. Cape Breton also seems to have a unique accent, but with only 135,000 people or so, this was probably left out of the study.

        Newfoundland definitely has its own thing going on. I’ve been told by numerous Newfoundlanders that there are actually two groups of accents. The accents around St. Johns are influenced more by Irish English, while the accents west of St. Johns are influenced by English English. Or so I’m told.

        • Randy E says:

          This was not supposed to appear as a reply to Tori, but rather a reply to the blog post.

        • darren says:

          I think I know what you mean, depending on the person in Southern Ontario, Randy would sort of sound like ‘Raindy’ which sounds a tuny bit more American

      • SL says:

        Charles Boberg talks about that in his 2010 book (page 207) entitled The English Language in Canada: Status, History and Comparative Analysis. He says that people in western Canada have less extreme pre-nasal raising of /æ/, while Toronto, eastern Ontario and the Maritimes have the most raising of pre-nasal /æ/ (in Canada I assume). This is probably the difference you hear.

  2. m.m. says:

    Speaking of raising in the west, i think we may note that vancouver/BC area english has seen a decline in raising. Similarly, Erin Hall in “Regional variation in Canadian English vowel backing” suggests more regionalization in canadian accents, in this case regarding /æ/ backing.

    • Boberg finds that, among mainstream Anglophone areas, BC ‘raises’ the vowel in ‘about’ the least. (Quebec and Newfoundland have even less raising, but given their complex language situations, that’s not surprising). I’m not sure if it’s receding or was simply never as much a feature of BC’s accent. Over half the province’s population lives in and around Vancouver, which thanks to the Cascades is far more accessible to the US than the rest of Canada.

      However, I would not be surprised if Canadian raising became more pronounced in Vancouver, rather than less. The city’s expected to take in millions of Canadians from other parts of the country, if some reports are to be believed.

      • m.m. says:

        Expected? interesting; demographic shifts/influxes are always fun to watch [im reminded of notable migration of californians to phoenix a while back which gave way to talk re: car culture nomenclature eg. freeway v highway #socioling]

        • The operative phrase there is “to be believed.” A recent Vancouver Sun article suggested the population could reach “seven million” within 40 years. There was no source cited for that, though, so I can’t tell if that’s a realistic possibility or an exaggeration.

  3. TheWhitefire says:

    Being an albertan myself, I can attest to the fact we have a distinct accent from ontarians and BCers in the more rural communities. Once you go to urban centers, it’s much less pronounced. But us country folk tend to slur a lot, and the word y’all is actually not uncommon.

  4. RealS says:

    It’d be interesting to see in which parts of Canada [ɑ] is used instead of [ɒ], as I haven’t seen much research on this topic.

  5. Charles Sullivan says:

    When I lived in Vancouver as a USAian (mid 1990s) my upstairs Canadian neighbors (I lived in a basement suite) told me that since so many Canadians in Vancouver have recently come from other parts of Canada (they came from Hull, Ontario), that a genuine distinct Vancouver accent didn’t really exist (yet).

  6. Sooryan FM says:

    People in Vancouver like rounding cot/caught, Don/dawn, pol/Paul – caller/collar vowels more than people in Toronto, which round them more than people in St. John’s

    SEAN PAUL (vowel length, and L darkness not indicated)
    [ʃɒn pɒl] in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary
    [ʃɒn pɒl] or [ʃɑn pɑl] in Toronto, Windsor
    [ʃɑn pɑl] or [ʃän päl] in St. John’s

    DOLLAR, LONG, SONG, JOHN, POLITICS, COLLAGE, FALL, FOLLOW have [ɑ] or [ä] in St. John’s, [ɑ] or [ɒ] in Toronto, [ɒ] in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary…In Western Canada, [ɒ] seems to be the new norm, it makes them all sound like Valley Girls.

    You can identify a Vancouver accent if you focus on the realization of the merged vowel, it’s very rounded. In Toronto, males don’t favor the rounding, but young girls do. In St. John’s, you get the unrounded vowel, even before NG (long song/ Hong Kong), and -L (Paul is a pol (both with the unrounded vowel)), or caller/collar (both with the unrounded vowel)).
    just like in Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, or in Vermont/Lake Placid NY.

  7. Sooryan FM says:

    You can hear it here:

    Jessica Lucas an actress from Vancouver (the rounded vowel [ɒ]-friendly):
    pay attention to ”lot faster” [lɒt 'fastɚ]
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAADQetVRSI

    Ellen Page (actress from Halifax)…neutral CC-to[ɑ] merged North American English:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rvrB4sUlUA

    Jessica Lucas does not use this Vancouverite accent of hers in Hollywood movies (because it would sound very regional and/or would give unwanted ValleyGirlness to a character), but Ellen Page (who sounds just any regular girl from Halifax) uses her own accent in Hollywood films.

  8. Sooryan FM says:

    Jessica Lucas an actress from Vancouver (the rounded vowel [ɒ]-friendly):
    pay attention to ”lot faster” [lɒt 'fastɚ]
    http://tinilink.com/ZhQfIh

  9. Tremain says:

    Pretty interesting take on Canadian English. But i can tell you that this article and others like this, haven’t even scratched the surface. This coming from an Anglo-Montrealer of Jamaican decent. As far as the point about the ethnic something something, check out “Shit Toronto People Say” & “Shit Toronto People Say: Cattie Edition” on YouTube. And that’s just in Toronto! We’ve already started evolving as far as ethnic influences on our speech. I’m surprised yet not so surprised that you’ve haven’t come across it yet. Guess you weren’t looking hard enough..?

    • Very interesting clip! To be clear, I don’t think there are NO ethnolects in Canada (that would be almost impossible), just that there are comparatively few. Or perhaps more accurately, few WIDESPREAD ethnolects; the most well-known ethnolects often have a multi-regional character. Although the code-switching kids in “STPS:CE” suggest that this may be changing quickly.

  10. Left Coast says:

    Well…
    The only thing I can state is:
    I have literally lived across Canada and the Territories, and though there are, for the most part only slight variances of dialects, I feel the author should travel to the more rural communities. A brief sampling of these dialects would quickly show how words are pronounciated vasty different from other regions of Canada.

    Now people would argue that these are accents, but this is what differs from region to region. An accent is what lends to the different soundings of words. The pronounciation and speed of which some words are said will make some people wonder what indeed was said… Of course when asked to slow ones speech to orate clearly, people will tend to correct the twangs and stress what they feel the other peron would understand as the proper pronouciation.

    Just my two cents worth… Do I get any change back?

  11. Nicholas Chmielewski says:

    I’m from Cleveland and I know there is a stereotype of people here fronting ‘car’ to /kaɚ/ but mine is slighty rounded (it blends more easily with the ‘r’) and actually backed and raised from my normal /ɑ/ which I actually say /ä/, probably because of NCVS. I believe I pronounce it /kɒɚ/ at (635,1100) as opposed to my unrounded /ä/ at (740, 1250).

    I also Canadian raise to /ʌI/ ONLY before unvoiced consonants (575, 1050) which to some people might sound more like /ɔI/. My regular /aI/ is already backed and raised to /ɑI/ (720, 1150). Not sure how related this is but my /ɔI/ as in ‘toy’ or ‘boy’ is backed and raised to /oI/ (420, 700), and my /ɔɚ/ is at /oɚ/ (430, 710). Even less related, my /oʊ/ is fronted to /ʌu/ at about (560, 1120).

    This is interesting because it is not common in the Inland North to front this.

  12. Suzanne says:

    I worked in the Ottawa Valley for a few years, and the accent is definitely unique. It can be quite strong, as well. It took me months to figure out what some of the older men there were saying. This post is interesting, because I’m sure very few people realize that there are regional accents in Canada.

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  15. naturally like your web site but you need to take a look at the spelling on quite a few of your posts. A number of them are rife with spelling problems and I to find it very bothersome to inform the reality however I’ll certainly come again again.

  16. Shauna says:

    Thank you for your fabulously intelligent post. You are 100% right! All Canadians exhibit raising and the standard Canadian dialect is basically the same across the board in most provinces with subtle differences. I agree that Canada does not have that much of divide between class, race and region in terms of accent like the United States.

  17. Jeff says:

    There is definitely a different accent from the Ottawa Valley. The comment regarding ‘arrr’ in car, is more predominant in NL, than NS. Southern Ontarians seem to carry the same dialect as Southern California, except near Windsor where a weak Midwest dialect is present – yet Northern Michiganders have a Canadian dialect, rural Ontario has a different dialect, almost a lazy Canadian Accent, eh?

    It is amazing though, as we travel all thru the different U.S. States, people jump on our Canadian accent, except SoCal, where it’s suspected we’re from Orange County.

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