Canadian English is the product of four waves of immigration and settlement over a period of almost two centuries. The first large wave of permanent English-speaking settlement in Canada, and linguistically the most important, was the influx of British Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, chiefly from the Mid-Atlantic States – as such, Canadian English is believed by some scholars to have derived from northern American English, and is nothing more than a variety of it. The second wave from Britain and Ireland was encouraged to settle in Canada after the War of 1812 by the governors of Canada, who were worried about anti-English sentiment among its citizens. Waves of immigration from around the globe peaking in 1910 and 1960 had a lesser influence, but they did make Canada a multicultural country, ready to accept linguistic change from around the world during the current period of globalization.
The languages of Aboriginal peoples in Canada started to influence European languages used in Canada even before widespread settlement took place, and the French of Lower Canada provided vocabulary to the English of Upper Canada.
Canadian spelling of the English language combines British and American rules. Most notably, French-derived words that in American English end with -or and -er, such as color or center, usually retain British spellings (colour, honour and centre), although American spellings are not uncommon. Also, while the United States uses the Anglo-French spelling defense (noun), Canada uses the British spelling defence. (Note that defensive is universal.) In other cases, Canadians and Americans differ from British spelling, such as in the case of nouns like tire and curb, which in British English are spelled tyre and kerb. Words such as realize and recognize are usually spelled with -ize rather than -ise. (The etymological convention that verbs derived from Greek roots are spelled with -ize and those from Latin with -ise is preserved in that practice.)
Canadian spelling rules can be partly explained by Canada's trade history. For instance, the British spelling of the word cheque probably relates to Canada's once-important ties to British financial institutions. Canada's automobile industry, on the other hand, has been dominated by American firms from its inception, explaining why Canadians use the American spelling of tire and American terminology for the parts of automobiles (e.g., truck instead of lorry, gasoline instead of petrol).
A contemporary reference for formal Canadian spelling is the spelling used for Hansard transcripts of the Parliament of Canada. Many Canadian editors, though, use the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2004), often along with the chapter on spelling in Editing Canadian English, and, where necessary (depending on context) one or more other references. (See Further reading below.)
The first Canadian dictionaries of Canadian English were edited by Walter Spencer Avis and published by Gage Ltd. Toronto. The Beginner's Dictionary (1962), the Intermediate Dictionary (1964) and, finally, the Senior Dictionary (1967) were milestones in CanE lexicography. Many secondary schools in Canada use these dictionaries. The dictionaries have regularly been updated since: the Senior Dictionary was renamed Gage Canadian Dictionary and exists in what may be called its 5th edition from 1997. Gage was acquired by Thomson Nelson around 2003. Concise versions and paperback version are available.
In 1997, the ITP Nelson Dictionary of the Canadian English Language was another product, but has not been updated since.
In 1998, Oxford University Press produced a Canadian English dictionary, after five years of lexicographical research, entitled The Oxford Canadian Dictionary. A second edition, retitled The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, was published in 2004. Just as the older dictionaries it includes uniquely Canadian words and words borrowed from other languages, and surveyed spellings, such as whether colour or color was the most popular choice in common use. Paperback and concise versions (2005, 2006), with minor updates, are available.
The scholarly Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP) was first published in 1967 by Gage Ltd. It was a partner project of the Senior Dictionary (and appeared only a few weeks apart from each other). The DCHP can be considered the "Canadian OED", as it documents the historical development of CanE words that can be classified as "Canadianisms". It therefore includes words such as mukluk, Canuck, bluff and grow op, but does not list common core words such as desk, table or car. It is a specialist, scholarly dictionary, but is not without interest to the general public. After more than 40 years, a second edition has been commenced at UBC in Vancouver in 2006.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Canadian newspapers generally adopted American spellings e.g. color as opposed to the British-based colour. The use of such spellings was the long-standing practice of the The Canadian Press perhaps since that news agency's inception, but visibly the norm prior to World War II. The practice of dropping the letter u in such words was also considered a labour-saving technique during the early days of printing in which movable type was set manually. Canadian newspapers also received much of their international content from American press agencies, therefore it was much easier for editorial staff to leave the spellings from the wire services as provided. But reader complaints regarding the American spellings continued, given the widespread usage of the British variants in Canada which were particularly taught in the school systems. Eventually, Canadian newspapers adopted the British spelling variants such as -our endings, notably with the The Globe and Mail changing its spelling policy in October 1990. Other Canadian newspapers adopted similar changes later that decade, such as the Southam newspaper chain's conversion on 2 September 1998. The Toronto Star adopted this new spelling policy on 15 September 1997 after that publication's ombudsman discounted the issue earlier in 1997.
The pronunciation of certain words has both American and British influence.
Canada has very little dialect diversity compared to the United States. The provinces east of Ontario show the largest dialect diversity. Northern Canada is, according to Labov, a dialect region in formation, and a homogenous dialect has not yet formed. A very homogeneous dialect exists in Western and Central Canada, a situation that is similar to that of the Western United States. William Labov identifies an inland region that concentrates all of the defining features of the dialect centred on the Prairies, with periphery areas with more variable patterns including the metropolitan areas of Vancouver and Toronto. This dialect forms a dialect continuum with the far Western United States, however it is sharply differentiated from the Inland Northern United States. This is a result of the relatively recent phenomenon known as the Northern cities vowel shift; see below.
As a variety of North American English, this variety is similar to most other forms of North American speech in being a rhotic accent, which is historically a significant marker in differentiating different English varieties.
Like General American, this variety possesses the merry-Mary-marry merger (except in Montreal, which tends towards a distinction between marry and merry), as well as the father-bother merger.
Perhaps the most recognizable feature of CanE is Canadian raising. The diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ are "raised" before voiceless consonants, namely /p/, /t/, /k/, /s/, and /f/. In these environments, /aɪ/ becomes [ʌɪ], while the raised allophone of /aʊ/ varies regionally: it is more fronted in Ontario (closer to [ɛʊ]) but more retracted in the West and the Maritimes (closer to [ʌʊ]). Canadian raising is found throughout Canada, including much of the Atlantic Provinces. It is the strongest in the Inland region, and is receding in younger speakers in Lower Mainland British Columbia, as well as certain parts of Ontario.
Because the nucleus of the diphthong is raised to a mid position, speakers of dialects that do not possess Canadian raising will hear that the diphthong sounds different, and will approximate it with the closest sound in their dialect, which is usually /o/. As a result, the Canadian pronunciation of about to American ears, may sound like "a boat", or sometimes even exaggerated to "a boot". This is more noticeable in Eastern Canada (with the exception of Newfoundland) and least so in Vancouver. However there is no region in Canada that pronounces it like [əbut] "a boot", although in parts of the Prairies and Nova Scotia it may be so retracted as to be very similar to "a boat".
Many Canadians, especially in parts of the Atlantic provinces, do not possess Canadian raising. In the U.S., this feature can be found in areas near the border such as the Upper Midwest, although it is much less common than in Canada; raising of /aɪ/ alone, however, is increasing in the U.S., and unlike raising of /aʊ/, is generally not noticed by people who do not have the raising.
Because of Canadian raising, many speakers are able to distinguish between words such as writer and rider--a feat otherwise impossible, because North American dialects turn intervocalic /t/ into an alveolar flap. Thus writer and rider are distinguished solely by their vowels, even though the distinction between their consonants has since been lost. Speakers who do not have raising cannot distinguish between these two words.
Almost all Canadians have the cot-caught merger, which also occurs in the Western U.S. Speakers do not distinguish /ɔ/ (as in caught) and /ɑ/ (as in cot), which are merged in low back position. The merger causes speakers not only to produce these vowels identically, but also fail to hear the difference when speakers who preserve the distinction (e.g. speakers of Conservative General American and Inland Northern American English) pronounce these vowels. This merger has existed in Canada for several generations.
This merger creates a hole in the short vowel sub-system and triggers a sound change known as the Canadian Shift, which involves the front lax vowels . The /æ/ of bat is lowered and retracted in the direction of [a] (except in some environments, see below). Indeed, /æ/ is backer in this variety than almost all other North American dialects; the retraction of /æ/ was independently observed in Vancouver and is more advanced for Ontarians and women than for people from the Prairies or Atlantic Canada and men. Then, /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ may be lowered (in the direction of [æ] and [ɛ]) and/or retracted; studies actually disagree on the trajectory of the shift. For example, Labov et al. (2006) noted a backward and downward movement of /ɛ/ in apparent time in all of Canada except the Atlantic Provinces, but no movement of /ɪ/ was detected.
Therefore, in Canadian English, the short-a and the short-o are shifted in opposite directions to that of the Northern Cities shift, found across the border in the Inland Northern U.S., which is causing these two dialects to diverge: the Canadian short-a is very similar in quality to the Inland Northern short-o; for example, the production [maːp] would be recognized as map in Canada, but mop in the Inland North.
Traditionally diphthongal vowels such as /oʊ/ (as in boat) and /eɪ/ (as in bait) have qualities much closer to monophthongs in some speakers especially in the Inland region. Like the Northern U.S., /oʊ/ and /aʊ/ are conservative--they are pronounced back and rounded. However, /u/ is fronted after coronals. /u/ is becoming more fronted in recent generations. This fronting is led by women, and is strongest in Ontario and British Columbia.
Unlike most varieties of North American English, in this dialect /æ/ is raised more before velar stops rather than before /d/. For example, bag has a vowel that is similar to the vowel in beg. Before nasals, /æ/ is usually raised, but to a lesser degree than in most of the U.S.
Some older speakers still maintain a distinction between whale and wail, and do and dew.
The first element of /ɑr/ (as in car) tends to be raised to at least lower-mid position.
British Columbia English has several words still in current use borrowed from the Chinook Jargon. Most famous and widely used of these terms are skookum and saltchuck. In the Yukon, cheechako is used for newcomers or greenhorns. A study shows that people from Vancouver exhibit more vowel retraction of /æ/ before nasals than people from Toronto, and this retraction may become a regional marker of West Coast English.
A strong Canadian raising exists in the prairie regions together with certain older usages such as chesterfield and front room also associated with the Maritimes. Aboriginal Canadians are a larger and more conspicuous population in prairie cities than elsewhere in the country and certain elements of aboriginal speech in English are sometimes to be heard. Similarly, the linguistic legacy, mostly intonation but also speech patterns and syntax, of the Scandinavian, Slavic and German settlers who are far more numerous and historically important in the Prairies than in Ontario or the Maritimes can be heard in the general milieu. Again, the large Métis population in Saskatchewan and Manitoba also carries with it certain linguistic traits inherited from French, Aboriginal and Celtic forebears. Some terms are derived from immigrant groups or are just local inventions:
In farming communities with substantial Ukrainian, German, or Mennonite populations, accents and sentence structure influenced by these languages is common.
The area to the north and west of Ottawa is heavily influenced by original Scottish, Irish, and German settlers, with many French loanwords. This is frequently referred to as the Valley Accent. This dialect is heavy with slang phrases and terminology.
Although only 1.5% of Torontonians speak French, about 56.2% are native speakers of English, according the the 2006 Census. As a result Toronto shows a more variable speech pattern. Although slang terms used in Toronto are synonymous with those used in other major North American cities, there is also a heavy influx of slang terminology originating from Toronto's many immigrant communities. These terms originate mainly from various European, Asian, and African words. Among youths in ethnically diverse areas, a large number of words borrowed from Jamaican Patois can be heard, owing to the large number of Jamaican immigrants in Toronto.
Many in the Maritime provinces – Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island – have an accent that sounds more like Scottish English and, in some places, Irish English than General American. The phonology of Maritimer English has some unique features:
The dialect spoken in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, an autonomous dominion until March 31, 1949, is often considered the most distinctive Canadian dialect. Some Newfoundland English differs in vowel pronunciation, morphology, syntax, and preservation of archaic adverbal-intensifiers. The dialect can vary markedly from community to community, as well as from region to region, reflecting ethnic origin as well as a past in which there were few roads and many communities, and fishing villages in particular remained very isolated. A few speakers have a transitional pin-pen merger.
Where CanE shares vocabulary with other English dialects, it tends to share most with American English; many terms in standard CanE are, however, shared with Britain, but not with the majority of American speakers. In some cases the British and the American term coexist, to various extents; a classic example is holiday, often used interchangeably with vacation. In addition, the vocabulary of CanE also features words that are seldom (if ever) found elsewhere.
As a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, Canada shares many items of institutional terminology with the countries of the former British Empire – e.g., constable, for a police officer of the lowest rank, and chartered accountant.
The term college, which refers to post-secondary education in general in the U.S., refers in Canada to either a post-secondary technical or vocational institution, or to one of the colleges that exist as federated schools within some Canadian universities. Most often, a college is a community college, not a university. It may also refer to a CEGEP in Quebec. In Canada, college student might denote someone obtaining a diploma in business management while university student is the term for someone earning a bachelor's degree. For that reason, going to college does not have the same meaning as going to university, unless the speaker or context clarifies the specific level of post-secondary education that is meant.
Canadian universities publish calendars or schedules, not catalogs as in the U.S.. Students write or sometimes take exams, they rarely sit them. Those who supervise students during an exam are generally called invigilators as in Britain, or sometimes proctors as in the U.S.; usage may depend on the region or even the individual institution.
Successive years of school are often, if not usually, referred to as grade one, grade two, and so on. In Quebec English, however, the speaker will often say primary one, primary two, (a direct translation from the French), and so on. (Compare American first grade, second grade, sporadically found in Canada, and British Year 1, Year 2.) In the U.S., the four years of high school are termed the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years (terms also used for college years); in Canada, these are simply grades 9 through 12. As for higher education, only the term freshman (usually reduced to frosh) has some currency in Canada. The American usages "sophomore", "junior" and "senior" are not used in Canadian university terminology, or in speech. The specific high-school grades and university years are therefore stated and individualized; for example, the grade 12s failed to graduate; John is in his second year at McMaster. The "first year", "third year" designation also applies to Canadian law school students, as opposed to the common American usage of "1L", "2L" and "3L."
Canadian students use the term marks (more common in England) or grades to refer to their results; usage is very mixed.
Use of metric units is more widespread in Canada than in the U.S. as a result of the national adoption of the Metric System during the late 1970s by the government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Official measurements are given in metric, including highway speeds and distances, fuel volume and consumption, and weather measurements (with temperatures in degrees Celsius). However, it is not uncommon for Canadians to use British imperial units such as pounds, feet, and inches to measure their bodies. Older generations are more likely to use miles for distances. The term klicks is sometimes used interchangeably with kilometres because both the demotic and metric (with the first syllable stressed) pronunciations are widespread. Both metric and Imperial measures for cups, teaspoons, and tablespoons are used in cooking, as well as degrees Fahrenheit in baking.
Lawyers in all parts of Canada, except Quebec, which has its own civil law system, are called "barristers and solicitors" because any lawyer licensed in any of the common law provinces and territories is permitted to engage in both types of legal practice in contrast to other common-law jurisdictions such as England, Wales, and Ireland where the two are traditionally separated (i.e., Canada has a fused legal profession). The words lawyer and counsel (not counsellor) predominate in everyday contexts; the word attorney refers to any personal representative; a Canadian lawyer representing a client is an attorney-at-law.
The equivalent of an American district attorney, meaning the barrister representing the state in criminal proceedings, is called a crown attorney (in Ontario), crown counsel (in British Columbia), crown prosecutor or the crown, on account of Canada's status as a constitutional monarchy in which the Crown is the locus of state power.
The words advocate and notary – two distinct professions in Quebec civil law – are used to refer to that province's equivalent of barrister and solicitor, respectively. In Canada's common law provinces and territories, the word notary means strictly a notary public.
Within the Canadian legal community itself, the word solicitor is often used to refer to any Canadian lawyer in general (much like the way the word attorney is used in the United States to refer to any American lawyer in general). Despite the conceptual distinction between barrister and solicitor, Canadian court documents would contain a phrase such as "John Smith, solicitor for the Plaintiff" even though "John Smith" may well himself be the barrister who argues the case in court. In a letter introducing him/herself to an opposing lawyer, a Canadian lawyer normally writes something like "I am the solicitor'' for Mr. Tom Jones."
The word litigator is also used by lawyers to refer to a fellow lawyer who specializes in lawsuits even though the more traditional word barrister is still employed to denote the same specialization.
Judges of Canada's superior courts (which exist at the provincial and territorial levels) are traditionally addressed as "My Lord" or "My Lady", like much of the Commonwealth, however there are some variances across certain jurisdictions, with some superior court judges preferring the titles "Mister Justice" or "Madam Justice" to "Lordship".
Judges of provincial or inferior courts are traditionally referred to in person as "Your Honour". Judges of the Supreme Court of Canada and of the federal-level courts prefer the use of "Mister/Madam (Chief) Justice". Justices of The Peace (equivalent to Supreme Court Justices in the United States) are addressed as "Your Worship". "Your Honour" is also the correct form of address for a Lieutenant Governor.
As in England, a serious crime is called an indictable offence, while a less-serious crime is called a summary offence. The older words felony and misdemeanour, which are still used in the United States, are not used in Canada's current Criminal Code (R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46) or by today's Canadian legal system. As noted throughout the Criminal Code, a person accused of a crime is called the accused and not the defendant, a term used instead in civil lawsuits.
A county in British Columbia means only a regional jursidiction of the courts and justice system and is not otherwise connected to governance as with counties in other provinces and in the United States. The rough equivalent to "county" as used elsewhere is a "Regional District".
Terms common in Canada, Britain, and Ireland but less frequent or nonexistent in the U.S. are:
The following are more or less distinctively Canadian:
The following are Canadianisms:
A rubber in the U.S. and Canada is slang for a condom. However, in Canada it is sometimes another term for eraser (as it is in the United Kingdom and Australia) and, in the plural, for overshoes or galoshes (as it is in the U.S.). It is also used to refer to the tie-breaking match in a card game, especially in the Maritimes. The terms booter and soaker refer to getting water in one's shoe. The former is generally more common in the Prairies, the latter in the rest of Canada.
The word bum can refer either to the buttocks (as in Britain), or, derogatorily, to a homeless person (as in the U.S.). However, the "buttocks" sense does not have the indecent character it retains in British and Australian use, as it is commonly used as a polite or childish euphemism for ruder words such as arse (commonly used in Atlantic Canada and among older people in Ontario and to the west) or ass, or mitiss (used in the Prairie Provinces, especially in northern and central Saskatchewan; probably originally a Cree loanword).
Similarly the word pissed can refer either to being drunk (as in Britain), or being mad or angry (as in the U.S.), though anger is often said as pissed off, while piss drunk or pissed up is said to describe inebriation (though piss drunk is sometimes also used in the US, especially in the northern states).
A Canuck is a Canadian and used by Canadians with pride; it is not a derogatory term. In the 19th and early 20th Centuries it tended to refer to French-Canadians only until it became adopted widely in English as a result of the Johnny Canuck comic book character. It is also the name for Vancouver's NHL team.
A Newf or Newfie is someone from Newfoundland and Labrador; sometimes considered derogatory.
In the Maritimes, a Caper is someone from Cape Breton, a Bluenoser is someone with a thick, usually southern Nova Scotia accent, while an Islander is someone from Prince Edward Island (the same term is used in BC for people from Vancouver Island).