Sunday, January 16, 2011

This irritates me

Dorothy was posting about the reaction of some English and Scots to her Toronto accent, and I tried to post the following as a comment, but for some reason the commbox thing wasn't working.

There is one thing about all this that most people forget, even Canadians. There is no such thing as a "Canadian accent" or I should say, "the" Canadian accent.

The weird hootings that made up the mockery of the putatively Canadian accent were completely incomprehensible to me when they appeared in the mid 1980s on that silly show...what was it called? Not Wayne's World, but that other stupid thing with the two guys and the beer. Anyway, people all of a sudden started claiming that Canadians all talked this "aboot" business and said "eh", and for the life of me, I could not figure out what they were all blithering about. No one in my entire life had ever spoken that way in my presence.

It was not until many years later that I came to Ontario and began to understand. Most Americans, (and Brits, for that matter) assume that the "Canadian" accent is that of a small pocket of the popuation with whom they are most familiar: to wit, Southwestern Ontario. I had never in my life heard anyone talk like that (the way the "Canadian" accent was suddenly being depicted on American television shows) until I went to Southwestern Ontario... and suddenly it all became clear. The SW Ontario accent is indeed heavily influenced by the Scots who administered the place (Calvinist presbies all, and virulently anti-Catholic, btw).

I have something that is extremely rare: a native Victorian accent. I was raised, as were most of my contemporaries, by first time English immigrants in a colonial town almost completely isolated from the outside world. No one came to Victoria in the 1960s and '70s .... except American tourists up on the ferry from Seattle.

Victoria was a sleepy little place with a lot of old ladies in flowered hats and near-parodic English colonial types, all somehow overlooked by the modern world since circa WWI. I therefore sound "English" to the Canadians, and even some of my English relatives said that I spoke near enough with an English (though not London or Cheshire) accent that they didn't mind.

I also went to live for four years in the Maritimes and have spent some time in northern Quebec and New Brunswick, where even when they are speaking English, you can't tell. In Mirimichi the country people speak with a weird combination of Irish, French and Cree or Algonquin... dear heavens!

I do wish the rest of the world would get their collective heads out of their derriers about Canada. The county is HUGE. English people have no conception of a place that takes a week to drive across (without any overnight breaks). I once calculated the equivalent distance, and it is about that between London and Burma.

The regional differences are equally vast because the different waves of immigrants came and settled in groups in different parts of the country and usually in different centuries.

This idiotic thing with "aboot" and "eh" just infuriates me.


Ingemar said...

I didn't hear the "stereotypical" Canadian accent AT ALL in Vancouver, but maybe because that sterile San Francisco-wannabe city is swarming with Chinamen.

You are absolutely right about Victoria.

Barbara said...

Good comment Hilary: this is also one of my pet peeves. I have spent most of my life in Vancouver. No arguments that we don't speak "stereotypical" Canadian here. I do know 3 people who say "eh" but haven't been able to figure out what the common denominator is. BTW, I found your comments re: the different accents you encountered in different parts of Canada really interesting.

Anonymous said...

Aboot and eh are genuine. The Ottawa valley accent, and in general, Scots. I know, because I have that accent, and I had to train myself to talk like the Americans when I was among them. And we even have our own words-- toque, tart (like butter-tart), towards (instead of toward)
Hugh of Niagara.
(word verification --- becha
maybe a sign I should go to the casino today)

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

"touque" is national, coast to coast, and comes from the French. Tart is English and ubiquitous in Commonwealth English speaking countries. And I even know Canadians who say "whilst".

Young fogey emeritus said...

I hear you regarding 'aboot'. It's a bad imitation of the main marker of many Canadian accents, 'Canadian raising'; in this case the ou diphthong is said very quickly, giving it a unique sound. From the book The Story of English: 'there is a deeply held belief that this trait comes from Scotland' but Scottish oo is different, it says. The book claims the Canadian one actually comes from western Pennsylvania and that the Loyalists brought it north. Makes sense: there are western Pa. accents that sound similar.

The show you're thinking of is 'SCTV', where John Candy and Martin Short got their starts. The sketch was 'The Great White North', a parody TV show starring Canadian stereotypes the McKenzie Brothers (toque- and flannel-shirt-wearing sort of Canadian rednecks played by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis), the show's way of knocking the government's 'Canadian content' requirement.

- John Beeler

Fr. Paul McDonald said...

So you didn't like the "21 accents" youtube thingy i sent you? She did a Toronto accent...

Martial Artist said...

Dear Miss White,

Thank you for adding the qualifier [my italics] to your comment that "No one came to Victoria in the 1960s and '70s .... except American tourists up on the ferry from Seattle." I was, for just a second feeling quite minimized having first visited Victoria in 1962 as part of a family holiday from Los Angeles to the region in which I now reside—drawn by, among other things, the Seattle World's Fair. I have been back there several times, even before I moved to Washington State, first returning in 1980 to Vancouver and Victoria on my honeymoon. Victoria remains a beautiful city, which I hope to visit again in the years to come.

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...


I affirm you in your touristness.

Ttony said...

Turn it the other way round: there is an accent which people from outside recognise as Canadian (when they recognise it) or as hey-that's-specifically-not-a-Yank! when they don't. It doesn't mean all Canadians talk like that; just that when those who do do, then they are recognisable as Canadians.

The first time BBC Radio 7 played Stuart McLean reading Vinyl Cafe stories part of the positive response was just because of the accent, even if the largest part was because of the introduction to alternative North America.

Anonymous said...

However, the effect of television and mass media is breaking down the regional accents. For example, apparently the kids in St. John's no longer have a meaningful Newfoundland accent, and it is even starting to die out in the "bay" (insofar as the "bay" has not been depopulated).

The French-accented English spoken by the Acadians seems to be dying out over time, replaced by a generic NA English accent. The Cape Breton Scots are also losing their accent, and the industrial Cape Breton accent is dying out among the young people.

Somebody wrote that even the Queen's mode of speaking and pronunciation (literally the "Queen's English") has altered somewhat over her lifetime, now conforming more to so-called BBC standard English.

It seems to me (from TV) that even US southerners are starting to lose their accent(s), and I've read the other regional variations in the US are apparently becoming less marked.

I do know that Canadian English was once view as superior to US English, which was attributed to the then almost totally British background of English Canada, whereas US English was corrupted by the more varied immigration pattern. Further, the standard US English used on network TV seemed to accord with standard Canadian English. (A disproportionate number of the major US anchors and journalists - e.g., Robert McNeil, Peter Jennings, now JD Roberts - were Canadian).

Curiously, I find that the children of non-European immigrants seem to adopt a purely North American accent quite quickly, more so than the children of European immigrants. Perhaps that is because many refugee parents speak no English at all (so their kids get it straight from TV and school), whereas the European immigrant parents spoke accented English, which influenced their children?


Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

My mother was an immigrant from England and spoke with a slight English accent all her life even though she had come to Canada at nine in 1953. I don't think she got it from her English early childhood though, since she was raised in Manchester and her brother, my Uncle Mike speaks with a very strong Manchester accent. She probably got it from her mother Eileen with whom she lived in Canada later in her youth. It is this accent that I'm sure I picked up, and I know it is the reason I pronounce all the 't's and 'd's on the ends of my words instead of dropping them like most Canadians. Nearly all the kids in my school(s) in Victoria were also raised by English immigrants and all my mother's friends were either born in England or raised by English immigrants. This was normal in the Victoria of my youth.

It is not the same place now, as Dorothy has guessed. All those original settlers and oddball English colonists are gone and most of their decendants have had to leave the Island to find jobs elsewhere. The job market really is a nightmare there.

All the lovely Edwardian houses in the south end of the city that when I was a child were occupied by the children and grandchildren of the people who built them have been sold and are now lived in by Mainlanders. It was painful to go back. The culture is gone but the buildings remain. I was so sad when I went back in 1995 or so. Best to stay away.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it's best to stay away from the painted up stuffed corpse people expect us to kiss as if it were our living breathing home. I know exactly what you mean. - Karen