By Sophie Shields
How aboot that Canadian accent, eh? We’ve all heard the claim that Canadians say “aboot” instead of “about” and, after only a few months studying in the U.S., it’s become clear to me that Americans really do hear a Canadian accent. But what are the differences? And why are they so hard for Canadians to hear?
Of course, both Canada and the U.S. have a diverse range of accents. What’s up for question here is the Standard Canadian Accent, spoken mainly in Central Canada with a few exceptions like the Ottawa Valley Accent. Americans seem to have a knack for pinpointing someone as Canadian from their accent alone. But Canadians, me included, often struggle to do the same with Americans, unless the person has an obvious drawl or New York accent.
Linguists argue the Canadian Standard Accent is largely shaped by two unique processes. First, there is Canadian Raising, hypothesized to be a remnant of the Great Vowel Shift from Middle to Modern English, which involves pronouncing some two-part vowels (diphthongs) higher in the mouth – making the “ou” in words like out or about sound like “oo.” Contrary to popular American belief we don’t really say “aboot.” It’s just that our diphthong is absent from the General American accent, so they perceive it as the highest sound in their own vowel repertoire – “oo.”
Another distinct process is low-back merger in which two historically distinct sounds have merged, making the pronunciation of cot-caught, stock-stalk and nod-gnawed almost identical. This feature is largely unique to Canada, though it has begun to appear in parts of the U.S.
Constantly consuming U.S. media and TV has rendered the sounds of the General U.S. accent so second nature to us that we often can’t distinguish it from our own. But there are key differences. So, next time you are watching your Hallmark Christmas movie or a Hollywood drama, pay close attention to what you are hearing. Learn to recognize and embrace our Canadian accent as unique!
Sophie Shields is a Carleton graduate working on her MA in Comparative Literature at Dartmouth College in the U.S. She loves writing and learning languages, and she speaks French, Ukrainian and German.