Canadian and North American English the difference

Canadian English

English is arguably the most popular and influential language in the world. Originally the sole owners of this language were the British. However, with the introduction of colonization, the British had a good opportunity to promote their language to various lands, and they did that to devastating effect.

One fascinating result of this phenomenon is that these lands have developed their own way of speaking the language. This is especially true for Canada and America. Due to this fact, there are obvious differences between spoken and written English in each of these countries. Here, we look at some of the differences – and some of the myths.

What Language do Canadians Speak?

Seems like a straightforward question. Canadians have two official languages – English and French.

Further migration has brought many many more languages to the country. And there are indigenous languages, including Iroquois and Cree. So, it’s a little more complicated than it seems, and – as with all languages – Canadian English is continually developing and evolving.

What is Canadian English?

Flags of Сanada, America and Britain at the background of the sky

Canadian English may best be described as a product of the country’s history: born out of Treaties and settlement negotiations and migrations between the British and the Americans, a mixture from Canada’s closest neighbor and its historic and Commonwealth parent.

A Brief Dip Into History

Canadian troops during 1812 War against America

From the American Revolution, the United Empire Loyalists remained British subjects in what became Canada – land given to them as a reward for Britain’s loyalty. Meaning, these Canadians were originally North Americans – with American accents, American vocabulary, and American social structures – who wanted to stay loyal to Britain. In the War of 1812, they fought against America, emphasizing their difference from and standing against their closest neighbour.

The second wave of immigration followed, with more than a million British people – from England, Wales, Scotland, and many from Ireland – encouraged to make a move to Canada and shore up loyalty to the British Crown.

That said, America has always been Canada’s closest neighbor, as well as their most important trade partner, helping to explain some of the shared vocabularies between Canadian and American English. Think American automobile, hood, and gas rather than the British car, bonnet, and petrol, all on the basis that America undoubtedly sells more cars – or automobiles – to Canada that the British ever could.

A young man is covered by a big Canadian flag

If this is starting to sound complicated, then maybe Canadian English can be best thought of as Anglophile American (though Canadians follow the French version anglophile, not capitalized as it is in British English) but with its own unique characteristics that we’ll look at in closer detail.

Vocabulary

An opened book is on the table

There are some very specific Canadian words – so much so that the former editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Katherine Barber, helpfully compiled a whole book of them, “Only in Canada, You Say.”

Perhaps because of Canada’s original immigration pattern and the separation from North America – remaining in the Commonwealth with territory ceded by the French (another Treaty) – there’s a whole mix of languages that Canadian English both borrows from and has adopted as its own:

Indigenous Languages: borrowing from Canadian Indian (including Cree and Dene), e.g. chipmunk, moose and muskrat. Borrowing from Inuktitut (inuk – person, titut – like), and spoken in areas north of the Tree Line, Canadians use parka, kayak and many related words; such as husky and malemute – describing the ancient dog breeds that have travelled around the world, retaining their original Inuit and Eskimo names. It makes historical sense that many indigenous words that have found their way into Canadian English reflect and describe the natural world and the traditional Canadian environment.

From the French: Canadian sled dogs – the huskies and malamutes – respond to the command mush to run, from the French marcher. Interestingly, a lot of borrowed/adopted French vocabulary in Canada reflects the North American geography and the nature of people’s lives: portage refers to carrying canoes beyond rapids. At the same time, a caboteur describes a coastal trade ship. With two official languages, signage and vocabulary are often bilingual – sometimes by law, and sometimes for convenience, such as Postes Canada Post.

Of course, there are British English and American English words, as well as uniquely Canadian ones, and we look at these in more detail below.

Spelling

Reflecting the general ambivalence of Canadians to American and British influences, standard Canadian spelling varies between the two languages.

But, perhaps, the unique Canadian feature is an acceptance and understanding of both. That said, while vocabulary may be moving more towards their closest neighbor, Canadian spelling still retains much from its British English roots: just ask a Canadian what their favourite colour is! Whether it’s at one end of the spectrum or firmly in the centre, it does seem to follow the British English spelling… except when it doesn’t, for example, when you analyze it.

Different hands are holding small Canadian flags

As with vocabulary, Canadian English is both tolerant of and yet a bit ambivalent about its American and British cousins when it comes to spelling. In Canada, you won’t get thrown in jail for using an American spelling or a British one – don’t let it paralyze you, as you’ll be understood, either way.

A red hand with a Canadian flag on it is showing thumbs up

There are class issues at play and the linguistic developments that occur over time, geography, and political influences. And nowhere is this more evident than in the much-discussed area of pronunciation. And in the question of the Canadian Eh.

Pronunciation

Whether you’re at A in the alphabet or nearer to Zed (note: not the American pronunciation, Zee), you’ll notice some specifically Canadian pronunciations and linguistic traits.

  • Canadian Raising: This term was coined by J. K. Chambers in the 1970s – when Canadian English was first being explored and discussed as a language separate from its British and American counterparts. In physical terms, it represents a raising of the tongue rather than the standard lowering, which happens in most other dialects. Try saying knife/knives, or bite/bide and you see – or, rather, feel – the difference. This explains the ‘oot and aboot’ myth: maybe this comes from Scottish immigration, back in the nineteenth century, but it doesn’t seem to be how anyone in Canada talks in the modern world.
  • Low Back Merger: If there’s a cot/caught distinction, then this shift is very much a work in progress and is a linguistic feature in areas of the United States as well as Canada: New England and Pennsylvania, at least.
    Your offal may be awful in Canada or some USA areas unless you’re attuned to the pronunciation.

Eh?

So, to myth-busting and class issues. It’s been said that you can tell a Canadian – by their use of eh. Sprinkled into any anecdote, any question, or just a comment on the weather (which, as an aside, is a quintessentially British preoccupation), it’s a defining feature – at least according to Americans. But language changes and develops, and eh is far less a feature than is commonly thought.

Whether it’s to emphasize a point, to keep up the pace and interest in the telling of an anecdote, it has its origins back in British English and in French (colloquially, hen) and is increasingly thought of by Canadians as reflecting a lower-class, less-educated version of themselves – so, if you’re American, it’s probably better to drop this stereotype, if you don’t want to offend.

Canadian English vs. American English

Canadian and American flags are on the blue surface

We’ve looked at the origins of Canadian English, the relationship between migrations and the importance of geography regarding Canadian vs American English and it’s evident that Canadians are closely related to their nearest neighbors. There could even be an argument for describing a language as a general North American. That said, there is still the ambivalence we considered earlier. It’s helpful to look at Canadian vs. American spelling and the question of pronunciation in a little more detail.

Spelling in Canadian vs. American English

Ultimately, this seems to come down to what you were taught in school. While Canadian English generally favours British English spelling, Canadians will often use American spelling, and it’s not likely that anyone in Canada would have an issue either understanding or accepting either variant.

It might be stretching a point to say that Canadian English spelling owes as much to the French as it does to Britain. If you trace the language back to the Norman Conquest in 1066, you can see that French became the language of government in England, and so, from this point onwards, written English adopted French spelling. So, Canadians adopting British English spelling makes sense, from the French and the British connections.

There are exceptions across British, American, and Canadian English to every rule of spelling – it’s the nature of linguistic development that languages evolve. So, it’s worth checking with a Canadian dictionary – or setting the spellcheck to whatever language you’re using. That said, a rough guide would include:

  • Our vs. or: British and Canadian keep to flavour and colour while Americans use flavor and color.
  • Re vs. er: British and Canadians use centre, whereas Americans spell it center.
  • Ise vs ize: British English tends towards analyse, recognise, whereas both American and Canadian English favours analyze and recognize.

American vs. Canadian Pronunciation

While there are regional and local dialect variations in both Canada and the US, Canadian pronunciation is probably closer to American English than to British – which, again, has numerous variations in dialect.

So Americans and Canadians don’t really have any difficulty understanding each other.

Of course, with a global media industry, North American English has become somewhat ubiquitous, regardless of historical and geographical connections and origins.

As with the status-related question over the use of eh, linguists have noted that Canadian raising is being dropped, particularly by younger women, as noted by Jennifer Coates, and are moving more towards American English as the more prestigious accent.

Why is Canadian English Unique?

Why is Canadian English unique

Clearly, the Brits are recognized for speaking English, with the Americans coming a close second with their own variant. And most people around the world aim to make sure they understand at least one of these versions. That said, another variant is just as complete and vibrant: Canadian English – the hybrid borne from the UK and America, but with its own unique personality.

To most people especially the Americans, the Canadians speak the same language with them in all completeness par some of the accents used. This makes them believe that Canadian English is simply American English. However, there are several reasons why it can be said that the Canadians have their own set unique variant of the English language. What makes Canadian English so unique compared to the rest of the pack?

  • A Variant of Both Variants: when you think about being stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea, Canadian English is a perfect example of that. Due to the fact that their next-door neighbors speak American English, no doubt that they were largely influenced by it. However, it is to be noted that Canadians strongly resisted colonization when Americans tried to force them to join. This showed just how much loyalty they have for the Queen of England. The English spoken by the British and that spoken by the Americans are worlds apart and the Canadian English took the best of both worlds to create the perfect unique blend.
  • The Canadian Accent: nothing beats the uniqueness of the Canadian accent. This accent can be traced down to the history of the first Canadians. The first persons to arrive on Canadian soil were the Irish who were under the rule of the British crown. However, soon after, the immigrants who came from neighboring America also started flooding in. Many accents collided and mixed into something between the British and the American accent. It created certain mannerisms which cannot be found in either the British or the American English.
  • Mannerisms: when you are in Canada, you cannot help but notice mannerisms used by the majority of Canadians. The word ‘eh’ is one word which has fully come to be associated with the Canadians. You would most likely hear a Canadian speak to you and end his sentence with ‘eh’. This trickles the American ear as it is very strange and different from what they know.

Canadian Linguistic Characteristics

Canadian linguistic characteristics

As a prosperous and open country, it’s no wonder that immigrants from around the world stream to Canada, every year, to make a good living and live a great life. And migration makes for some interesting and unique linguistic characteristics. What are these linguistic characteristics? Let’s look at a few quirks and facts.

  • There are more than 200 languages spoken in Canada, across different groups, nationalities, and races. This makes Canada one of the most diverse countries in the world.
  • Canada’s 2011 census showed that over 75% of the population can speak at least one language in addition to the official languages of the country, especially true for urban city-dwellers.
  • The fastest-growing language in Canada is Tagalog. A language from the Phillippines that has increased in popularity in Canada by 60% since 2006. It shows the Asian influence in migration to Canada.
  • More than 10% of Canada’s population say they’re quite at ease speaking at least two languages at home.
  • Over 60% of immigrants living in Canada, whose mother tongue is not English, can read and write fluently in English.
  • Year-on-year, the number of people speaking French in the French-speaking regions seems to be showing a slow decline, but a reduction nonetheless. And this trend looks set to continue.
  • More than five million people living in Canada can hold a reasonable conversation in both the official languages of English and French. Quite a bilingual, not to say multilingual population.

Unique Canadian Words

Despite the similarities between Canadian and American English pronunciation, there are words unique to Canada, including lots of slang and lots of food. Here’s our top 10.

GarburatorWaste disposal unit under the sink
Toque or TuqueA knitted hat
Butter tartProbably Canada’s unofficial national pudding
LoonieA 1-dollar coin (named after the bird featured on its face)
Toonie or TwoonieA 2-dollar coin (not named after the polar bear that features on it!)
WashroomBathroom, restroom
2-4A box of 24 beers, and a big feature of May 2-4 Weekend national holiday
Molson muscleA beer belly – grown as a result of a lot of 2-4s
HydroElectricity, as in paying your hydro bill
Double-DoubleA coffee with 2 sugars and 2 creams

Canadian Accent – a Few Words to Look out for

We’ve already seen that there is no clear defining difference between pronunciation, probably why Canadians abroad are mistaken for Americans with Canadian vs. American English. Apparently, one of the easiest ways to tell a Canadian from an American is to stand on their foot – accidentally-on-purpose. A Canadian will always apologize! That said, here are some examples of differences, not always true, but worth looking/listening out for.

  • Sorry: If you do tread on a Canadian, they’re more likely to respond soaree, whereas an American would more likely apologize with a sahrey.
  • Avenue: Americans are more likely to say avenew. A Canadian is more likely to use the British avenyew.
  • Out and About: we couldn’t leave this off the list. As stereotypes go, Canadians are more likely to pronounce this oot and aboot. That said, it is a stereotype, and Canadians will often only say this when mocking Americans attempting a Canadian accent!
  • Place Names: this is, perhaps, the area where differences in accent is showed: Scarborough: Scarbra for Canadians, Scarboroh if you’re American, and Scarbarah for the British.

Some Final FAQs

We’ve looked at Canadian English history and its development, trying to see how it sits alongside its British ancestor and its American neighbor. More so than other variants in English-speaking countries such as Australia and New Zealand, Canada’s proximity to the USA inevitably means there’s more sharing. So, here’s our final quick pointers to help you get a handle on the basics.

Do I Need a Translator from American English to Canadian English?

You won’t need a translator – Canadians and Americans understand each other pretty well. But, don’t be blind-sided by the uniquely Canadian vocabulary. And best to check with a spellchecker in whichever language you’re using. If in doubt, double-check with a dictionary.

What are the Characteristics of Canadian English?

As we’ve seen, Canadian English is a fairly relaxed hybrid.
Critically, there is indigenous vocabulary retained, and the French influence is an official language. As a wealthy country welcoming people from around the world, more recent migration means that Canada is richly-endowed with a vibrant range of languages. And bilingualism and multilingualism make for interesting vocabulary and dialects.

Is Canadian English Closer to American English or British English?

The short answer: more similar in pronunciation to American English – as any Canadian traveling abroad will vouch, given how commonly it’s assumed they’re from the USA. And more similar to British English when it comes to spelling and grammar, harking back to a desire to retain links with the British while differentiating themselves from their North American neighbors (and former enemies!).

A Final Note

A woman's hand is holding a small Canadian flag

Given the immigration to Canada, it’s worth noting that recent census information indicates that around 40% of the population – particularly the urban population – don’t consider English to be their first language. And second-generation Canadians seem to be developing a language system all their own, and uniquely Canadian. As an open and democratic country, Canadian English reflects the country’s social and economic present just as much as its political past.

Canada is a bustling place which will keep on growing economically. You can also expect a lot of growth when it comes to diversity and linguistic characteristics. Every year Canada lets in a lot of immigrants which is sure to help increase the level of diversity in the country. It truly is the home for all immigrants.