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You Say Tomato…

Retiring linguistics prof identified unique characteristics of Canadian speech

Chesterfields have gone missing in Canada. Curiously, couches are everywhere. Though the piece of furniture is identical, the word Canadians use to describe it has changed. “Chesterfield was so distinctive that it was used by, I think, 100 per cent of Canadians in the 1950s,” says Jack Chambers, a longtime linguistics professor at U of T known to his colleagues as “Mister Canadian English.”

In January, as a tribute to Chambers, the university hosted the first academic conference on Canadian English ever held. “It was pretty spectacular,” says the professor, who officially retired last year after 35 years in the lecture hall.
 Chambers, who still teaches at U of T, is best known for describing how Canadians pronounce “ou” in words such as out and about. He identified the phenomenon in 1973 as “Canadian Raising,” because Canadians raise the height of the onset vowel in the diphthong, allowing them to say the word more quickly. Out ends up sounding more like oat, about more like aboot. “It is the most characteristic feature of our speech,” says Chambers.

Canadian speech is unique in other ways. The establishment of the railroad early in our history has kept regional differences to a minimum. “We sound more like one another from coast to coast than any other nation in the world,” says Chambers. While some people worry Canada’s English is being Americanized, Chambers says that isn’t the case. “There are big changes going on, but they’re going on in both directions,” he says.

Chambers expects differences in how English is spoken around the world to diminish over time, as globalization continues. “The more mobile people become, the more mixing there will be of language forms,” he says. Chambers believes the least mobile people in Canada, farmers and blue-collar workers, will retain distinct Canadian varieties. “That’s where the idiosyncrasies of Canadian English will last the longest.”

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