Canadian English at Home and Abroad

Date: February 16, 2011 | Category: Strathy Guest Column
Author: Jack Chambers

The Strathy Unit, for the 30 years of its existence, has been both a stimulant for learning more about Canadian English and a yardstick of how much we have learned. Canadian English has been a growth area for about 40 years and it shows no signs of slowing down. The learning spiral makes perfect sense, of course. The more we know, the more we can know. The Strathy Unit came along to fill a niche that was not really needed before, as the repository and clearing-house for work on Canadian English.

Studying Canadian English has not been just a provincial concern, or even a national one. As one branch of the global lingua franca, and one of the first branches colonized by the British motherland, it has always found a ready audience of international scholars. For many years, I have played host to academic visitors who came to me for two weeks or two months at a time for the purpose of learning about Canadian English. For the last three decades, I have happily shared these visitors with the Strathy Unit, and vice versa. They have come from Sweden, Germany, Romania, Lithuania, Russia, Japan, and other countries, and their visits were often sponsored by our Secretary of State for the purpose of getting Canadian content into universities abroad. In more audacious times, I proposed that the Secretary of State could save money by sending me to them instead of them to me, but I never heard back.

Not that I am complaining. I have had lots of opportunities to talk about Canadian English in faraway places, and my trips were sometimes organized by the very scholars I had entertained in Toronto. The first time I remember lecturing in a foreign country in a course that was specifically devoted to Canadian English was at Stockholm University in 1997. But more than 20 years before that, I had presented a mini-course on Canadian English (two lectures on consecutive days, as I recall) at the invitation of Birmingham University in England; that was 1976, in the fall, only six months after I had mounted my Canadian English course, the first one anywhere, in my department at the University of Toronto. Nowadays, it is no surprise when I find myself talking on custom-made topics in courses devoted to Canadian English in far-off places. Most recently I lectured to the Canadian English class at Freiburg University, Germany. Occasionally I have been lucky enough to stay a whole term and teach the course myself. The first time was an intensive four-week seminar at Ruprecht-Karls-Universität, Heidelberg, in spring 1998. Most gratifying, maybe, was the lecture course at Christian-Albrecht-Universität in Kiel, Germany, in the 12-week summer term in 2007, with over 100 students in the auditorium every time.

The real significance of all this, obviously, is realizing that our way of speaking the language is recognized now on the same footing as Australian English or British English or American English. Not so long ago it was treated as a nonentity. In fact, my course on Canadian English took root in jingoistic fervour when one of my colleagues, an anthropologist from Buffalo who joined the Toronto faculty the same year as I did, was assigned to teach Dialectology and loudly proclaimed that it would be about American dialects because nobody knew anything about Canadian ones. (He left academe soon after to sell real estate; I inherited his Dialectology course and kept the Canadian English course as well.) If the content of my Canadian English course was a little thin the first few years, no one complained. Soon enough it was bursting at the seams.

One of the first initiatives of the first Director of the Strathy Unit, Clint Lougheed (who had taught me in the James Joyce M.A. seminar years earlier), was the making of an annotated bibliography, Writings on Canadian English 1976-1987 (Occasional Papers No. 2, 1988). The entries filled about 60 spacey pages, annotations and all— fewer pages, really, than it would take to annotate the published output of any two or three years since then. And there is still, thank goodness, so much more to learn.  


J. K. (Jack) Chambers is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Toronto and one of the foremost experts in the field of Canadian English studies.  He has worked extensively in the area of sociolinguistics and is the author of Sociolinguistic Theory: Linguistic Variation and Its Social Significance (third edition Wiley-Blackwell 2009), a co-editor of The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (Blackwell 2002, with Peter Trudgill and Natalia Schilling-Estes), and the author or editor of several other books and numerous articles.  In addition to his research on sociolinguistics and Canadian English, Jack works as a forensic consultant and is a prolific writer in the field of jazz criticism.  For more information on Jack and his work, you can visit his homepage at: