The Groundhog Day Loop in Canadian English

Date: April 14, 2011 | Category: Strathy Guest Column
Author: Stefan Dollinger

It is a great pleasure to be able to write after J. K. Chambers and Margery Fee’s columns and a tall order at the same time. My nine years of working on Canadian English utterly pale in comparison to Jack’s 40-some years as a mover and shaker and to Margery’s 25-plus years in the broader field. Perhaps the theme of “coincidence,” skillfully introduced by Margery in her piece, is the best conduit to the topic that I would like to make the centre of my blog. More precisely, I’d like to make the chasm and connections between scholarly work and public awareness the focus.

As with Margery and the Canadian usage guide, it was coincidence that put me in the driver’s seat for the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, 2nd ed. (DCHP-2) revision project in early 2006 ( when I finalized my Ph.D dissertation on dialect formation in early Canada. In an email, Terry Pratt, then reference advisor to Nelson Education (who had bought Gage, the co-creator of DCHP-1), asked me what I thought of the idea of revising DCHP-1. I replied that this was the most interesting project in historical linguistics in Canadian English at the moment and when, a little later, I was asked to become editor-in-chief, I remembered Jack Chambers’ dictum that “if someone offers you a job in the area, you say yes” and so I did. I said yes, but in reality I was daunted by the immensity of the task to revise a historical dictionary. I had other doubts: I wanted to be a linguist and research linguists (unless they are applied linguists) do not usually display a great interest in dictionaries, reference grammars and language learning. This view is the legacy of three centuries of linguistic prescriptivism and the theoretical underpinnings of competing schools of linguistics that aim to go beyond the questions addressed in reference works. Today, there are still traces left of a bad aftertaste of what is called “usage”. Even sociolinguists, who are very much interested in “language in use” are sometimes loath to comment on what the public perceives as the most pressing questions in language. These are usually questions relating to the written language and include, for CanE, questions such as whether “recognize” or “recognise” , “traveler” or “traveller” or “between you and me” or “between you and I” is “correct” (on these, and many more points, Fee and McAlpine’s Guide to Canadian English Usage has some well-balanced answers). Linguists, on the whole, are only mildly interested in such questions. If anywhere, you’ll find more interest in English departments, though here you will sometimes be met with disapproval of some of the things that many Canadians do with their language.

We might call this disconnect between academia and the public the “linguistic chasm” and, I think, it is us, the linguists, who are not only utterly and completely to blame for this situation but who also need to fix the problem. How so? And how does this affect Canadian English and the work of the Strathy Language Unit? In order to answer this question, let us look at the good work of scientists who have, successfully and in a highly entertaining manner, informed the public about their discoveries: take David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, the CBC show that has brought for 50 years science into Canadian living rooms, or take Bob McDonald’s Quirks and Quarks, the radio show which manages to translate the most complex scientific questions for the “rest of us”. I am deeply impressed with this level of attention to improving the public knowledge of science and I congratulate Canadians for being so eager to learn.

Now, let’s switch to public knowledge about linguistics and the situation is entirely different. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone (who has not recently taken a linguistics university course) knowing anything about even the most basic linguistic concepts, such as: Canadian Raising (the “oot and aboot”-like pronunciations many Canadians say in comparison to American or UK dialects “out and about”), the use of Eh in Canada, or, more broadly speaking, what’s a language and what’s a dialect, or what is” good” or “bad” English? In my experience, very few know good (or any) answers to these questions and this includes some journalists writing on language. Most often, journalists start by asking “Is there a Canadian English,” which turns the entire presentation into a defense battle. I am not just making this up, because if you look at the news archive, you find what can be called a “Groundhog Day Loop” in news coverage on Canadian English: like Bill Murray in the 1993 movie, who wakes up every morning to relive the same day, Canadian reporters are often stuck in a similar loop, as we find reports on yesteryear’s language findings as news. Here are some examples from newspapers, headlines only to keep it concise:

1957, Edmonton Journal: “A Canadian Language?”

In 1957, a major Canadian newspaper asks the question about Canadian English – ending with a question mark. A few years later the case seems to have been settled, as can be seen below:

1964, Kingston Whig-Standard: “Dictionary To Be Truly Canadian”
1967, Kingston Whig-Standard: “Canadians Have Own Language”

These headlines come from the first wave of news coverage triggered by the work on the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, by Charles Lovell, the first editor (until his untimely death in 1960), or Walter S. Avis and Matthew H. Scargill who were among the first generation of scholars seriously working on CanE. Avis was also to die at the peak of his productivity, in 1979, before he could write his opus magnus on Canadian English. It was not until 2010, more than 30 years later, when the first scholarly monograph overview finally became available (Charles Boberg’sThe English Language in Canada). Despite great advances in CanE research and the occasional media work of researchers that “translates” findings for a public audience (see, for instance, Jack Chambers’ impressive record), I think it is fair to say that media coverage never left the Groundhog Day Loop. In 1985, old knowledge is presented as news:

1985, Montreal Gazette: “Man the barricades. Canadian English is our very own hybrid, recognizable perhaps only to ourselves but precious, nonetheless.”

What is seen in the Montreal Gazette’headline is some sort of step backwards: doubt is reintroduced, as only Canadians seem to recognize the dialect. In more recent headlines, we see another recurring theme in most news coverage, as an aspect of “weirdness” is highlighted:

2007, Harbour City Star: “Only people fluent in Canadian would understand if you told them to put on a toque and dump a two-four of empties into their blue bin.”

No one talks like that, but still you can find these artificial sentences not only in Nanaimo, BC, sources, but also in big Toronto newspapers:

2007, Toronto Star: “Say it ain't so, eh? Hoserdom beats a retreat; The signature expression of Canuck-speak may be fading, eh?”

In the Toronto Star article we are told that Canadian markers are dying out. So, it’s all over now for CanE? Far from it, but what needs to be done is to break the “Groundhog Day Loop” and seriously work on knowledge transfer from academia to the public. There is demand and evidence for it is not hard to find. As Russell Smith, the Globe and Mail’s fashion columnist, wrote a couple years ago: nothing that he writes gets so many responses as his columns on language. I think we linguists owe it to the people to share the word on Canadian English and its dialects.


Stefan Dollinger is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of British Columbia. He has been researching Canadian English since his years as a graduate student at the University of Vienna, where he completed his PhD thesis: New-Dialect Formation in Canada: Evidence from the English modal auxiliaries. Stefan teaches courses on Canadian English and is the editor-in-chief of the revision to the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP-2). He is currently working on the sociophonetics of Vancouver English. You can learn more about Stefan's research by visiting his website at: