HOWTO sound Canadian

Writing for the OED, Stefan Dollinger (director of the Canadian English Lab, University of British Columbia at Vancouver) provides indispensable notes on talking Canadian:
We can find the linguistic expression of the Canadian east-west connection at all linguistic levels. Vowels, for instance, love to change but when they change in Canada they have been shown to rarely – for some changes never—to cross the Canada-US border. For example, the ‘Canadian shift’, first detected in the mid 1990s, affects the ‘short front vowels’, i.e. the three vowels exemplified in black, pen or tin. In Canada these vowels move in the opposite direction to the well-established ‘Northern Cities Shift’ in parts of the United States. So in Canada, the vowel in black, for instance, is pronounced farther back in the mouth. Canadian dialects are actually diverging from the American dialects that have experienced the shift, and this despite the high levels of interaction between the two countries.

Other features include ‘Canadian raising’, the most-widely known Canadian pronunciation feature. Canadian raising affects the diphthongs in words such as wife, price or life and house, about or shout. Canadian pronunciations, though far from universal, are often perceived as weef instead of wife and a boot instead of about by outsiders. There are also other, less well-known Canadian differences, such as the Canadian integration pattern of foreign sounds represented by<a>. In words like pasta, lava, plaza, and drama the foreign <a> sound acquires the vowel in father in American English and British English, but the vowel of cat in Canadian English.

Canadian English

(Image: Canada, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from alexindigo's photostream)


  1.  I always thought that me and the other Canadians I know say “a-boat” and not “a-boot”. But I guess that might also depend on how you pronounce “boot” and “boat”…

  2. I had noticed the Americans that go “abawt” or “sarry” instead of the correct pronunciations, but never noticed anything with, “black, pen, or tin.” And I can’t figure out how I’d pronounce it further back or forward in the mouth.

    1. I have trouble understanding what people are saying to begin with, and when I fist moved to the US (Indiana, then Illinois) from Canada (southern Ontario) I had even more trouble because the vowels are definitely all wrong. Most of them.

      The e sound in “pen” is the most noticeable to me. “Pen” becomes “pin”, etc. In some places (more to the south) they have to say “ink pen” because otherwise they can’t tell the two words apart, either.

    2. Ok, I have to go all second-hand UofT linguistics student on this.

      1) The Canadian pronunciation of ‘about’ is one of those few phrases that has no other English equivalents, much like the German ‘schwul’ (homosexual) vs. ‘schwüle.(humid).2) It’s not ‘sarry’, it’s ‘sore-y’.And I say this all as an American transplant.

  3. Detroiters notice this and take it in stride.  There isn’t a huge amount of cross border traffic but everyone here knows our neighbors to the south (not an error – check a map) sound a little bit different from the north eastern central states dialect.

  4. Agree with @twitter-96139710:disqus – we don’t say ‘a boot’, we say ‘a boat’. My mother in law (from Nova Scotia) says ‘hose’ for ‘house’ (with a hard ‘s’, not a ‘z’ sound). Also I’ve noticed a difference between accents in Toronto and those from small towns as little as 2-3 hours drive north. I love the differences though no matter what, American, Canadian and all the rest. Fascinating, isn’t it?

  5. The useful thing about learning to sound Canadian is that it backs up that little Canadian flag paranoid USians like to stick on their backpacks when they go overseas.

  6. I was teaching a university class in Australia and the students thought I was joking with the “aboot”. It took a good 10 minutes to convince them it wasn’t an act.

    The Trawna comment is classic. I always ask my sister, “is that anywhere near the great city of Toronto?”

    1. I tell folks that it’s pronounced Trono by natives and that is therefore the correct pronunciation. Take Birmingham, AL versus Birmingham, England. You would be wrong once if you pronounced it the same way both times…

  7. I don’t understand what these linguistics people mean when they discuss the “Canadian accent” in general terms. The English spoken in the Maritimes, Montreal, Toronto, First Nations/rural areas, and Vancouver all vary widely in accent and expression. It makes about as much sense as generalizing the US accent, despite the vast differences between Southern, Boston, Californian, etc.

  8. The thing with the Canadian “about” is that it’s neither aboot nor aboat. What’s happening is that it’s a dipthong and the first vowel in the dipthong is turning into a schwa.

    Other English speakers can see this in, for example, the difference between the vowel sound in “rice” vs. the vowel sound in “rise.” “Rice” is “ruh-eece” (blended together into one syllable) while “rise” is “rah-eeze” (also blended together into one syllable).

    What the Canadians (and, incidentally, some people who live around Chesapeake Bay in the U.S.) are doing is applying the same principle to the “ou” dipthong. Similarly to rice/rise, the schwa-dipthong only happens before unvoiced consonants. So while most Americans would use basically the same vowel for the noun “house” and the verb “to house,” the “Canadian accent” would use the schwa dipthong for the noun “house” but would pronounce the verb “to house” the same way most Americans would.

    And of course, standard disclaimers apply: not everybody does this; not everybody does this to the same degree, etc.

  9. Watch a few episodes of Trailer Park Boys, then watch one of the FUBAR movies, and you will see very different variations of the ‘Canadian’ accent.

  10. Anyone who things British English speakers pronounce it paah-sta is sadly mistaken – I’m sure some do (there’s bound to be someone given our multitude of accents) but in my experience even people who say ‘grass’ with a long ‘a’ use a short one for ‘pasta’. 

    The vowel in ‘father’ varies, too, depending on location, which annoys me, because it seems to be linguists’ favourite long-a reference word.

  11. I’m from Buffalo, NY and while the accent there is remarkably neutral for the US (many national news anchors came from Buffalo), we share the “short a” pronunciation with the Canadians across the river.

    Without the other hallmarks of a Canadian accent, the Buffalo accent does not sound like a Canadian one in any way because as the article notes, that’s a rather subtle aspect of it. But if you listen carefully, you can hear that short a (in pasta, lava, etc.) in most people from Buffalo. Mine’s not particularly strong (I pronounce pasta with a long a for example) but in certain words (none of which come to mind at the moment) it’s quite noticeable if you’re paying attention.

    Since moving to California I’ve slightly changed how I speak. I’m sure I must sound like someone from out of town, but since it’s subtle (and since there is such a wide range of speaking styles here) no one generally notices – though CA friends have pointed things out that I said weirdly a couple times.

    My favorite thing about Canadian accents, though, is hearing them in movies with Canadian actors who are playing Americans. One of the best examples of this is in Back to the Future – Michael J. Fox is Canadian (Toronto if I recall correctly) and plays a California teenager in that film, yet has several lines of dialog where his Canadian accent comes through loud and clear. A very funny Canadian “sorry” is probably the best one. Most people don’t pick up on it.

  12. While my wife is Canadian, and does have an accent it is nothing like the above mostly in the ou sounds but most people don’t really notice and it took me awhile to notice it the first time, though her brother has a much stronger accent.
    Me I am stuck with a midwest extra r in some words if I am not paying attention.

  13. Spiderking, accents in the US tend to be very regional and vary incredibly but the thing with Canadian accents is the differences tend to be more generational than regional.  Besides the obvious differences in the Maritimes and Quebec, linguists have found accents from Ontario to BC aren’t all that different EXCEPT when you look at age groups. The classic Canadian accent is more distinct in older generations and less so in younger ones as those groups have had more exposure to popular culture and strangely, sound more Californian. 

    Penguinchris, Michael J Fox is from Burnaby BC and probably didn’t get the dialect training many Canadian actors, especially Vancouver actors, who work on the many US shows shot here.  ;)

    1. But that’s true in other places as well. Depending on someone’s age and education I can tell you what part of Chicago they are from. However, once we get some schooling the accents are generally flattened out, with a few regionalisms (I still say “pop” my wife says “soda”). 

    1. mais, peut tu identifier un Montrealais qui parle francais avec un accent anglophone and eengleesh wit a french accent. Ca sonne bien different qu’un anglophone parlant anglais de quelques par…

  14. And of course, the easiest way to sound more Canadian, add words like “Please”, “Thank you,” and “Excuse me.” to your regular vocabulary.


  15. I was born in the east-end of Toronto, and I’ve lived here for 99% of my life. I never hear “Aboot” – it sounds more like “Abauwt” or “Abowt” to me. I also never hear “Trawna” for Toronto…it always sounds more like Tronno or Torono to me. YEMV.
    Side notes: When I was in England on vacation, I suddenly became aware that all of the Canadians I was with say “Sure” a lot (sounds like “Sher”) instead of a casual “Yes”. At a hostel in Liverpool, an employee picked my girlfriend and I out as Torontonians within 30 seconds of showing up at the common breakfast table!

  16. “There are also other, less well-known Canadian differences, such as the Canadian integration pattern of foreign sounds represented by a. In words like pasta, lava, plaza, and drama the foreign a sound acquires the vowel in father in American English and British English, but the vowel of cat in Canadian English.”

    Well as a speaker of British English, I don’t buy this at all. Americans say “paaaastaaaaa” with a long ‘a’, we say “pasta” with a short ‘a’ as just one example.

  17. “front short vowels”? Vowel length isn’t phonemic in English! In order to understand that, you need to understand the Great Vowel Shift and which vowels *used* to be phonemic. I can’t be bothered.

    I swear, we need to teach grade shoolers the International Phonetic Alphabet.

  18. What I want to know is how Canadians managed to create the “silent K” — as in Etobicoke (pronounced eetobikow).  It’s the only silent K I’ve ever come across in the English language.

    1. More like etTOEbiko.  But yes, “Etobicoke” is a bit of a special case. Here in Etobicoke, we would pronounce your name Loodjgirl.  Oh, and just to be Mr. Obnoxious, you used a silent K in your first sentence :)

      1. Yes, my bad :) 

        I should have clarified, “silent k” at the *end* of a word (the loss of the k sound before an n is clearly a different linguistic phenomenon). 

        I actually wonder if it was once pronounced but somehow the local prediliction to end place names with an O (toronto, scarborough) obliterated it.  Probably not…  Any linguists out there?

        1. I think Etobicoke is a one-off. Nanticoke, Ontario, for example, is pronounced with the final “k” sound.

          Etobicoke is handy, though, as a comeback to Brits who mock our attempts to pronounce places like Cholmondeley or Gloucestershire. (“All right, smartass…”)

  19. I grew up in Windsor Ontario – our parody version of an “american” (i.e.Michigan) accent was to “go get a battle of pap”

    .. and a second to the observation by F_C_King… when we visited my wife’s cousins in England, it wasn’t long before they were ragging on our “sure” (sher) for yes…

  20. Wondering what “farther back in the mouth” meant, I sat here for a while saying the word “tin” in different ways. I stopped when Rebecca got upset though.

  21. This whole American-MEDIA perception of Canadian speech is a just-plain-silly.

    TRUE, we do have slight inflections from Coast to Coast to Coast here in Canada. But it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be…..

    The “a-boot” for “a-bout” thing came around because somebody not acclimatised to the accent of the region heard a Newfoundlander say the word with the Irish-inflection-Newfoundland-accent.

    Then Whammo the perception spread far and wide…pah-lease

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