Have you ever heard people talk about the “Canadian accent” and wondered what exactly that is? Maybe you’ve heard people talk about it in movies and TV shows like South Park, but weren’t quite sure what is real vs. what isn’t.
As someone who has lived and is a citizen of both the US and Canada, as well as a self-admitted linguistics geek, I am here to give you the inside scoop into some of the differences in how Canadians and Americans talk.
Whether you’ve moved to Canada and want to understand the culture and dialect a bit better, or if you, like me, enjoy guessing people’s nationality based on their accent, you have come to the right place!
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
- First of all, did you know that there is not just one Canadian accent? Just like not all Americans have the same accent, like, say, someone from New York City compared to someone from Texas, not all English-speaking Canadians speak the same way either!
- Also remember, Canada is a huge country — the second largest in the world by landmass — so it’s not surprising that there is some variation. However, I will say that the variation is not quite as much as you’d see in other countries, like, for instance, Great Britain. What I’m going to be talking about today focuses on what linguists call “Standard Canadian English” and is what you will most likely hear on the news and radio.
- One final point before we get started, there are big differences in how “strong” one’s accent is based on other factors, such as someone’s age as well as whether they live in a big city like Toronto or Vancouver, or in a smaller, more rural area. With all of this in mind, let’s dive in!
THE FIVE DIFFERENCES
#1: Oot and aboot?
Let’s start off with what I would say is the most well-known difference between American and Canadian pronunciation: the infamous Canadian stereotype “oot and aboot”. Let’s get this out of the way, and I feel very comfortable saying this as both an American and a Canadian: Canadians do not say oot and aboot — this is totally exaggerated! However, Canadians do say these words differently, so… you might be asking yourself how do Canadians say it? Canadians say ____. Do you hear the difference between (CAN) and (AM)? What makes this sound different?
This is a process called “Canadian raising”. It’s called this because the vowel Canadians make is made slightly higher in the mouth than how Americans say it.
Americans start with a low vowel /a/, and move up to the high vowel /ʊ/. Compare this to the Canadian pronunciation, which starts from a slightly higher jaw position. Watch the video above where I demonstrate what a difference these two vowel heights can make in pronunciation.
There is a bit more to this, so if you are interested in knowing more about how this works, please let us know down in the comments below and I’d be happy to dive a little deeper into this subject.
#2: Words that start with pro-
Some words that are stressed on the first syllable and start with pro- are often pronounced differently. Canadians often say words like process, project, and progress with an /oʊ/ sound (think of how you pronounce the letter “o”, whereas most Americans say these words with the vowel /ɑ/ (think “ahh”). Not every Canadian does this, but if you happen to hear it, chances are, they are Canadian and not American.
#3 “o” before r.
In many American accents, words that are spelled with the letter “o” are often not actually pronounced as “o”. The pronunciation of words spelled with “-or-” are no exception, and are instead often pronounced as an /ɑ/ sound. You can hear this in common words like “sorry”, “borrow”, and “tomorrow”.
In Canadian accents, these often become more of an /ɔ/ sound, with more of a true “oh” sound, and more lip rounding. An interesting thing happens, where the words “sorry” and “sari” (an Indian women’s garment) are pronounced differently in Canadian accents (/sɔri/ vs. /sɑri/, whereas they are pronounced exactly the same in American accents (both as /sɑri/). Quite an interesting difference, don’t you think?
#4 pasta, salsa
Some words are telltale signs that you are talking to a Canadian, and these two are great examples! Did you know that many Americans and Canadians say the words “pasta” and “salsa” differently?
Americans say these words with an /ɑ/ vowel, the same vowel as in words like “call” and “father”, whereas Canadians say these words with more of an /æ/ vowel, like “cat” and “sad”.
As a result, what Americans say as “pɑsta” becomes “pæsta”, and “sɑlsa” becomes “sælsa”. We usually see this in words that English adopted from other languages, with pasta/pasta being adopted from Italian and salsa/salsa being adopted from Spanish. Who knew there were so many small differences in pronunciation?
#5: student or styudent?
Last but not least, we have one that is more common in older generations but is still a pronunciation you will often hear on the news and one that I get questions about occasionally from my students who move to Canada, and that is how to pronounce words like “news”, “student”, “Tuesday”.
Traditionally, these words were said differently depending on whether you were American vs. Canadian. Americans would say these words with an /u/ (think “ooh”) sound and Canadians would use a /ju/ (think “you”) sound instead so that Americans would say news student Tuesday, all with an “oo” pronunciation /u/ while Canadians would say it more like nyews styudent Tyuesday/.
This is because traditionally, Canadian English retained some features of British English pronunciation. However, this has changed over time, and most younger Canadians say these words the same as Americans. However, don’t be surprised if you hear these pronunciations every now and then, especially from older Canadians!
Overall, American and Canadian English have more in common when it comes to pronunciation than differences. However, it can be fun to learn about the differences, and maybe you can use some of these tips to impress a native Canadian!