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The English Language in Canada – Status, History and Comparative Analysis
By Charles Boberg
Cambridge University Press 2010. ISBN 9780521874328 hardback. GBP65.00 USD110.00.

This deceptively slim academic volume almost bursts open like an over packed suitcase. Its writing and contents are as lean as a bodybuilder's, packing a might punch and encapsulating the past, present and future of English in Canada.

It is surprising to learn that just half a century ago, concerns were raised that little serious research of any kind had so far been made into Canadian English. Today, such is the scope and quality of work into this area that Canadian English is now one of the best studied varieties of the English languages.

This being the case, what could yet another book about Canadian English bring to the table? While offering a solid introduction to the context and history, as well as a brief review of past works, what makes this volume so exciting is that half of it is firmly focused on the present and future, with plenty of new research data.

What the author, Charles Boberg of McGill University, sets out to do is provide a distilled overview of English in Canada; its status in country with two official languages; its unique history, having been pushed and pulled between political forces; its relationship to American and British English; and, more importantly, a look at what constitutes Canadian English. What this book is not, is a detailed survey of English in every region.

While many question the notion of a single, unified Canadian English (CE), the evidence suggests that certainly a mainstream CE exists, with a host of "speech islands" and "regional enclaves" prevail throughout the country. CE at a middle-class, educated level is largely homogonous, even when regional differences exist.

The first chapter establishes the present-day context of English in Canada, told from political, cultural, geographical and economic viewpoints. Intertwined and caught between many opposing forces, Canada expresses a national identity on several dual planes: it is geographically both North American and part of the Commonwealth (which includes countries of the former British Empires); it has two official languages yet few bilingual speakers (0.3%); it is torn between looking to American English and British English in positioning its own English.

It is in this immutable place that the country's English speakers – including immigrants – find themselves. They are constrained by social, institutional and economic pressures to choose one language over another. Daily life for a majority is monolingual; 21 million of 31 Canadians know only English, and 4 million know only French, the rest speak a third language or more.

Boberg also notes various surveys on attitudes towards variation. Respondents, for example, felt that the "best" CE was spoken in larger cities, such as Toronto and Ottawa. The most variation away from the mainstream CE comes from working-class people, and there is a similar distinction between older and younger speakers.

Chapter two describes Canadian settlement by Europeans, from the early French and British colonies to Empire and the various waves of Irish, English, Scottish and French immigration through the centuries and the land boom of the western regions.

Boberg recognises the important point that the basic difference between English of the northern and southern hemispheres is that the former were established in the 17th and 18th centuries, while the latter was established in the late 18th and 19th centuries – at a time when various linguistic changes had occurred in Standard Southern British English, only after the initial settlement of North America.

Chapters three explores the principal features of Canadian English by way of comparative perspectives against the two widely recognised standard varieties of the language, American and British English: what are the similarities and what are the differences? Standard Canadian English (SCE) – hypothetically used between the regions of Victoria, British Columbia, Halifax and Nova Scotia, hypothetically spoken by the broad majority of the upper working and middle classes (51% of the total population) – is analysed for differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. The author finds that Canadianisms lean towards American forms and that the number of “true Canadianisms” inherited from the aboriginal languages is limited. On pronunciation, SCE is without doubt a North American variety and differs very little from American dialects, with few systematic variables that can be distinguished as Canadian. Similarly, ‘in terms of phonemic inventory, conditional mergers and many purely phonetic patterns, SCE is largely indistinguishable from the speech of a large section of the United States’, writes Boberg. Such distinction is even harder to identify in terms of grammar.

Chapters 4 and 5 examine variation and change in vocabulary and phonetics. The former chapter identifies that lexical change is not an easily explained unidirectional process because of a number of contradictions. These exist in the push-pull of convergence versus non-convergence of lexical variables, with many Canadianisms holding their own in spite of US influence. The latter chapter uses data from the Phonetics of Canadian English project – a study of regional variation – to establish the general phonetic characteristics of CE and show where it differs from American English. Next is a look at social variation across sex, social class and ethnic variation.

The final chapter is a summary and a tentative projection of future progress. The analysis appears to conclude that, ‘apart from a small residue of British morphological variants, very little separates the two North American varieties, while both diverge from Standard British syntactic patterns in similar ways’, writes Boberg. When it comes to social variation in phonetics, significant sex differences were identified for several variables. Women are ahead of men in the Canadian Shift, and the overall trend is that some vowels are moving inward and down (/e/ and /ae/) and back vowels moving forward (/uw/, /ow/ and /u/). Canadian Raising is found to be diachronically stable.

The future direction of Canadian English is destined to be closely associated with the cross-border influences of American English and culture. The question of Canadian “separateness” from AmEng depends very much on whether CE retains a social prestige among its current and future generations, new immigrants included.


Review by Jesse Karjalainen, whichenglish.com Copyright 2011.