Chapter 10: Language Variation and Change
If you sit back and think about how different people speak or sign the same language in different ways, the first social distinction that comes to mind just might be region or place. As dialectologists have been aware of for a long time, people from different places tend to have different regional varieties. Egyptian Arabic and Syrian Arabic are distinct; Continental French, Quebec French and Moroccan French are distinct; Spanish in Mexico, in Puerto Rico, and in Spain are all distinct. Within one nation there are also dialect differences, Acadian French (a variety spoken in the Maritimes) differs from Laurentian French (a variety spoken in Quebec, Ontario, and Western Canada); New York City English differs from Chicago English; nêhiyawêwin (Plains Cree) differs from nîhithawîwin (Woods Cree). In some cases, a particular variety has been put on a pedestal as the ‘standard’ and most prestigious representation for the language. However, the standardization of one variety over another is never about the linguistic nature of the variety and is always rooted in power structures and politics. A stereotypical feature of standard British English is the deletion of non-prevocalic r (or ‘r-dropping’) as in dark [dɑːk] and car [kɑː]. This “Queen’s English” (note the explicitness of power and politics right there!) is perceived as the standard, prestigious, and most posh way of speaking for people in, for example, Brixton and Hammersmith. However, the same phonological feature, deletion of non-prevocalic r, which is also common in New York City English, is perceived as non-standard, low-status, and lacking prestige in Williamsburg and Greenwich Village. Same linguistic process, diametrically different perceptions!
Do you say ‘soda’ or ‘pop’? ‘Cottage’ or ‘cabin’? In 2013, the most read piece published by the New York Times was “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk”, an interactive ‘dialect quiz’ that asked readers a series of questions about the lexical items they used for various concepts (e.g., ‘a large, wild cat, native to North America’, ‘a small road parallel to a highway’, ‘a small gray bug that curls up into a ball when touched’). Upon completion, readers were given a map pinpointing the quiz’s best guess at their location (within the United States) based on their responses. The piece highlighted the diversity of regional varieties of American English. Of course, regional variation exists within languages other than English too. For example, the words BIRTHDAY, STRAWBERRY, and PIZZA (among many others) have several regional variants in ASL (Lucas, Bayley, and Valli, 2003). You can see four regional variants of BIRTHDAY in this YouTube video and six regional variants of HALLOWE’EN in Figure 12.3. based on an image originally shared by the Canadian Language Museum on social media.
Taking this example further, it’s safe to say that r-dropping is strongly associated with London English and New York City English (regardless of its other local associations). This association comes about through indexicality, the semiotic concept that a sign (in our case, a linguistic feature) points to (think, index finger ☞) some meaning. Language makes extensive use of indexicality as discussed in Chapter 7. For example, some words, called ‘deictics’, can only have meaning within specific context: what tomorrow refers to is going to change in 24 hours! This is referential indexicality. But language also makes use of non-referential indexicality: linguistic features can index social meanings like place! Indexicality like this arises through the process of enregisterment or the linking of a particular feature of language with some cultural expectation. For example, according to the prevalent Euro-American gender ideology, there are two genders and those two genders behave differently. The result of mapping language to this “ideological schema” (Johnstone 2009) is that some linguistic features come to be gendered (i.e., they index masculinity or femininity). For instance, among Canadian English speaking adolescents, the intensifying adverb pretty as in pretty cool tends to index masculinity, whereas the intensifying adverb so as in so cool tends to index femininity (Tagliamonte 2016: 91). The same thing happens with place. The cultural expectation is that people in different places are different, and the result of mapping language to that expectation is that some linguistic features come to have regional associations.
Settler Colonialism and Canadian English. General Canadian English is perhaps the geographically most widespread homogeneous regional variety of any language. It is spoken by people from the Ontario-Quebec border in the east to Vancouver Island in the west (roughly 3800 kilometers!). The geographic size and shape of regional varieties depends on a wide-range of factors like physical geography, infrastructure, and political borders. In the case of Canada, we can point to historical migrations and colonialism.
Canadian English is typically traced back to early European settlers of southern Ontario who arrived from the United States as refugees of the American Revolutionary War. Over the decades, these “Loyalists” and their descendants migrated westward and took with them the same variety of English.
But that’s not the whole story. Typically when two languages come into contact, borrowings happen and the languages change in convergent ways. But the fact that Toronto English and Vancouver English are extremely homogeneous only came about because this contact-induced change didn’t happen despite the huge diversity of Indigenous languages spoken across this same area. For example, there’s no trace of contact with Nishnaabemwin in Toronto English and no trace of contact with hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ or Sḵwx̱wú7mesh sníchim in Vancouver English (though a pidgin trade language called Chinook Jargon, which incorporated elements of Chinookan, Wakashan, Salishan, and, eventually, Indo-European languages, did exist on the west coast until the late 19th century).
Why? Settler colonialism. Settler colonialism is a type of colonialism. Its goal is the acquisition of land for the purpose of permanent repopulation of settlers from the parent state to the colony. In Canada (as well as the United States, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere), settler colonial expansion required not just the displacement of Indigenous peoples but also their erasure. Through physical and cultural genocide, the settler colonial state of Canada has actively worked to erase Indigeneous peoples cultures, and languages from this land. The homogeneity of Canadian English is an insidious testament to settler colonialism (see Denis and D’Arcy 2018).
Within the Canadian context, probably the most well known enregistered feature of Canadian English is the pragmatic marker eh. Today, the Canadian indexicality of eh is ubiquitous. You can buy t-shirts, mugs, and magnets with eh on them, often accompanied with other national symbols like a red maple leaf. In fact, eh is so closely linked with Canada that when the Government of Canada created a Twitter account (@Canada), its very first tweet was “.@Canada’s now on Twitter, eh!” But just because a linguistic feature is enregistered as a feature of a regional variety, that doesn’t mean that that linguistic feature is actually used all that much! Eh has several different uses in Canadian English but in one of its most common uses, it is a variant of a linguistic variable, together with other pragmatic markers like right, you know, and you see. When analyzed through the Principle of Accountability, eh’s frequency of use is eclipsed by these other variants. That said, this varies in different regions. In an analysis of oral history recordings of Canadian English speakers born between the 1860s and 1930s in Southern Ontario and Southern Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Denis (2020) finds that eh represents less than one percent of tokens of this variable on Vancouver Island but 12% in Southern Ontario.
The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles is a freely available dictionary of Canadianisms (words unique to Canadian English or used uniquely in Canadian English). You can learn more about the history of the dictionary in Stefan Dollinger’s book Creating Canadian English published by Cambridge University Press.
Denis, D. (2020). How Canadian was eh? A baseline investigation of usage and ideology. Canadian Journal of Linguistics/Revue canadienne de linguistique, 65(4), 583-592. https://doi.org/10.1017/cnj.2020.30
Denis, D., & D’Arcy, A. (2018). Settler colonial Englishes are distinct from postcolonial Englishes. American Speech, 93(1), 3-31. https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-6904065
Dollinger, S. (2019). Creating Canadian English: The professor, the mountaineer, and a national variety of English. Cambridge University Press.
Johnstone, B. (2009). Pittsburghese shirts: Commodification and the enregisterment of an urban dialect. American Speech, 84(2), 157-175. https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-2009-013
Lucas, C., Bayley, R., & Valli, C. (2003). What’s your sign for pizza?: An introduction to variation in American Sign Language. Gallaudet University Press.
Tagliamonte, S. (2016). Teen talk: The language of adolescents. Cambridge University Press.