By Kailin Wright


copyright 2006


            We have all heard of the interjection “eh” as in “I am Canadian, eh?” but what does it really mean and is it uniquely Canadian?  Linguists debate over whether eh is peculiar to Canada.  The 1970s saw a handful of essays on eh as a Canadian interjection.  More recently, linguists such as Gaelan De Wolf and Howard B. Woods surveyed the use of eh in Vancouver and Ottawa, respectively.  In 2004, Elaine Gold published a survey on Canadian uses of and attitudes toward eh.  Using these surveys, evidence found in dictionaries, and critical essays, I will build on the argument that eh is uniquely Canadian.  Eh is a Canadianism because of the many different functions of eh in Canada and because of the frequency of use.  While eh only has two main constructions in England (as a request for repetition and as a tag), there are ten popular functions of eh in Canada.  Canadian literature uses eh more than any other national literature and certain types of eh are only found in Canadian texts and speech.  The interjection is also internationally recognized as Canadian.  I will review surveys of contemporary Canadian usage in order to analyze what eh means, who uses it, how people use it, and the general attitudes toward the different constructions of eh.



Historical Context


            While the scholarly debate centers on whether eh is a Canadian expression, critics often gloss over the history of the interjection.  The Modern English eh derives from Middle English interjections such as “ey,” “ei,” and “a” (“Eh,” OED).  The modern spelling “eh,” could have developed independently from the Middle English variants, however, it was most likely adopted from the French “eh” (“Eh,” OED).  The use of eh as a demand for repetition compares with Chaucer’s use of “I” in Troilus and Criseyde (1385): “For love of God, make of this thing an ende, / Or slee us both at ones er that ye wende . . . ‘I, what?’ quod she.  ‘By God and by my trouthe, / I noot not what ye wilne that I saye” (III).  By the 18th Century eh was in use as an interjectional interrogative particle and in 1771 Goldsmith writes, “Wasn’t it lucky, eh?”  (“Eh,” OED 2).  Eh as a request for repetition such as “Eh? What’s that, Sackville?” appears by the 19th Century (“Eh,” OED 3).  This history reveals that eh has its roots in Middle English and did not originate in Canada.



Critical Context


            Despite this history, the interjection eh acts as marker of English Canadian identity and distinguishes Canadian English from other dialects.  Eh is internationally recognized as a uniquely Canadian form of speech to the point where it is frequently satirized.  Although linguists have mostly ignored eh, there has been some work on it as a Canadianism.  The two main opponents in the debate were Toronto lawyer Mark M. Orkin and Professor of English Walter S. Avis.  Orkin began the debate in 1970 when he listed eh as part of Canadian English in the book Speaking Canadian English.  In “So eh? is Canadian, eh?,” Walter S. Avis responded to Orkin and argued that “eh is no Canadianism — for it did not originate in Canada and is not peculiar to the English spoken in Canada” (175-6).  Avis argued that because dictionaries do not recognize eh as a Canadian expression, it must be part of a universal language.  Together, Orkin and Avis continue to stimulate work on this topic by linguists who either support or reject the classification of eh as Canadian.  Sandra Schecter entered the debate in 1979 with her essay “Eh? Revisited: Is it or Is It Not Canadian,” arguing that eh is a central component of Canadian identity.  A 2004 survey on Canadian contemporary uses of eh sheds light on the debate.  Building on Avis’s eight categories of eh, Elaine Gold questions linguistics students at the University of Toronto about their use of and attitude toward ten different constructions of eh.  In 2005, Gold and Mireille Tremblay further contribute to this discourse by comparing the Canadian English eh with the Canadian French hein.  Using surveys as evidence, their study analyzes the use of eh and hein among anglophone and francophone students, respectively.  Gold and Tremblay argue that while eh acts as a marker of Canadian identity, hein does not have the same function in distinguishing Canadian French Speakers.  Using the data from these surveys, recent critical essays on eh and modern definitions from six different dictionaries, I will argue against Avis’s three main points: that eh did not originate in Canada, that eh is used internationally and is not specific to Canada, and that dictionaries do not cite eh as Canadian.



Eh Is Canadian!: Responding To Walter S. Avis


            Avis argues that because eh originated in Europe, it is not Canadian.  He explains that “eh? appears to be in general use wherever English speakers hang their hats and in one form or another it has been in general use for centuries” (176).  Before Avis, however, another linguist argued that eh is Canadian despite its European history.  Harold B. Allen suggested that although the expression comes from England, eh (to mean “pardon”) is only found in Canada.  Allen confirms this statement by explaining that immigration officials use eh to identify Canadians. 

            Allen, however, limits his discussion of eh to two specific uses: as a request for repetition and as a tag.  The OED only cites these two definitions as well.  A look at a larger range of uses, such as the narrative form of eh, shows that certain constructions are typically Canadian.  Avis argues that eh is not Canadian because it can be found in texts from around the world.  He concedes, however, that the “narrative eh?” is “found primarily in oral evidence of Canadian origin” and all of his examples for this usage are Canadian (183).  Avis quotes a Canadian speaker as an example of the narrative eh: “He’s holding on to a firehose, eh? The thing is jumping all over the place, eh, and he can hardly hold onto it eh?  Well, he finally loses control of it, eh, and the water knocks down half a dozen bystanders” (184).  The narrative eh also occurs in Canadian novels such as Morley Callaghan’s Strange Fugitive with “To-morrow then, eh Trotter, two o’clock, eh” and Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business, “Jesus, the old Deacon, eh — getting off that hot one about the Major, eh?” (Avis, 183).  Furthermore, Avis could only find Canadian examples for  eh as a reinforcement of an exclamation, such as “How about that, eh?” from the magazine Saturday Night (180).  As Gold says, Avis “undermined his own argument in that he could find only Canadian examples for two types of eh” (1).  Evidence reveals that the narrative eh and the exclamatory eh are Canadian because they are only found in Canadian texts.


Dictionaries: Is Eh Canadian?


            While the OED does not recognize eh as typically Canadian, six other major dictionaries cite eh as Canadian.  In the opening paragraphs to his 1972 essay, Avis says that none of the general British and American dictionaries labels eh as Canadian.  Based on these findings, he concludes that “lexicographers class it as universal English” (172).  However, dictionaries do classify eh as Canadian.  The Cambridge Dictionary defines eh as a “Canadian informal” marker for a “pause in a conversation” (i.e. the narrative eh) and gives the example, “So I’m speeding down the TransCanada, eh, and I look in my mirror and see this Mountie, eh.”  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Canadians use eh as a tag question to check a listener’s understanding, agreement, or interest.  The Neologism Profile defines eh as an interrogative interjection that can also act as an “overt question marker” and labels it as Canadian English.  The Encarta Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary also cite eh as a Canadian tag and explain that eh functions to maintain a listener’s attention.  The Canadian Oxford Dictionary is perhaps the most important resource because it draws on a corpus of Canadian English and can distinguish Canadian usage from Commonwealth and American usage.  According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Canadian English uses eh as a tag for “ascertaining the comprehension, continued interest, agreement etc. of the persons addressed.”  While the Cambridge Dictionary cites the Canadian use of the narrative eh, the other dictionaries describe the Canadian usage of eh as a tag question.  In contrast with Avis’ assertion that dictionaries do not recognize eh as Canadian, the Cambridge Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Neologism Profile, Encarta Dictionary,  American History Dictionary, and most importantly, the Canadian Oxford Dictionary all classify eh as Canadian. 



10 Different Constructions Of Eh


            The dictionaries’ varying definitions reveal that while linguists may agree that eh is Canadian, they disagree over what type of eh is Canadian.  The dictionaries cite one of two main uses: eh as a question tag or the narrative eh.  Gold’s 2004 survey on the Canadian eh helps to clarify the matter by asking Canadian speakers if and how they use eh.  Both individually and collectively the dictionaries (listed above) do not come close to citing all the different nuances of eh.  Gold’s survey provides the most extensive list of the different variations.  Although the survey provides useful information on Canadians’ use of and attitude toward eh, there are some limitations to this method of data collection.  As Gold explains, “one problem with this method of self-reporting is that many speakers are unaware of their own use of eh” (3).  Speakers are especially unaware of their use of the narrative eh because it often serves as a comma, question mark or an unconscious pause (similar to “um,” “like,” or “ah”).  The following table lists the ten categories (and twelve examples) used in Gold’s survey:




1. Statement of opinion

Nice day, eh?

2. Statements of fact

It goes over here, eh?

3. Commands

Open the window, eh?

Think about it, eh?

4. Exclamations

What a game, eh?

5. Questions

What are they trying to do, eh?

6. To mean ‘pardon’

Eh? What did you say?

7. In fixed expressions

Thanks, eh?

I know, eh?

8. Insults

You’re a real snob, eh?

9. Accusations

You took the last piece, eh?

10. Telling a story [the narrative   eh]

This guy is up on the 27th floor, eh? then he gets out on the ledge, eh . . .



Survey Results: Usage, Attitude And The Narrative Eh


            For each of the ten categories, the survey asks respondents if they have heard this type of use, if they use it themselves, and whether their attitude to the usage is positive, neutral or negative (Gold, 4).  Most of the respondents have heard people use the ten different types of eh with recognition rates ranging from 50% to 100%.  The following expressions rank as the top three for both usage and recognition: statements of opinion, exclamations, and the expression “I know, eh?” (Gold, 3).  All of the female respondents have heard eh used in a statement of opinion, giving category one a 100% recognition rate.  By comparison, 97% of the men have heard eh used in a statement of opinion.  As these two statistics demonstrate, there is an insignificant difference between the female and male rates of usage for all the categories.  What is really interesting is that while dictionaries and linguists classify the narrative eh as Canadian, the Canadian born respondents claim to use the narrative eh the least of the ten categories.  The narrative eh also receives the highest negative response.  This negative attitude is not specific to Toronto.  Surveys conducted in Ottawa and Vancouver also show an overwhelmingly negative response: the narrative eh scores the lowest for use and acceptance and receives the highest number of negative responses.  Woods’ survey of Ottawa usage reports a strong abhorrence toward the narrative eh: while 94% of the respondents claim they do not use the narrative eh, 47% of them report abhorrence (188).  Of the respondents, only 16% in Toronto, 6% in Ottawa, and 13% in Vancouver use eh when telling a story.  As Avis explains, people view the narrative eh as “virtually meaningless spacers” (183).

            These low rates of usage reflect eh’s status as a pejorative marker of Canadian identity.  The methodology of self-reported usage, however, could have influenced the results.  One reason for the low rates of self-reported use could be that people are unaware that they use eh when telling a story.  Another reason for the narrative eh’s low rates could be the negative subject matter of the sample sentence.  The example for the narrative eh describes a man out on the ledge of a building, which reminds the respondent of suicide.  The high usage score (78%) for the positive sample sentence “Nice day, eh?” further supports the possibility that the examples may affect the attitude toward the construction itself.  Regardless of these influences, it is clear that the narrative eh is a highly stigmatized interjection.

            Despite the reported abhorrence toward the narrative eh, dictionaries and linguists equate the narrative eh with Canada.  Avis was unable to find examples of the narrative eh in literature from any other country besides Canada, which suggests that this type of eh is peculiar to Canada.  Popular culture even identifies the narrative eh with Canadians.  Literature and film, for example, often use eh as a deliberate stereotype: the 1995 film Canadian Bacon satirizes American stereotypes of Canada by portraying a friendly Canadian Mountie who uses the narrative eh.  For Gold’s survey, some respondents describe the speaker of the narrative eh (number ten in the survey) as “an American trying to imitate a Canadian” (Gold, 10).  This description and the satiric film Canadian Bacon suggest that the respondents may have a negative attitude toward the narrative eh because it is stereotypically Canadian.  As Gold says, “it is clear that the narrative eh is considered to be both stereotypically Canadian and highly stigmatized, a fact reflected in the highly negative attitudes assigned to this use” (10). 



 Eh Is Formal, Eh?: Formal And Informal Usage


            The classification of eh as informal speech contributes to the negative perception of the narrative eh and eh in general.  The OED describes eh as “colloquial” and “vulgar” (“Eh,” OED 3).  Avis says that “as with most interjections, eh? has its primary place in conversation at the informal level” and explains that “it is not slang, though it may be trite” (176).  Although the OED and Avis view eh as “informal,” “vulgar” and “trite,” formal speakers use the interjection.  Avis quotes Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau using the narrative eh in a broadcast on CBC Television: “the purpose is to take four or five million people off the tax-roll, eh?” (184).   In 1976, during an interview on CBC Radio, the Canadian Immigration Minister Bud Cullen explains that “admitting [immigrants] to one province is no guarantee, eh?, that they’re going to stay there” (Schecter, 41).  There are cases of both a Prime Minister and an Immigration Minister using eh in public speech.  As Schecter says, “to the extent that such a thing as ‘formal’ conversation exists, ‘eh?’ is more at home in it in Canada than it is in other countries” (41).  As a part of formal speech, eh is Canadian.  More importantly, Avis and Schecter take all their oral examples of eh from Canadian speakers.

            While debates may persist over what types of eh are typically Canadian, it is clear that linguists identify eh as Canadian.  Regardless of whether Canadians use eh or not, people identify it as a marker of Canadian English.  Within Canada, eh is popular from coast to coast: in every province more than 65% of survey respondents use eh in a statement of exclamation.  Linguists, dictionaries, novels and popular culture all recognize eh as a distinctive part of Canadian English.  As Schecter says, “can you think of any people aside from Canadians who take an active pride in ‘eh?’ and are determined to claim it as their own? arguing about it? Is this not in itself evidence that ‘eh?’ is a component of that elusive phenomenon called ‘Canadian identity’?” (Schecter, 44).




 Works Cited


Avis, Walter. “So Eh? is Canadian, Eh?”  Walter S. Avis: Essays and Articles. Kingston: Royal Military College of Canada, 1978. 172-190. 

“Ay.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. 3 November 2005. <


Chaucer, Geoffrey. “Troilus and Criseyde.” The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd Ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.

De Wolf, Gaelan Dods, Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, ed. The Survey of Vancouver English: A Sociolinguistic Study of Urban Canadian English. Kingston: Queen’s UP, 2004.

“Eh.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. 4th ed. 2000. 3 November 2005. <>.

---. Cambridge Dictionaries Online. 3 November 2005. <>.

---. Encarta Dictionary. 3 November 2005. <http://encarta.msn.comencnet/features/dictionary>.

---. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 3 November 2005. <>.

---. Neologism Profile. 3 November 2005. <>.

---. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. 3 November 2005. <>.

---. Websters Online Dictionary. 3 November 2005. <>.

Gold, Elaine. “Canadian Eh?: A Survey of Contemporary Use.” Annual Conference of the Canadian Linguistic Association. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba, 2004. 1 November 2005. <http://http‑‑CLA/pdf/Gold‑CLA‑2004.pdf>.

Gold, Elaine and Mireille Tremblay. “Canadian English, Eh? Canadian French, Hein?” Linguistic Conference, January 28-30, 2005: Canadian English in the Global Context. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2005. 1 November 2005 <


Schecter, Sandra. “Eh? Revisited: Is It or Is It Not Canadian.” The English Quarterly  12.4 (1979): 37-45.

Woods, Howard B. The Ottawa Survey of Canadian English. Kingston: Queen’s UP, 1999.