Canadian English

Dane Jurcic, © 2003


..on all the levels of language there are already enough differences between standard Croatian and standard Serbian for us to call them two different standard languages.  No possible raising (nor lowering, for that matter) of the number of these differences could cause a major change in the overall picture.  (Pranjković 49)


The relationship between Canadian English and American English is similar to the relationship between standard Croatian and standard Serbian.  Often due to striking similarities between the aforementioned language pairs, their differences are overlooked or dismissed, and they are concerned as one language respectively American English and Serbo-Croatian.  Ivo Pranjković in his article, “The Croatian standard language and the Serbian standard language”, demonstrates how Croatian and Serbian differ and how these differences have and will continue to be sufficient to differentiate them.  The purpose of this article is to point out some of the differences that have and will continue to differentiate Canadian English from American English.



There are approximately two thousand words or expressions that are native to Canada, or which have a meaning peculiar to or characteristics of Canada.  The latter words and expressions are referred to as Canadianisms. The term Canadianisms can also be extended to include words borrowed from other languages which do not appear in other varieties of English. 

A good deal of Canadianisms were founded out of necessity; they describe features, objects, institutions which were unknown to the European experience or noticeably different from things existing elsewhere.  In other words, they are reminiscent of the early days of white settlement, primarily composed of American Loyalists and British settlers.  Thus, many Canadianisms are words coined or borrowed to identify feature of the new landscape: the chutes, or saults, of the rivers, the muskeg of the hinterland, the buttes and parklands of the prairies, and the bluffs, or islands of trees, on the flat prairie are but a few.  New trees and plants: cat spruce, Douglas fir, Manitoba maple, Sitka spruce, and tamarack; kinnikinnick, Labrador tea, Pembina berry, saskatoon and soapalallie.  On the landscape and amongst the trees, birds were discovered: Canada goose, fool hen, siwash duck, turkey vulture and whiskey jack.  And not surprisingly, explorers and settlers crossed paths with new animals and reptiles: cabri, caribou, Massassauga rattler, pecan, siffleur and wapiti.  Also in the many creeks, rivers, and lakes, they found fish of all sorts: cisco, inconnu, maskinonge, kokanee, ouananiche, oolichan, tuladi and wendigo.  Finally, political term such as M.P.P., acclamation, and endorsation tell us something of the newly founded institutions.[1]

The aforementioned Canadianisms have been followed by a succession of newer Canadianisms, some of them evoked by more modern phenomena: remittance man and its congeners remittance grabber and remittance farmer; suitcase farmer; mountie; hydro; bush pilot; chuck wagon; blue line; faceoff [2]and deke; grid road; cat train; loonie and toonie; and timbits.

All of the Canadianisms listed can be found in the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary save timbits, which are little round donuts one can buy at Tim Hortons, a Canadian coffee shop.  And they reflect the Canadian (not American) way of life, past, present, and future.  Indeed, to write a history of Canada without these words would be to write an incomplete and thus unsatisfactory history. 


Orkin in his book Speaking Canadian English in comparing Canadian English to American and British English states: “the truth seems to be that Canadians are not prolific coiners of words, being content for the most part to borrow American and British English expressions, inventing new words sparsely and reluctantly…” (69).   In assessing the Canadianisms above and those I have come across, I would concur with Orkin’s observation.  Another observation Orkin makes is worth citing here as well: “In their daily vocabulary, Canadians thread an uncertain and apparently arbitrary path between British and American usage” (70).  The observations coupled give an accurate description of Canadian vocabulary.  However, it is necessary to stress the principal of appropriation in order to avoid any misguided interpretations. 

Canadian English should not be described as a mixture of American and British English with an insignificant number of Canadianisms added.  Canadian English, like all ‘Englishes’, possesses an important characteristic, referred to as wholesale borrowing, which has allowed it to develop a very rich vocabulary.  Canadians have in the past and will most likely in the future continue to borrow freely from both American and British English; however, once a lexeme is borrowed, it has the possibility to evolve differently.  In other words, Canadians appropriate it to suit their needs.  The lexeme chesterfield is a par exemplar. 

According to Robert Hendrickson in the Encyclopedia of word and phrase origins, the term chesterfield is commonly applied to a sofa in honor of Philip Stanhope, the forth earl of chesterfield (1694-1773).  However, Hendrickson points out that it is more likely that a latter earl of chesterfield invented them, which earl he does not know.  At any rate, according to the OED, it was used to refer to a couch in 1900.  According to Carver in American Regional Dialects the term appears to have come into use in Canada around 1903 and in Northern California about the same time.  The Jrnl. Canadian Linguistics Association (qtd. in OED) notes chesterfield seems to be in general use throughout Canada, though the usual American sofa is also known and used[3].  Almost everywhere in the U.S chesterfields are cigarettes and nothing more.  In Great Britain, a davenport couch was sometimes referred to as a chesterfield but this is obsolete.  The point to be taken is that since chesterfield has entered Canadian English it has evolved differently because Canadians have appropriated it to suit their own needs. To be sure, although chesterfield is not originally Canadian, it is thought of as such by Canadians because Canadians commonly use the word to refer to a sofa or couch, while the American and British do not, save maybe the region of Northern California in America.

Another example which should clarify the concept of appropriation is the interjection eh.  Although many Canadians believe that it is a Canadianism, it is not.  As Avis points out in his paper “So eh? is Canadian, eh?” “the interjection did not originate in Canada and is not peculiar to the English spoken in Canada.  Indeed, eh? appears to be in general use wherever English speakers hand their hats; and in one form or another it has been in general use for centuries” (95).  However, the frequency and the context in which it occurs in Canadian speech is remarkably different from both American and British native speakers and thus it is a distinguishing characteristic of Canadian speech.  As Geoffrey James noted “so entrenched has this become in Canadian speechways that border officials have come to regard it as pretty good way to spot a Canadian” (11).  Having spent the last seven years of my life teaching English as a second language in Croatia, I would concur with James.  The language schools I worked for would consist primarily of American and British teachers.  My colleagues have rarely ever mistaken me to be anything else but a Canadian because of the eh interjection in my speech coupled with some notable distinctions in pronunciation.  Whilst this may not seem surprising for they were all English teachers, my students at the beginning of each new class asked me what English I spoke for they too recognized that it was neither American nor British.


Due to the nature of this paper, I would like to list some of the words that differentiate Canadian and American everyday speech[4]:

            Middle border” Canadian                             Midwest American

            asphalt road                                                      blacktop                                                          

blinds                                                               shades             

elastic band                                                      rubber band                                                     

feather                                                              (corn) silk        

sheaf                                                                bundle                                                             

tap                                                                   faucet                                                              

tea party                                                           coffee party                                                     

veranda                                                            porch


In Canadian English, as Orkin points out, based on a study done by Mencken, there are several dozen instances in which the British and American different terms for the same thing flourish side by side in Canada, although they are not always synonymous.  Thus Canadians drive a car but also an automobile; live in a flat or an apartment; do odd jobs and chores; receive a parcel or package from a postman or letter-carrier, sit on chesterfield or a sofa or couch; play with both a pack and a deck of cards; and finally take a holiday or a vacation.



In 1999, Charles Boberg using Trudgill’s hierarchical gravity model demonstrated that there are considerable differences between Canadian and American English speakers.  The main variables of the gravity model are the size of the centers of influence, measured in population (P), and the distance (d) between them.  The general prediction of the model was that the larger the centers and the smaller the distance between them, the greater their influence on one another.  Boberg examined the influence of six major American cities on six major Canadian cites.  The American cities included four major cities on or near the Canadian border (Seattle, Detroit, Buffalo, and Boston) as well as the metropolises and world cultural capitals on the east and west coasts (New York City and Los Angeles).  The Canadian cities represented a selection of major population centers across the country (Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax) as well as Windsor.  A second series of calculations measured the influence of Canadian cities on each other, since it may be presumed that American influence that enters Canada in one place may spread to other cities by means of secondary influence.

Due to economics, it is not permissible to summarize all the comparisons Boberg made and the results obtained.  However, one particular comparison, Detroit’s influence on Windsor, is worth quoting at length because according to the gravity model Windsor should be completely assimilated to Detroit within one generation.  Boberg points out that some Ontarians do in fact think that people in Windsor speak like Americans.  However, Boberg’s survey clearly showed that Windsor is just as Canadian as Toronto; in fact he found the same system whether he looked at a 53-year-old man or a 27-year-old women.  The vowels /A/ and /Ť:/ are completely merged in the low-back corner, and /Q/ remains low position; the only raising of /Q/ occurs before nasals.  The result of this is that stack is pronounced in Windsor with almost the same vowel quality as stock in Detroit.  Boberg concludes that if the speakers are representative of the Windsor population in general, it must be concluded that, at least at the level of the phonetics and phonology of the vowel system, the massive influence of Detroit predicted by the model is simply nonexistent.

Another interesting observation made by Boberg worth noting here to demonstrate that a Canadian English exists is the following: “it is along this stretch of the border, where large numbers of Americans and Canadians are geographically closer and more integrated than anywhere else in North America, that we find the greatest degree of linguistic differences” (15).  The point to be taken is that the boundary between the United States of America and Canada is not merely a political one; that the boundary divides two different ‘Englishes’.  Boberg concludes:

Canada is clearly not a part of the American speech community in some respects, and its independence in this regard is presumably supported and perpetuated by the general post-acquisition stability of grammars at a more abstract level and by Canadian institutions, such as schools, textbooks, dictionaries, and national media, at the less stable level of lexicon and phonemic incidence.  (22)



Canadians unlike Americans have a choice in matter pertaining to spelling.  Canadians can choose to spell the following words either the American or British way: center/centre, practice/practise[5], analyze/analyse, color/colour.  However, consistency must govern usage.  Thus, if a Canadian in a formal paper chooses to use British spelling, he or she must take care to use all British suffixes where there are common suffixes to chose from.  This is the advice given by the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary in the Style Guide section under Appendices.  The aforementioned dictionary is considered, and for good reason, the authority on matters pertaining to style.

            A particular syntactic distinguishing feature of Canadian English is the post adjectival position of the word Canada after certain proper names.  According to Avis “this development reflects French syntax and owes its origin to the federal government’s policy of promoting bilingualism nationally: Air Canada, Environment Canada, Parks Canada, Statistics Canada, and so on” (Canadian English 13).  The practice has spread to other institutions, for example, Unity Canada, and is “fashionable even amongst business firms, domestic and multinational: Bell Canada, Shell Canada”.  Avis concludes that the rapid growth of the novelty makes such a sentence quite idiomatic: “Canadian hockey players get support from Sport Canada when playing for Team Canada in the Canada Cup series” (13). 



Pranjković states that anyone’s whose goal is to turn Croatian and Serbian into languages that differ to the same degree as Croatian and Russian or Slovakian and Slovenian will never succeed, at least not by simply raising the number of morphological and/or lexical differences between the two” (49).  The same observation bares relevance in comparing Canadian and American English.  The differences have never been so great that communication was impossible between native Canadian and American speakers nor will they ever be for both speak variants of English.  However, the differences between Canadian English and American English have always been and will continue to be sufficient to distinguish them.


For Further Reading


Avis, Walter S.  “So eh? is Canadian, eh?  CJL/RCL 17:2 (1972), 89-104


Avis, Walter S.  “Canadian English in its North American context.”  CJL/RCL 28:1

(1983), 3-15


Barber, Katherine ed.  The Canadian Oxford Dictionary.  Toronto: Oxford University

Press, 2001.


Borberg, Charles.  “Geolinguistic diffusion and the U.S.-Canada border.”  Language

            Variation and Change, 12 (2000), 1-24


Chambers, J. K. ed.  Canadian English: Origin and Structures.  Toronto: Methuen
            Publications, 1975.


Chambers, J. K.  “The Canada-US Border as a Vanishing Isogloss: The Evidence of

            Chesterfield.”  JEngL 23. 1/2 (1990-1995), 155-166


Gregg, Robert J.  “The Survival of Local Items as Specific Markers in Vancouver

English.”  JEngL 23.1/2 (1990-95) 185-194


Nylvek, Judith A.  “Is Canadian English in Saskatchewan Becoming More American?” 

            American Speech 67:3 (Autumn, 1992), 268-278


Orkin, Mark M.  Speaking Canadian English: An Informal Account of the English

Language in Canada.  Toronto: General Publishing Company Limited, 1970.

Pranjković, Ivo.  “The Croatian standard language and the Serbian standard language.”

            Int’l. J. Soc. Lang. 147 (2001), 31-50


[1] The list of Canadianisms is taken from Walter S. Avis’ “Canadian English in its North American context”, CJL/RCL 28:1 (1983) 11

[2] The list thus far is taken from Orkin p. 68.

[3] J. K. Chambers demonstrates in his article “The Canada-U.S Border as a Vanishing Isogloss: The Evidence of chesterfield” demonstrates that it is a receding term in Canadian English and is being replaced with the term couch.  I shall content that although it is receding and youth prefer to use sofa or couch, young Canadians nonetheless know what a chesterfield means.

[4] The list is complied based on Harold B. Allen study published as “Canadian-American Speech Differences Along the Middle Border,” J.C.L.A., 1959, 17-24.

[5] According to the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary  in most Canadian use practice is a noun, practice is a verb.