On the linguistic challenges of moving from the Canadian East to the West
Across this great nation of ours, there are approximately 30-million speakers of Canadian English. Typically, when we think of Canadian English, we identify it by what it is not: American English (and sometimes British English). However, right here at home, within our 9,984,670 km2 of space, there is a massive assortment of words we use to describe the same thing, and even when we agree on a single term, the pronunciations we employ are sometimes completely different.
So much so, that it begs the question: What do the words you use say about where you’re from? This week, we’ll try to answer that question by talking to linguistic experts, sharing stories of our own discovery of differences in the language Canadians use and exploring the regional dialects that define us all.
We’re also looking for your feedback on specific terms in your community: Tell us a word that only seems to be used by people in your region here.
Not long after moving out West, I met up with some new friends at the legion in Vancouver. As I approached their table, someone called out cheerfully: “Thar he be! The man from the East! Did ya take yar carrrh to the barrrh?”
I was shocked.
I had felt prepared for Vancouver. I was a Prince Edward Islander, sure, but one who had suffered under two decades of linguistic nitpicking from my (formerly) Ontarian parents. I never considered that the locals in my new town would even notice I was from out East. All of my parents’ hard work, and still I sounded like some backwater pirate?
I was born on Prince Edward Island to parents “from away.” My mom and dad had moved from Southern Ontario, and raised me to speak just as they did. I wasn’t to say “warsh” or “slippy.” I should borrow a book “from” a friend instead of borrowing it “off of” one, and if I won a race against classmates, I was to say, “I beat them,” certainly not “I bet them.” It’s true I said “yer” instead of “your” (and often still do), but I didn’t say “shore” in place of “sure,” or “crick” instead of “creek” or “stream.” My parents argued that the possessive of “you guys” was not, in fact, “your guys’s.”
Sometimes the rules seemed arbitrary. Why was “aich” correct, and “haich” incorrect? Why wouldn’t “h” be pronounced with “h”? Why did our family shop at the “co-op” when buying groceries at the “kwop” sounded much more fun? In some cases, rather than picking sides, I code-switched: I said “store-bought” at home, and “boughten” at school.
Turns of phrase were rarely difficult to follow. A girlfriend’s parents were fond of telling me, “aw, g’wan,” or “g’way with ya.” I understood that her mum used the phrases in the traditional, generally affectionate Island sense, meaning “you must be kidding,” or “I don’t believe you.” Just as I understood that her dad used them in a traditional, non-geographical, fatherly sense: “Go away, my daughter can do better.”
I don’t want to suggest that all Islanders speak and sound alike. Certainly, a fella from up near Tignish or down Souris way (on PEI, west is up and east is down) may be more likely to refer to you as “my son,” and will probably emphasize the “oi”-sound in the word “ice” (trust me, there is one) more than a townie from Charlottetown. And, of course, the language has changed since I was young.
Growing up, a traffic intersection in town was “a set of lights” or simply “the lights,” (“Go past two sets of lights and the Tim’s is on the right”) but today you’re more likely to hear talk of “roundabouts” (“Some stunned buddy tried to drive his rig straight through the roundabout, near tore the bottom off her. One of the MacKinnon boys had to come give him a tow.”).
Driving instructions were tricky on PEI because Islanders navigate by landmarks, which existed in little variety. Every convenience store and gas station was an “Irving” and every hall prefixed with some combination of community, bingo and ceilidh (a traditional Irish Scots social club with music dancing, pronounced “kay-lee”). Older Islanders still enjoy tormenting mainlanders and Island youth alike by providing directions that rely on landmarks that no longer exist (“it’s next to the old Blockbuster”) or require intimate knowledge of the community (“it’s just past Sheehan’s son’s farm; ya can’t miss it”).
It wasn’t just the accent that gave my identity away to my new friends. Vancouverites, it turned out, had their own local customs pertaining to language. There, they have “basements” not “cellars,” they put on “runners” instead of “sneakers,” and park their cars in “driveways” rather than “laneways.” They were baffled by “kitbags” and “scribblers” (i.e. “backpacks” and “notebooks”). Some people I met had only a vague sense of what “supper” might be.
When an Islander inhales sharply and wordlessly, it indicates agreement. Residents of Vancouver, some of whom are known for their inhaling, don’t recognize this gesture at all. To be honest, it was difficult to even greet a Vancouverite. I knew not to ask “how’s she going?” but even “where ya at?” was met with confusion. If you asked someone from out West, “what’re you sayin’?” more often that not they’d pause, then tell you “hello” or “how are you” a second time.
Eventually, I learned to adjust. I even stopped clinging to my “r”s like a man lost at sea. And besides, there were similarities that made me feel right at home. You were just as likely to hear people calling out “bud” while walking down Commercial Street (these were pre-dispensary days) as you would be to hear “buddy” while strolling through Charlottetown’s Victoria Row.
For all my willingness to adapt, there are some things that will never change. I might wear a “backpack” on “public transit” now, but I still have on my “sneakers.” And no matter where life takes me, the plural of “beer” and “lobster” will always be “beer” and “lobster.”