Sah-ry, eh? We’re in the midst of the Canadian Vowel Shift

The old vowels are ‘oot’: Canadians are changing how we speak, though none of us are noticing. Linguists might know why.


vowel shift

Out with “oot.” No more “aboot.” Canada is talking with a New Speak. In a linguistic pivot called the Canadian Vowel Shift, we are pronouncing “God” more like “gawd,” “bagel” like “bahgel,” “pillow” like “pellow,” and “sorry” less like “sore-y.” The word “Timbit” is becoming “Tembet,” and “Dan slipped on the staircase” now sounds more like “Don” “slept” on it. First discovered in 1995, the new vowels are contagious, spreading rapidly from Victoria to St. John’s, where linguists are mapping the frequency of people’s voices and using ultrasounds to track their tongue and lip placement.

“We’re in the middle of a transformation,” says Paul De Decker, a sociolinguist at Memorial University of Newfoundland. “Our vowels are getting higher and backer in the mouth, and it’s more widespread, more diverse than we initially thought.”

Some linguists compare the shift to “Valley Girl” speech, which is perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by an American comedian in the hit YouTube video, “Shoes.” The chorus, “Shoes. Oh my God, shoes,” sounds more like, “Shahs, ah my gawd, shahs.” More mildly in Canada, we find the shift in the Air Canada pre-flight safety video when we hear, “Welcome aboard Air Canada.” Compared to a 1986 version, the “Canada” is now pronounced farther back in the mouth, like “Cahnadah.”

These changes in the mouth are happening under our noses. Even though the new pronunciation is used every day, almost nobody has heard of it—not the president of Canada’s association of university and college English teachers, nor the national director of Teachers of English as a Second Language. As it creeps into our speech under the level of social awareness, the vowel shift is known as a “change from below,” with a suspected epicentre in urban Ontario.

Wait, what the hall? De Decker explains the shift as a result of Canadian tolerance. As immigrants and visitors arrive with different accents, we have come to tolerate variation and to play with language ourselves. “If we weren’t tolerant,” he says, “we would crack down and say, ‘No, that’s not how it’s pronounced.’ Instead, we’ve started to push the envelope even further.”

With young women initially leading the shift, some experts suggest they subconsciously adopted it from California as a way to portray a more trendy identity. De Decker says the new Canadian vowels only partly resemble Valley Girl speech, and that the similarities may be coincidental; still, he agrees the new vowels are in vogue. “It’s like a badge saying, ‘These are all the people I’ve met, and I have the vowel system to prove it.’ ”

The Canadian Vowel Shift has now shot far beyond urban youth. One study heard the shift to be equally advanced in Thunder Bay as in Toronto, and others have found it among seniors as old as 90. “People who don’t consider themselves innovative or hip are showing it,” says De Decker. We can even hear it in the Corner Gas theme song: “You think there’s not a lot goin’ on, but look closer, baby, you’re so wrong.” The “think” almost sounds like “thenk,” and “lot” is more like “lawt.”

The first person to discover the shift, Sandra Clarke, a linguist at Memorial University, says Canadians have long held potential for a change in their speech, based on their relaxed pronounciations of many words. For example, we say “cough” without the harsh “quaff” sound that might make us crank our heads in the U.S., and we say “caught” the same as “cot,” without pronouncing the a or u at all. “When you have open space like that, vowels don’t have to stay in their places,” says Clarke. “The opportunity is there for new ones to move in.”

Scholars debate which vowels have changed the most. Clarke thinks the consonants within words affect whether or not we shift our pronunciation of the vowels. The shift is most obvious, she says, in words with fricatives, which are letter combinations such as “th” and “sh.” “Shovel” is more like “shawvel,” and “thank you” resembles “thahnk you.” “I wouldn’t be surprised if fricatives are in the lead,” she says.

Although these sneaky vowels might jeopardize the sound of Canada’s iconic lingo, they are also helping unite us. Since the same change is happening in Red Deer as in Montreal, we may find decreasing distinction between accents. For bilingual people, the new pronunciation could even get carried over into their French, leading to more similarities in the sounds of the two languages. The English version of “baguette” stops rhyming with “vague-ette,” and “decor” stops resembling “de-core.” Meanwhile, the shift is distinguishing Canada even more from the U.S., where an estimated 34 million people around the Great Lakes Region are showing an opposite change called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. There, God is becoming “gad,” “Dan” is becoming “din,” “slipped” is getting closer to “slapped,” and “sorry” more like “sarry.”

Aside from perhaps making spelling bees tougher, the current vowel shifts may well have lasting significance. The Great Vowel Shift of the 14th- to 18th centuries marked the leap from Middle to Modern English, with Norman pronunciations rapidly changing words such as “lake” to no longer rhyme with “latté,” as they do in other Germanic languages. That shift was responsible for most of the irregularities in English—the thousands of words pronounced differently than they are spelled. The changes today could lead to even more oddities in English in Canada and the U.S. Vowel shifts are messy.



Sah-ry, eh? We’re in the midst of the Canadian Vowel Shift

    • And what of kids ending all their words with an “ah” … as in “oh my God-ah” and “We are going out-ah” and “that’s so nice-ah”. Do we have to add syllables to existing words to aspire to be young and hip? I know that language has changes over the centuries but this is our main and primary language. I don’t see the French language being bastardized …. one wonders if this is the slippery slope e-mail started – people (leaders of business included) who cannot spell, or compose a sentence or punctuate properly. Oh my!

  1. When at the Phoenix airport 18 years ago, I was browsing in one of the many stores within the departure area. In speaking to the younger lady behind the counter, she asked if I was from Canda as my saying “about” as “abowt” was an indicator for her. This was more of a shock to me than to her. Having grown up in Northwestern Ontario, I had assumed that my accent was more neutral than those living in the Ottawa Valley, renowned for its, “aboot”.
    I suspect that the changing of vowel sounds reflects the pronunciations in regions, as opposed to any national shift.
    Today, I still pride myself in detecting the twangs of “o’s” and “a’s” heard in Minnesota and Wisconsin. For example, “mom” is “mawm”, and “hockey” more like “hackey”. Some folks still pick up on my, “tag-ger” instead of , “tie-grrr” for tiger.

    • Can you explain why you preferred the younger lady behind the counter? ;-)

  2. We are unlikely to become a true multicultural society but, unfortunately, it seems that a continuing evolutionally multi-lingual society is to be our demise.

    An opinion by the national director of Teachers of English as a Second Language would be quite valuable.

  3. Just as long as “I asked my friend” doesn’t become “I axed my friend.”

    • Hahaha! That was funny.

      Given how much global television, movies and internet we are exposed to, it is no surprise that our pronunciations are changing as we tend to mimic what we hear, especially early in life. We travel, we meet new immigrants in our communities…how can our language not evolve.

  4. Well that is certainly research money well spent. I don’t think anyone cares about this nor does it have any importance other than to the folks pretending they’re doing some kind of science. No wonder the Humanities gets such a bad rap.

    • Linguistics is a social science, and not a branch of the humanities. But nice try.

  5. The writer of this article needs to learn some basic linguistics terms. For example, a fricative is a type of speech sound, not a letter combination. Fricatives are sometimes symbolized by letter combinations like sh and th, but sounds symbolized by the letters s and z are also fricatives.

  6. Sounds like a flawed study and of course one would assume they are right although they didn’t even explain how they conducted it. Did the researchers do a simple random sample study of people across Canada in different provinces or Just Ontario and New Brunswick? What about people in BC?

  7. “The shift is most obvious, she says, in words with fricatives, which are letter combinations such as “th” and “sh.””

    This isn’t quite right. Fricatives aren’t just “letter combinations”. Fricatives (in English) also include: f, v, s, z, and h.

  8. Not sure, but when I moved from Toronto to Vancouver in 1965, fifty years ago I believe I was one who was changing the vowel sound. When people asked me where I was from my from I would say Toronto, but not Toronto, but Tranna. Everyone asked if I was American….. I suppose there were other words, but I did not take note. I think today I say Toronto. I pronounce the “o” ‘s.

    My mother-in-law was 2nd generation United Empire Loyalists and pronounced blouse – bloose, roof – ruff and route – rute…. Interesting topic…. Started ages ago as Canada became populated from all over the world…. Just look at Newfoundlander speak, or Cape Bretoners. Various dialects.

    I think I now speak the old way.


    • Same here: when we moved to Cal-ga-ry from Toronto some years back we discovered that the locals all said Cal-gree (2 syllables) and Tuh-ron-toe, while we always said we had come from Trawn-uh (also 2 syllables).
      That move out west was an education for us in many different ways.

  9. Good morning. I don’t know about all the details of pronunciation in different provinces, but I’ll tell you a story that verifies that your Canadian accent has changed.

    In 1977 & ’78 I lived in Vancouver, having moved there as a young man from Indiana. Everyone had an accent, I found it rather interesting, and my friends sometimes made jokes about my American – isms. “Damn straight!” , etc.

    Over time I imagine that some Canadian pronunciations were assimilated , particularly, “eh?” (and vowel sounds, if memory serves.) These have been lost in the 37 years since I was in the most beautiful city on the continent, IMHO.

    When my wife and I visited Vancouver on vacation this summer, almost no trace of that Canadian accent was heard. One afternoon we stopped for coffee and dessert in a little bakery on Denman. I told the waitress that she had the most pronounced accent of anyone we had met on our trip. Her reply surprised me. She was from Quebec, English is her second language.

    Anecdotal, but it happened. The other noteworthy item, Sharon now agrees that it’s a beautiful city, even if we were only able to explore for a few days. Just think, if I had had the means and the foresight to buy a house in ’78, I’d be a millionaire now. Never woulda met her though, so that’s cool.

  10. I have two forms of speaking (live in Mississauga, practically a suburb of Toronto). Proper, in formal settings such as with older adults, speeches, and elegant dinners, and the way I speak with my teenage friends which on reflection might seem to follow the trends listed resembling the way Californians and African Americans of the neighbourhood speak.

  11. I used to watch the show ‘Degrassi’ when I was a kid (2002-2005), and just watched an episode of the new series on Netflix. I heard characters on the show say, ‘sah-ry’, and thought they’d brought in American actors. Now I see it’s a bit more widespread than that… interesting.

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