chapter  6
19 Pages

The Englishes of Canada

ByStephen Levey

An abiding theme in much of the contemporary literature on Canadian English is that it remains one of the least empirically documented major varieties of English (Allen 1980: 36; Clarke 1993: vii; Halford 1996: 4; Brinton and Fee 2001: 424). Frequently depicted as a composite of British and American English speech patterns owing to the formative influence of these varieties on its development (De Wolf 1990: 3), it is now viewed as an autonomous national variety engaged in its own trajectory of evolution (Bailey 1982: 152; Chambers 1991: 92; Brinton and Fee 2001: 422; Avery et al. 2006: 103). The existence of a number of publications dedicated to prescribing (or furnishing guidance on) matters of usage such as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (Barber 2004) and the Guide to Canadian English Usage (Fee and McAlpine 2007) bears testimony to its status as an endonormative variety of English. Nevertheless, perusal of the literature on Canadian English suggests that its future as an autonomous variety remains precarious owing to the perceived trend in increasing convergence on American norms (Chambers 1991, 2004; Woods 1999 [1979]). In spite of a good deal of scholarly interest in the putative encroachment of con-

temporary American norms on Canadian English, fuelled in no small part by the geographical proximity of the majority of the Canadian population to the US border, much of the evidence adduced in favour of Americanization is based on isolated phonological or lexical items retrieved from questionnaire surveys, rather than systematic investigation of the inherent variability embedded in natural speech data. Empirical examination of the spoken language has approached the issue of Americanization more cautiously, noting that orientation towards American norms is habitually invoked without necessarily considering the linguistic constraints and social meanings associated with variant usage in a Canadian context (Clarke 2006; Halford 2008). Another prevalent – but insufficiently explored – assumption about Canadian English

is the extent to which its alleged uniformity spanning a vast geographical area (Avis 1973: 62; Davison 1987: 122; Chambers 1991, 1998a; Brinton and Fee 2001: 422) remains an accurate characterization, or the result of a ‘scholarly fiction’ (Bailey 1982:

151). Chambers’ (1998a: 253) oft-cited claim that urban middle-class Canadian English is virtually ‘indistinguishable from one end of the country to the other’ epitomizes the orthodox position espousing relative homogeneity, based largely on mainland phonological evidence (Dollinger 2008: 13-15). Although the characterization of Canadian English as linguistically homogeneous

remains prevalent in the literature, technological advances in the study of speech are beginning to elucidate the presence of diversity where earlier methodologies have largely detected uniformity. Valuable evidence has emerged from the use of advanced acoustic experimental methods, yielding more nuanced accounts of phonetic and phonological variation in contemporary speech (see e.g. Hagiwara 2006). Claims about the uniformity of Canadian English must be additionally tempered by

the dearth of corpus-based studies of sufficient empirical depth targeting natural speech data. Particularly pertinent is the fact that, until recently, most of the linguistic research on Canadian English was conducted within the framework of traditional dialectology rather than from a sociolinguistic perspective (Chambers 1991: 90). Thanks to the recent construction of extensive corpora of vernacular speech, the traditional and longstanding preoccupation with investigating lexical and phonological variability is now being steadily redressed by variationist studies of morphosyntactic and discourse features (see e.g. Poplack 2000; Tagliamonte 2005, 2006; Poplack et al. 2006; Walker 2007). These topics have hitherto received considerably less attention in the scholarly literature (Brinton and Fee 2001: 431). The utility of a variationist approach (e.g. Weinreich et al. 1968; Labov 1972) resides in

its capacity to uncover the underlying constraints on inherent variability, permitting the degree, directionality and social embeddedness of linguistic change to be accurately ascertained (Poplack and Tagliamonte 2001). In the ensuing sections, I illustrate how this methodological framework has contributed to more refined structural characterizations of varieties of Canadian English.