Tuesday, February 05, 2008

What's This About "Aboot"?

In response to my desperate plea for writing suggestions, my blogging friend Tafkass (The Artist Formerly Known as Shit Sandwich, whose site seems to be experiencing intermittent technical difficulties this week) wrote the following:
How about a guide to Canadian pronunciation of English? OK, we all know about "aboot" (as it were), but there must be other Canuck idiosyncracies[*]... in fact, how about a guide to Canadio-Japanese pronunciation of English; your own must have been affected in your time in the land of the rising sun. Even better, how about some Canadian swearing?

Whew! Writing a "guide to Canadian pronunciation" would be a life-long task! Wikipedia has a pretty clear and concise entry on the topic of Canadian English which includes most of the main points regarding pronunciation. Some highlights:

  • Canadians do not, in fact, pronounce the word "about" as "aboot", although because of the phenomenon known as Canadian raising, it may seem that way to some listeners. A closer approximation would be "aboat", but this is hardly universal.
  • Canadians speak with a rhotic accent. That is, the letter "r" is pronounced in all positions. (My guess, Tafkass, Is that you speak with a non-rhotic accent, but I'm not sure where in the UK you were born and raised.)
  • Personally, I can usually spot a fellow Canadian by his/her various pronunciations of the letter "a". The clearest examples would be in the pronunciation of foreign loan words like "drama" or "pasta" or "pyjamas", which is clearly neither British nor American (/æ/ rather than /ɑ/).
  • As the Wikipedia article points out, "there is no single linguistic definition that includes Canada as a whole." And while "Canada has very little dialect diversity compared to the United States and other English speaking countries," it does have a wide range of accents, particularly in the eastern provinces, which have been influenced by the languages of early settlers. If you visit the various parts of my home province, Nova Scotia, for example, you will clearly hear traces of German (Lunenburg), Dutch (Truro, my hometown), French (Acadian settlements), and Scottish (everywhere, of course) accents, among several others.

With regard to a possible "Canadio-Japanese pronunciation of English," I can't really say whether or not my own pronunciation has been affected by living in Japan for the past 10 years. No one has ever commented on it, anyway. I will say this, however: I pronounce any Japanese vocabulary which has made its way into common English usage like a Japanese would. In fact, I now cringe when I hear how badly English speakers mangle words like "karaoke", "sake", "kamikaze", and "hara kiri". I don't think living in Japan has really changed my pronunciation of English, but it has had a definite affect on my phrasing and word choice when speaking, for perhaps obvious reasons. When those around one are not likely to understand complex sentences or "high-level" vocabulary, one is forced to simplify, simplify, and simplify some more. I also notice that I've developed an annoying habit of saying "do you understand?" and similar phrases even when I'm talking to other native speakers of English. I think this blog is, in a way, a revolt against that tendency. I'm writing ("speaking") to myself. I don't really give a shit if anyone else understands what I'm talking about, or not.

As for "Canadian swearing", so far as I know it's no different than "American swearing". At any rate, I have no trouble understanding the cursing in American movies, and I've never noticed that Americans have any difficulty understanding my swearing. One difference I've noticed between North American and UK swearing is in the use of the "c" word. That word is almost taboo in North American circles (certainly no guy who expects to date women can get away with saying it on any regular basis). It still seems to be in fairly regular use in the UK, however (please correct me if I'm wrong--I'm only going by British gangster movies and UK blogs!). I also think that UK speakers of English are a bit more creative in their swearing--choice of words, new coinages, etc. Good North American swearing relies on sheer volume, so that what initially sounds like a mindless string of curse words can, after a minute or so, attain the sublime. Swearers of all stripes also gain the respect and admiration of their listeners with unexpected grammatical flourishes. I was quite impressed the first time I saw "c**ting", as in "what a fucking c**ting c**t!"

[*] Really, Tafkass, I'm shocked, shocked, I say... ;-)


  1. Many thanks, Mr K - you're a gentleman and a scholar. Your shock at my use of the word "Canuck" is noted, although I did make a brief detour to Wikipedia before penning my initial request; I was assured that "a few Americans misinterpret "Canuck" as an offensive noun but would be hard pressed to find a Canadian, French or English, insulted by the word." On closer observation, I see now that Japanese Canadians weren't mentioned, realise my mistake and apologise wholeheartedly for any offence caused.

    But it does lead me onto my second point; rather than "Canadian swearing", as I clumsily put it, I was after amusing Canadian descriptions for other nationalities; you must have MILLIONS for the Yanks, for instance....

    ... actually, don't worry too much: I've just found this, which appears to be exhaustive on the subject.


  2. That's an interesting link, Tafkass. Being fond of hot dogs myself, though, I can't see myself trying to insult an American with that particular epithet. And to be honest, I've never heard it used. I think any Canadian who was of the mind to insult an American would simply append "American" with a timely and appropriate adjectival phrase.
    Personally, I can't really tell the difference between Americans I dislike and Canadians I dislike. People from anywhere tend to annoy me for pretty much the same reasons, so I don't find it necessary to use any "special vocabulary" for particular groups. Kidding around with friends is another matter entirely...

  3. I know where you're coming from - we Brits usually can't tell the difference between Canadians and Americans either. Or between Australians and New Zealanders. Or anyone from any country in sub-Saharan Africa, or Northern Africa, or South America, or the Far East. Our national stereotypes tend to take in entire continents. Parochial island nation, nous?

    By the way - on the subject of quality swearing (which, at its best, qualifies in my opinion as a higher art form), I recommend the following: "Withnail and I", "The Thick of It" (BBC TV show which actually employed a "swearing consultant"), "Deadwood" (more cocksuckers than you can shake a stick at), and "Midnight Run", which is a lost classic and might well be Robert De Niro's best film (really).

  4. Parochial island nation, nous?

    I somehow doubt that you're as "parochial" as you're letting on, Tafkass. Although things are slowly changing, here in Japan any white guy is generally assumed to be an English-speaking American.

    I have a couple of good friends who speak in reverential tones about Withnail and I. I'll have to check it out. I watched Midnight Run on TV the other night, and yes, it's a very good movie.