Sunday, 16 August 2009

Speaking American

I've just finished reading 'Do You Speak American?' for the second time. It's a fairly fast read because it is a fleshing out of a television series of the same name and, because it was written in 2005, it is rapidly going out of date in the some of the sections, voice recognition in computers being one. But it is still a fun read. A fascinating one, in some respects, for this Canadian.

Born and raised in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river from Detroit, I grew up on American radio and then American television (which arrived at our house when I was about 12.) And so, yes, I do speak American. I found this out when I arrived at an Eastern Ontario university and got jumped on for my 'American' accent. I turns out that I have a characteristic vowel shift in found

one of the largest American dialect areas. [This] most dramatic change involves about thirty-four million people around the great Lakes - Chicago, Syracuse, Rochester, Cleveland and Detroit - the area Labov calls Inland North.
It involves a thing called 'oo fronting' - saying the word 'do' more like 'dew', for example. In the Northern Cities Shift, the fronting is found in several vowels; "block" becomes "black", "buses" sounds like "bosses" and "socks" becomes "sacks". Labov, whom the authors quote extensively, calls this "a revolutionary change".

I spent four years of university frantically trying to correct my accent and expressions, with some success. Although I will probably never attain the gold standard of "oot" for "out", I was once asked, on a street corner in York, England, if I were Canadian. I still say 'fer' for 'for', and use some typical 'American' expressions, things like 'you guys' for a mixed group. Partly this is a tin ear inherited from my otherwise wonderful father, a man who said 'lie berry' and 'la SAG na' all his life, in spite of my mother's hissed corrections.

One thing this book says is that there is, indeed, a Canadian accent. Imagine my giggles when I read the following: "One of the reasons there are so many technical-support call centers in Ontario is that the Canadian accent is not perceived by Americans as regional". Peter Jennings, anyone? Of course, that was then. We are all now very frequently instructed by voices with the Indian sub-continent's rhythm and sing. Or, in one joyous experience I had, by a voice with the characteristic round vowels and drawl of Newfoundland.

The main thesis of this book is that accents and dialects are alive and well in the United States of America. 'Y'all' and 'You all' are perceived as friendly and are spreading like kudzu. the Mid Texas accent and expressions are flourishing. And what is referenced as either 'Black American English' or 'Ebonics' is holding its own in spite of the best efforts of frantic pedagogues to erase it. In fact, it is now being studied to death and people are trying to decide if it is a creole. People want their speech to reflect an identity inside mainstream America, the authors say, and in spite of the levelling influence of television, they cling to their vowels, expressions and cadence. 'Valley speak', notably the overuse of 'like' and the rising sentence end inflection, may be here to stay. My francophone step grandson has been putting three or four 'like's' in every sentence for years, and so this saddens me greatly.

The book also addresses the surging use of Spanish, but avers that by the third generation most children of immigrants traditionally have lost the second language. The authors see no need to declare the USA as an English only zone. American English, they surmise, will acquire a second round of Spanish words and expressions and remain the main language of communication, a victory for the 'melting pot' theory of integrating immigrants.

Canada does not do 'melting pot'. Here some language groups make a determined effort, funded in many cases by the federal government, to teach their children the 'old' language. A great deal of government money also goes into maintaining French as an official language. My personal bias is that it is a very good thing to teach children a second language when they are young enough to soak it up easily. Unfortunately, a second language that is not used is often buried or even lost. Even so, I think that a second (or third or more) language is well worth knowing, if only for its different insights and ways of thinking.

I love, for example, the French expression 'ventre à terre'. It means 'at high speed' but it translates literally as 'belly to the ground'. But, according to Little Stuff, the bilingual grandchild, I don't pronounce it properly.


  1. Language interests me. There's n hour-long program on Canadian English that the CBC re-runs every now and then.

  2. This is a really great post. I find this stuff fascinating.

    I have an East Coast Canadian accent (I'm from New Brunswick, although I live in Ontario now). I remember working on a project with 3 Ontario-born friends when I was doing Travel/Tourism at Humber in Etobicoke.
    I said, "We'd better plan our tour." They said, "What?!"

    I was pronouncing tour 'turr' whereas they pronounced the 'ou' (over-pronounced to my ear) 'Tooer'. I also say 'are' for 'our'. They say 'ahwer' for 'our'.

    So they heard what I said as: "We'd better plan are turr." Naturally this made zero sense to them.

    I had to force myself to say it their way to be understood.

    My grandmother has an even stronger accent than I do, for example she says 'sayerdy' for 'saturday'.

    It's an accent with a fairly relaxed, almost lazy, way of pronouncing words.

  3. Ac, I haven't run across this - thanks for the tip.
    Reluctant Housewife, I feel your pain. I think I say 'toor', but I do say 'are' for 'our'. Eastern Ontario conquers (? that doesn't look right?) Toronto, once more.
    I love the East Coast Accent, except 'auhnt' for aunt - is that authentic, or do I have a stuck up friend?

  4. i also grew up outside of Detroit. You and I probably sound a lot alike.

  5. I thought the observation about the melting pot was interesting, we have a lot of Spanish Speaking people in our state. Sometimes when ordering at a restaurant you can't get them to understand what you want. It is frustrating. Our school systems have more and more children in the class room that are classified "English as a second language". The teacher must try to teach them in their first language. Pretty hard for a teacher that has never spoken spanish. So it will be interesting to see what happens with each successive generation that started here with parents that came from across the border.

    Interesting post.

  6. You should meet my husband, he LOVES this sort of stuff. He always enjoys meeting french people and regaling them with stories of how lots of French words made it into Scots dialect and stayed there (eg we call a big plate an "ashet" - from the french "assiette"). Scottish accents are also considered good for call centres over here, funnily enough.

  7. Kaye, I hope the Spanish speakers in your country will not try to use their milk language to maintain their identity the way French Canadians (and, to a certain extent, the French) do. But I also hope that the kind of thing Loth quotes her husband as enjoying will happen to American English in years to come. It is enriching.
    Loth, your husband might enjoy 'poutine', a creepover from Fr. Can. to English Can. There are lots more, but poutine is amazing. Re the call centres? Not if they're from Glasgow, I hope.