Points North: The Great Diphthong Divide…

By James Fife

I think it's time, in this series of explorations into the process of our Canadianization, that some home truths need to be addressed. I should finally deal with that most obvious of national traits that separate North from South: the Canadian language. Bernard Shaw spoke of Americans and Britons being two peoples divided by a common language. For Americans and Canadians, it's more a case of being divided by a single vowel: the infamous way our two nations pronounce words like out and about.

Since we're speaking truths here, it is also time I disclose something about myself. My life history falls into two distinct phases. What that second phase is will have to wait for a future installment. But for purposes here, you need to know that for one half of my adult life I was a student and lecturer and researcher in theoretical linguistics. In other words, a grammarian. A language nerd, in today's parlance.

So, I come to the question of Canadian versus American speech patterns with some professional expertise. The kind that allows me to demystify that great enigma of why it is that Canadians insist on saying about in a funny way. As a linguist, armed with scientific knowledge, I know what many of my fellow Americans don't realize: that, for Canadians, it's Americans that insist on mangling the pronunciation of words, spelled alike in both countries, with <ou>. It's science, you see, that gives me that marvelous objectivity. It's also science that tells me that for however head-scratchingly different that diphthong seems to the laymen on either side of the 49th parallel, us trained linguists know the difference lies in the simple placement of the tongue a little higher in the vocal track when Canadians find the sound occurring right before a voiceless consonant. Or, in that wonderfully concise way scientists have of expressing things in symbols, the difference is simply that between /awC[‑voice]/ and /ǝwC[-voice]/. Now, isn't that totally demystified? That's science for you.

But the North-South difference is not just in those <ou> words. Somewhat less universal, but still distinct, is the Canadian tendency to pronounce sorry as if it rhymed with gorey, whereas many Americans say that word as if spelled sawry. That is, /sori/ versus /sɔri/. It is an interesting coincidence perhaps that one of the points of linguistic difference between the U.S. and Canada lies in the pronunciation of a word marking another stereotypical difference. The notion Canadians are more polite than Americans in general is matched by a word of particular importance to public courtesy being pronounced differently, as if the concept of contrition differs between the two countries, giving rise to two different words sorry.

Then there is the most superficial of linguistic differences: spelling. It is nonetheless a sore spot that can excite a lot of confusion and contention. I have already been warned in these articles that I may lapse into an American mode of spelling, which disturbs some folks to no end. But spelling is something that, from my linguistic training, I find hard to take too seriously. That is because orthography is largely just historical accident, and, for English in general, it is sometimes just plain absurd. Just try to explain to a learner why English spells dough, through, tough, and cough as it does—go on, I dare you. So why add insult to injury with an added u in harbor or neighbor? It may be a reflection of my American upbringing as much as my linguistic training, but does our world benefit by writing: enter the centre of the theatre? Shouldn’t that be entre? But, since Americans aren’t known for reading other countries’ literature, this is a Canadian difference that flies under the radar, while the pressure of American spelling obviously forces ‘regularizing’ some Canadian writing.

To the everyday ear, then, the diphthong divide is still the most distinctive trait between the two countries. Folk down south have generally been told of the phenomenon, even if it is less common to actually hear it coming from the mouths of live Canadians, That's rather surprising, given the number of Canadians who occupy prominent places in American popular culture. Growing up, I was exposed to a lot of Canadians on our big and small screens, but the only person I recall displaying unabashed Canadian diphthongs was the late, lamented broadcaster Peter Jennings. It was one of his traits that demonstrated his honesty and integrity—he did not hide his accent from American audiences. But I must have watched dozens of episodes of Bonanza before I found out Loren Greene’s “secret.”

Canadians apparently live a double life in America, like some sort of sleeper-cell group. We down south are startled at times to learn that So-and-So is actually Canadian. “What, he’s [she’s] Canadian?! Who knew?” The existence of undercover Canadians would appear to reflect either an American disparagement of the otherwise-diphthonged northerners, or Canadians’ shame from a belief that their natural speech would be a career-stopper if discovered. But I am pleased to report that I have heard the unmistakable [ǝw] naturally and unconsciously pronounced more often on American media recently. I take it as a hopeful sign that Canadians in America will no longer lurk in the linguistic shadows and will come out of the colloquial closet and proudly raise the blades of their tongue toward the mid-centrally position of the hard palate. Yes, with glowing hearts, we hear them rise (the vowels, that is).

Because I have (or had, back when) a professional interest in such things, my curiosity about (you choose your pronunciation here: [ʌˈbawt] or [ʌˈbǝwt]) how to speak Canadian does not stop with the esoteric question of slight tongue movements. I am more fascinated with what words and phrases are unique in the Great White North (a Canadian phrase which has worked its way south). I looked into that as well. In the next installment, I’ll provide some more demystification about the Canadian and American dialects: the tie that divides. 

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