Why do Canadians say ‘eh’?

Perhaps it’s because Seattle is so close to Canada, but for some reason when I ask classes of undergraduate students what they want to know about language and language use, one question I tend to get a lot is:

 Why do Canadians say ‘eh’?

 

Fortunately for my curious students, this is actually an active area of inquiry. (It’s actually one those research questions where there was a flurry of work–in this case in the 1970’s–and then a couple quiet decades followed by a resurgence in interest. The ‘eh’ renaissance started in the mid-2000’s and continues today. For some reason, at least in linguistics, this sort of thing tends to happen a lot. I’ll leave discussing why this particular pattern is so common to the sociologists of science.)  So what do we know about ‘eh’?

Is ‘eh’ actually Canadian?

‘Eh’ has quite the pedigree–it’s first attested in Middle English and even shows up in Chaucer. Canadian English, however, boasts a more frequent use of ‘eh’, which can fill the same role as ‘right?’, ‘you know?’ or ‘innit?’ for speakers of other varieties of English.

What does ‘eh’ mean?

The real thing that makes an ‘eh’ Canadian, though, is how it’s used. Despite some claims to the contrary, “eh” is far from meaningless. It has a limited number of uses (Elaine Gold identified an even dozen in her 2004 paper) some of which aren’t found outside of Canada. Walter Avis described two of these uniquely Canadian uses in his 1972 paper, “So eh? is Canadian, eh” (it’s not available anywhere online as far as I can tell):

  1. Narrative use: Used to punctuate a story, in the same way that an American English speaker (south of the border, that is) might use “right?” or “you know?”
    1. Example: I was walking home from school, eh?  I was right by that construction site where there’s a big hole in the ground, eh? And I see someone toss a piece of trash right in it.
  2. Miscellaneous/exclamation use:  Tacked on to the end of a statement. (Although more recent work, presented by Martina Wiltschko and Alex D’Arcy at last year’s NWAV suggests that there’s really a limited number of ways to use this type of ‘eh’ and that they can be told apart by the way the speaker uses pitch.)
    1. Example: What a litterbug, eh?

And these uses seems to be running strong. Gold found that use of ‘eh’ in a variety of contexts has either increased or remained stable since 1980.

That’s not to say there’s no change going on, though. D’Arcy and Wiltschko found that younger speakers of Canadian English are more likely than older speakers to use ‘right?’ instead of ‘eh?’. Does this mean that ‘eh’ may be going the way of the dodo or ‘sliver’ to mean ‘splinter’ in British English?

Probably not–but it may show up in fewer places than it used to. In particular, in their 2006 study Elaine Gold and Mireille Tremblay found that almost half of their participants feel negatively about the narrative use of ‘eh’ and only 16% actually used it themselves. This suggests this type of uniquely-Canadian usage may be on its way out.

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A Linguistic Analysis of #PronouncingThingsIncorrectly

One of the really cool things about the internet is that it’s a great medium to observe linguistic innovations. A lot of examples of linguistic play that would  have been pretty ephemeral are now safely recorded and shared. (Can you imagine being able to listen to the first examples of Pig Latin? In addition to being cool, it might have told us even more about syllable structure than the game itself already does.)

One example that I’m pretty excited about is #PronouncingThingsIncorrectly, which is a language game invented by Chaz Smith. Smith is a Viner, Cinema Studies student at the University of Pennsylvania and advocate for sexual assault prevention. But right now, I’m mostly interested in his role as a linguistic innovator. In that role he’s invented a new type of language game, which you can see an example of here:

It’s been picked up by a lot of other viners, as well. You can seem some additional examples here.

So why is this linguistically interesting? Because, like most other language games, it has rules to it. I don’t think Chaz necessarily sat down and came up with them (he could have, but I’d be surprised) but they’re there none the less. This is a great example of one of the big True Things linguists know about language: even in play, it tends to be structured. This particular game has three structures I noticed right away: vowel harmony,re-syllabification and new stress assignment.

Vowel Harmony 

Vowel harmony is where all the vowels in a word tend to sound alike. It’s not really a big thing in English, but you may be familiar with it from the nursery rhyme “I like to eat Apples and Bananas“. Other languages, though, use it all the time: Finnish, Nez Perce, Turkish and Maasai all have vowel harmony.

It’s also part of this language game. For example, “tide” is pronounced so that it rhymes with “speedy” and “tomatoes” rhymes with “toe so toes”. Notice that both words have the same vowel sound throughout. Not all words have the same vowel all the way through, but there’s more vowel harmony in the  #PronouncingThingsIncorrectly words than there are in the original versions.

Re-syllabification 

Syllables are a way of chunking up words–you probably learned about them in school at some point. (If not, I’ve talked about them before.) But languages break words up in different places. And in the game, the boundaries get moved around. We’ve already seen one example: “tide”. It’s usually one chunk, but in the game it gets split in to two: “tee.dee”. (Linguists like to put periods in the middle of words to show where the syllable boundaries are.)

You might have noticed that “tide” is spelled with two  a silent “e” on the end. My strong intuition is that spelling plays a big role in this word game. (Which is pretty cool! Usually language games like this rely on mostly on sounds and not the letters used to write them.) Most words get each of the vowels in thier spelling produced separately, which is where a lot of these resyllabifications come from. Two consonants in a row also tend to each get their syllables. You can see some examples of each below:

  • Hawaiian  -> ha.why.EE.an
  • Mayonnaise -> may.yon.nuh.ASS.ee
  • Skittles -> ski.TI.til.ees

New Stress Assignment

English stress assignment (how we pick which syllables in a word get the most emphasis) is a mess. It depends on, among other things, which language we borrowed the word from (words from Latin and words from Old English work differently), whether you can break the word down into smaller meaning bits (like how “bats” is “bat” + “s”) and what part of speech it is (the “compact” in “powder compact” and “compact car” have stress in different places). People have spent entire careers trying to describe it.

In this word game, however, Smith fixes English stress. After resyllabificaiotn, almost all words with more than one syllable have stress one syllable in from the right edge:

  • suc.CESS -> SUC.cess
  • pe.ROK.side -> pee.rok.SEED.dee
  • col.OGNE -> col.OG.nee
  • HON.ey stays the same

But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that there are some exceptions, like Skittles:

  • Skittles -> ski.TI.til.ees
  • Jalapenos -> djuh.LA.pen.os

Why are these ones different? I think it’s probably because they’re plural, and if the final syllable is plural it doesn’t really count. You can hear some more examples of this in the Vine embedded above:

  • bubbles -> BOO.buh.lees
  • drinks -> duh.RIN.uh.kus
  • bottles -> BOO.teh.less

So what? 

Ok, so why is this important or interesting? Well, for one thing it’s a great example of how humans can’t help but be systematic. This is very informal linguistic play that still manages to be pretty predictable. By investigating this sort of language game we can better characterize what it is to be a human using language.

Secondly, this particular language games shows us some of the pressures on English. While it’s my impression that the introduction of vowel harmony is done to be funny (especially since there are other humorous processes at work here–if a word can be pronounced like “booty” or “ass” is usually is) I’m really interested in the resyllabification and stress assignment–or is that ree.sill.luh.ah.bee.fee.ca.TEE.oin and STUH.rees ass.see.guh.nuh.MEN.tee? The ways they’re done in this game is real improvement over the current way of doing things, at least in terms of being systematic and easy to learn. Who knows? In a couple centuries maybe we’ll all be #PronouncingThingsIncorrectly.