Although English was used in Canada before the 19th century, there were neither enough speakers nor enough significant features in the language for it to be regarded as anything other than British English.
Although English was used in Canada before the 19th century, there were neither enough speakers nor enough significant features in the language for it to be regarded as anything other than British English. However, between 1825 and 1846 more than half a million immigrants came to Canada directly from Britain, and by 1871 over 2 million people in Canada listed the British Isles as their land of origin. These new Canadians brought with them the kind of English that they had learned from their parents, and it bore little similarity to what is now often called Standard British English, or simply Standard English.
Since the 14th century the regional dialect used in London, the centre of British government, and in nearby Oxford and Cambridge universities, had become associated with British educated and upper-class speakers. However, very few people spoke it. It was not until 1880 that education became compulsory in England, and it is unlikely that most British immigrants to Canada in the early 19th century had received much schooling or had had any opportunity to acquire a form of British English associated with educated or upper-class people. Those who were educated often objected to the English they heard in Canada, as did Susanna MOODIE in Roughing It in the Bush (1852) and Reverend A.C. Geikie in the Canadian Journal (1857). The kind of English introduced to Canada in the early 19th century was by no means standard. It was spoken English, often typical of the region from which the speakers came, such as Ireland, Yorkshire or Devon.
When people move to a new land isolated from their homeland, 2 things happen to their language: first, it escapes the direct influences of changes in grammar or pronunciation that take place in the parent language; and second, it undergoes great changes in vocabulary in order to allow its users to accommodate their speech to their new circumstances. In Canada one rarely hears, for example, "clerk" pronounced to rhyme with "dark." Acceptable late-18th-century British pronunciation rhymed "clerk" with "lurk," "caught" with "cot" and "aunt" with "ant," and those pronunciations are the ones immigrants brought with them. In some instances, more than one pronunciation of a word came to Canada. This is true of the common ways of saying "schedule": one with an initial sk sound and one with sh, both acceptable in British English until the mid-19th century. The former pronunciation has been reinforced in Canada by American influence; but it did not, in fact, reach Canada from the US: the source for both countries was pre-19th-century British English. Similarly, although the pronunciation of "new" to rhyme with "do" rather than with "few," as in British English, is often regarded as due to American influence in Canada, this is not the case. Until the late 19th century both pronunciations were current in British English, and immigrants brought both with them.
Grammatical differences between British and Canadian English are very few, since the major changes that were to affect the grammatical structure of English had taken place in Britain well before the periods of heavy immigration to Canada. The grammatical differences that exist are minor ones, concerning choices in the use of prepositions and verbs, which late 18th-century British English had not yet decided. Both "dived" and "dove" are heard as the past tense of "dive" in Canada, but the latter no longer has currency in British English. Two verbs heard occasionally in every Canadian province date from the Old English period (approximately 6th-12th centuries AD): "snuck" and "clumb" for "sneaked" and "climbed." Since the 19th century both verbs have become parts of British regional dialects, but they are not dialect usage in Canada, although "snuck" is often regarded as a rather amusing past tense of "sneak." Of the three prepositions used after "sick" in "sick to," "sick at" and "sick in" the stomach, British English has largely dropped "to," which survives in Canada as majority usage. Standard British English no longer uses the phrasal prepositions "back of" and "in back of," but Canadian English preserves both. In 18th-century British English the omission of the infinitive ("to go" or "to come") in "wants out" and "wants in" was frequent, but it is now rarely heard except in Scotland; Canadian English preserves this feature.
Change in Vocabulary
It is in vocabulary that the English language in Canada has undergone the greatest change, largely because of the settlers' need for new words to describe new things. Vocabulary may be increased in predictable ways: words are borrowed from other languages; existing words are given new meanings; new compounds are created; people and places give their names to things with which they are associated. Canadian English has used all these ways. Borrowings from the Canadian native peoples include moose, muskeg, caribou and chipmunk, and from the Inuit come parka, mukluk, kayak, umiak and igloo. From Inuit also comes tupek, the skin tent that is the Inuit equivalent of the Indian wigwam or tepee (TIPI).
It was from French Canadians that the English and Scots fur traders learned to navigate the rivers of the new land. From the French Canadian VOYAGEUR the English learned about the problem of rapids (the turbulent sections of a river), and how to avoid them by lifting the canoe from the water and making a PORTAGE. Canadian natives showed the travellers how to prepare PEMMICAN (meat prepared with fat), and how to make watap (the roots of trees used as thread in repairing damaged canoes). From the Canadian French, the British learned about the travois, an A-shaped frame devised by the aboriginals that allowed a dog or a horse to carry a heavy load by trailing the legs of the frame on the ground, with the load fastened low on the frame.
In addition to borrowing words, English the world over has always followed the practice of giving new meanings to existing words. Thus, in North America, "section" gained a new meaning during the settlement of the West: one square mile (640 acres, or 259 ha). With the Canadian movement towards representative government, the British word "riding," borrowed centuries ago from Scandinavian (meaning "a third"), and used to refer to administrative areas in English counties, came into general Canadian usage to refer to an electoral district. In the gold camps of the Cariboo, "hurdy gurdy," an old name for a barrel organ, was used to refer to dance hostesses because their music was provided by that instrument.
The English language in Canada has also followed the practice of the parent language of creating new compounds from existing words. Thus, "sour" and "dough" become "sourdough," a name for both a fermenting dough used as a starter in baking bread and the gold seekers who used such dough on their travels. From the French la crosse ("hooked stick") comes "lacrosse," the name used for the game that the Algonquian called baggataway ("playing ball"). To combat the lampreys in the Great Lakes, Canadian biologists developed a hybrid fish by crossing the speckled trout with the lake trout and named the hybrid "splake" by compounding elements of "speckled" and "lake."
Since the Renaissance, English has drawn freely on Latin and Greek to create new words, especially in medicine. That tradition was followed in Canada when the drug developed to control diabetes was named insulin (Lat insula, "island"). "Kerosene" was coined from the Greek word keros ("wax") by Dr Abraham GESNER, a 19th-century scientist in the Maritimes who developed a process for extracting "coal oil."
The British named sherry after its place of origin (Xeres, or Jerez, Sp) and called policemen bobbies after Robert (Bobby) Peel. A similar naming practice has occasionally been used in Canada. The Malpeque oyster carries the name of the bay in Prince Edward Island where it originates. The Malamute, a dog made popular by Robert SERVICE, is named after the Inuit people of that name who first bred it. A Bombardier in Canada is not a soldier but a tracked snow vehicle, developed by Joseph-Armand BOMBARDIER of Valcourt, Qué. From Digby, NS, comes the Digby chicken, a variety of smoked herring; and from Labrador comes the Labrador dog.
Differences Among Regions
Until the end of the 14th century, Standard English was no more standard than any other regional dialect of British English, but from that time until the mid-20th century it was held as the ideal to which speakers of regional dialects should aspire. Canadian English, on the other hand, has never elevated any one form of regional speech to a position of prestige. The federal government is in Ottawa; but Ottawa English is not held up as a model of the best speech. However, a form of Canadian English, the language stripped of its regional features, is used by English-speaking Canadians across the country. Although Canadian English does not have the regional dialects of British English, French or German that have developed over the centuries, it does have marked differences in speech among the various regions. Newfoundland is the most obvious example, with its undertones of Irish and the regional speech of southwestern England. What is often called the Ottawa Valley twang reminds one that thousands of Irish immigrants settled there in the 1840s. In general, local dialect boundaries in English-speaking Canada may be considered to be Newfoundland, the Maritimes, eastern Ontario, western Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia (the most "British" region in Canada).
J.K. Chambers, ed, Canadian English (1975); R.E. McConnell, Our Own Voice (1979); M.M. Orkin, Speaking Canadian English (1970); M.H. Scargill, A Short History of Canadian English (1977).