Sometimes stereotypes are accurate. When a Canadian bumps into you, he or she doesn't say “watch it” or “I'm walking here” or some rude variation. Canadians apologize. For things that are their fault. We're sorry if this annoys you.
The second cliche that's true: there's a marked difference between the way Canadians throw phatics into their sentences. You know phatics even if you don't recognize the word – they're the sounds that don't do much but emphasize a point or turn a regular sentence into a question. In the US, the most common one is “hey.” Here in Canada, and especially in rural Ontario and the prairies, we get “eh,” amply parodied by plenty of American media:
Nobody seems to know why, but you can take a course in proper “Eh” usage at the University of British Columbia. There's even a French version that's common in Quebec: “hen.”
Canadians really screw up the rhyme in the alphabet song by pronouncing the final letter of the alphabet “zed” instead of “zee.” This one's a direct result of our colonial past: Brits say “zed” too. Along with democracy and manifest destiny, Americans were the ones to boldly alter the zound of the letter. Canadians also spell “honour” and “neighbour” with the British “u” and call sofas “chesterfields.”
4. “Ostie de Tabarnak:” Quebecois swearing.
Quebecois French is a strange beast, a weird petri dish of seventeenth-century dialect peppered with healthy doses of francophonied English, the result of being an island of one language surrounded by the vast ocean of the globe's dominant tongue. My favourite element of Quebecois French is the swearing. If your society had been dominated by the Catholic Church for a few centuries, you'd probably use their sacred icons to express frustration and anger, too. Some highlights: “tabernacle” (box where the Eucharist is kept), “chalice” (cup from which you drink the holy wine), and “hostie” (communion wafer). In Montreal, a cosmopolitan city with a rich history of immigration, you hear all kinds of swearing:
5. “Yes b'y:” Newfoundland English.
Like Quebec, Newfoundland was settled by hardy weirdoes about four hundred years ago and then cut off from its roots, leaving the rough edges that had been smoothed off of mainland Canadian or standard British or American English. Because half of Newfoundland's settlers were Irish, there's a strong Emerald twang in a lot of the province's dialects, plus plenty of unusual, archaic, or invented words, many derived from the fishery that kept the place afloat for most of its existence. Enterprising folk historians and linguists came together in the ‘80s to compile all of these words as the Dictionary of Newfoundland English.
I've never really been able to hear the difference in this one, but apparently most Canadian dialects feature a longer, rounder “ou” sound in many words that end in “out”. This has something to do with our Scottish heritage, and is most prevalent in the regions settled largely by Scots (like the Ottawa Valley in Ontario and Nova Scotia). That “oo” sound is one of the most identifiable features of the so-called “hoser” accent.
7. “Deke,” “Five hole,” “Rink rat:” hockey talk.
Canadians love hockey, and with any sport comes an array of specialized terminology and resonant slang. These three are my favourites: to deke is to fake out a defender or goalie, the five hole is the gap between a goalie's legs, and a rink rat is anyone who spends too much time at a rink. Put on your toque and grab your stick and let's play some shinny.
This article was commissed by George Laczko. Originally published in 2013. Updated for 2019.