Thursday, March 31, 2011

Oot and Aboot

Jephthah then called together the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim. The Gileadites struck them down because the Ephraimites had said, "You Gileadites are renegades from Ephraim and Manasseh." The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, "Let me cross over," the men of Gilead asked him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" If he replied, "No," they said, "All right, say 'Shibboleth.' " He said, "Sibboleth," because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.

Judges 12:4-6

For those that don't know, this Biblical quote is the source of a word in linguistics terminology. Because the Gileadites and the Ephraimites had a slightly different accent, during war they were able to discern one from another by how they pronounced the word 'shibboleth' (as I recall it means 'stalk of wheat' or some such but it doesn't matter). So to us today, a shibboleth is a word that immediately identifies a person as coming from one region or another.

To the world at large, Anglophone Canadians are, of course, not immediately discernable from our American neighbours. Abroad, people who fancy themselves experts on accents will often say to me, "So, what part of the States are you from?", hoping that their identification of me as an American will please me. As I'm not, it rather doesn't please me, but unlike a lot of Canadians, I don't go into a storming rage about it either. It's a natural mistake. It's no big deal.

A lot of Canadians have, themselves, developed a lot of pot-ey-to/pot-ah-to style shibboleths to detect Americans among us. A lot of Canadians, for example, cling to our pronunciation of the last letter of the alphabet as a matter of extreme importance - to them, saying 'zee' is tantamount to treason. None of these are universal at all (many Americans use the so-called 'Canadian' form and many Canadians the so-called 'American' form, plus the so-called 'Canadian' form tends actually to be British), but to many English-speaking Canadians, the following questions of pronunciation, spelling or vocabulary are of prime importance:
  • Can: "zed" vs. USA: "zee".
  • Can: "colour" vs. USA: "color".
  • Can: "pop" vs. USA: "soda".
  • Can: "hos-tayl" vs. USA: "hos-tull".
  • Can: "route" (rhymes with "boot") vs. USA "route" (rhymes with "bout").
  • Can: "tap" vs. USA: "faucet" (or is it the other way round?).
  • Can: "hydro" vs. USA: "electricity".
  • Can: "eh?" vs. USA: "huh?".
  • Can: "eh?" vs. USA: "isn't it?".
  • Can: "eh?" vs. USA: "Hello, how are you?".
  • Can: "eh?" vs. USA: half of the dictionary.
  • Can: "Pardon me." vs. USA: "Hey, what's your problem, buddy? You lookin' for some of this? Come on, I ain't afraid of you, punk".
Oddly enough, however, the clearest difference - which a good many of Americans are aware of - is completely rejected by us. I know I always did. I had read many an American book about dialects making reference to Canadians saying "oot and aboot" and was completely mystified by it. I had also read one or two British books about dialects that claimed Canadians said "oat and a boat". I was further mystified.

"We say these words correctly!" I shouted. "The rest of the world pronounces them wrongly!"

Passersby sheltered their children from me and crossed the street to walk on the other side, away from me.

Turns out they're right. Now that I'm a 'professional linguist' (okay, I'm not, but it sounds as impressive as 'professional macramé maker' or 'professional sandwich artist', doesn't it?), I can confirm the truth: we do, indeed say these words funny.

Or rather, the rest of the world pronounces them funny and only we pronounce them correctly. These things are relative (shelter your children).

You see, in the non-Canadian English speaking world, the vowel in 'ow', 'out' and 'loud' is the same vowel (actually, it's a 'diphthong'). In Canada it's different. If I could be bothered with Unicode, I could impress you with my knowledge of flashy 'international phonetic alphabet' characters, but it doesn't, so you'll have to take my word for it when I say that a Canadian tends to pronounce 'out' differently. Here's a primer:

Pronounce the 'a' in 'cat' (the IPA symbol is a groovy Siamese-Twin 'a' and 'e') and slide it into the 'oo' sound that you make while admiring impressive phonetic explanations. You're now saying 'ow', and if you do it falsetto, prepubescent boys will run from you in terror. To be a non-Canadian, just stick a 't' on the end and you're saying 'out'.

However, if you want to 'go native' next time you find yourself in Moosonee, Ontario or on the third line of any Florida NHL team, you need to pronounce the 'u' in 'cup' (the IPA symbol is an ungroovy upside-down 'v') and slide it into your 'oo' sound before capping a 't' on the end and calling it 'out', Canadian-style. For those who are really bored, this rule applies to the 'ou' diphthong before all unvoiced consonants, so to a Canadian, the vowels in 'house' and 'houses' are different, even though the second word is just the plural form of the first. If you're ever in doubt (not daaa-uuut), just ask the person you're speaking to to pronounce the word 'house' in its singular and plural forms. If he pronounces the vowel the same, he's quite clearly a non-Canadian and you should seize him and kill him at the fords of the Jordan immediately. If he looks at you all confused and asks what 'singular' and 'plural' mean, he's definitely a Canadian. Buy him a beer. But none of that wussy American stuff. (Side note: how is American beer like making love in a canoe?)

So you see? Definitely not 'oot' but still different. Similarly, the vowels in 'write' and 'ride' are pronounced differently in Canada. So now you know. Even though I'm sure you don't actually recall wanting to know...

Note: in other countries, people tend to differentiate themselves from their neighbours with silly minutae like different religions, different foods, different cultures, millenia of conflict and past attempts at mutual genocide. This is, of course, the North American Difference, where we dwell on what's really important in life...

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