While traveling through Spain, I met an English speaking woman at the hostel at which I was staying. Because of her accent, I was pretty sure she was Canadian. After chatting for a bit, I asked her where she was from.
“I thought so. You have that Edmonton accent.”
I didn’t get around to asking her what this Edmonton accent was and I didn’t see her again.
The following year, while hiking Vancouver Island’s West Coast Trail, I met a group of hikers coming from the other direction. I chatted with one of the women, who spoke with a Chinese accent, about the trail up ahead. I finally asked where she was from.
“Vancouver. Originally from Hong Kong. You from Edmonton?”
“Yes! How did you know?”
“My daughter is in Calgary. You don’t sound like Calgary.”
Did I really sound that different from a Calgarian? Was there an accent specific to Edmonton?
To find out what I do sound like, I visited Anja Arnhold, a linguist at the University of Alberta. Originally from Berlin, she speaks English with a slight lilt and moderate German accent. I followed her down the hallway to her sound isolation booth.
I sat at a table, surrounded by charcoal-coloured sound absorption panels, and adjusted the microphone. Arnhold handed me a list of words to read while she captured the sound on her computer for an acoustic analysis.
The visual representation of my voice looked like the lines a lie detector spits out. My voice did not lie. I’m a typical prairie speaker. Nothing distinguishes me as being from Edmonton, as opposed to Calgary or Winnipeg.
“With a few exceptions like Newfoundland, there is not much variation within Canada. On the prairies it’s middle-of-the-road Canadian English,” said Arnhold.
My middle-of-the-road English means I pronounce “about” as “a-buh-owt.” “Out” is “uh-owt.” “Mouth” is “muh-owth.” These are examples of Canadian raising and refers to the quality of two vowel sounds – “ow” and “aye.”
“Canadians, in general, pronounce those sounds higher in the mouth. The tongue and jaw are in a higher position and the mouth is more closed so it raises the first part of the diphthong [two vowel sounds joined together] before consonants like ‘t’ and ‘s’, ” Arnhold explained. It’s the difference between “lout” (raised) and “loud” (not raised), and “write” (raised) and “ride” (not raised). Raising is found across the country, but we on the prairies raise differently compared to Ontario where “about” would be more like “a-beh-owt’.” By contrast, Americans say those vowels lower in the mouth, so “about” has the same quality as “loud.”
It’s a subtle difference to us, but to Americans the raising is a dead give-away that you are Canadian. If you want to be an actor in the U.S., you’d best get rid of the Canadian raising. “I have actors come to me to help them sound more American,” said voice and accent specialist Christine Berg. “It can be the difference between getting a big role or not.”
Accents are always in flux. “Some features are lost, while we gain others,” Nicole Rosen, a linguist at the University of Manitoba, told me. “Certain features are appearing that are more prominent on the prairies.”
“Bag” and “beg” are two examples of words starting to sound alike. I’m of the older generation who still pronounces them as two distinct words, but my twenty-something sons say both as “bayg.”
“There’s also a shift in short vowels like the ‘i’ in ‘pit’,” explained Rosen. “It’s especially noticeable in the west and among young urban women.”
The word “pit” sounds like “pet” and “friend” more like “frand.”
As far as those two strangers pegging me as being from Edmonton? Rosen said there may be certain idiosyncrasies unique to Edmonton but to date not enough research has been done to determine that.
I asked Arnhold why we are drawn to accents. “Accents tell us who you belong with, what group you belong to,” she told me. I am part of the prairie dialect group which means I could easily belong in Calgary, Saskatoon, or Winnipeg. But I choose to belong in Edmonton.
This article appears in the August 2018 issue of Avenue Edmonton. Subscribe here.