Studying the Eh B Cs of Canadian language

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UVic post-doc student dissects the history of ‘eh’

The maple leaf; the beaver; the Timbit — there are many tacky, tourist-shop ideas of what it means to be a Canadian. For Derek Denis, a post-graduate student at UVic, there is one subject that really speaks to the heart of Canadian identity — language.

“Language is just inherently tied to identity,” says Denis, who has been studying linguistics from his undergraduate degree through to his recently completed doctorate. “It’s as important as every other way that we express who we are, whether that’s through what we wear, how we have our hair done, the interests that we have with people, the people that we hang out with — all of that intersects with language. The words that we use, the things that we talk about; that’s all wrapped up in how we define ourselves.”

If you asked people to choose a single word that defines English-speaking Canada, chances are good that they’d come to the same monosyllabic answer. But is ‘eh’ as emblematic of Canadian speech as we think?

This is where Denis steps in. Denis is currently writing a paper on the use of ‘eh’ in Canada, using conversations from Toronto and Victoria recorded in the 1950s and in the 2000s. The results of his research are surprising — Canadians don’t use ‘eh’ that often.

There's a lot to look at when it comes to the two letters of eh. Graphic by Leone Brander, graphics contributor

There’s a lot to look at when it comes to the two letters of eh. Graphic by Leone Brander, graphics contributor

Instead, Canadians are far more likely to use “you know” or “right” at the end of their sentences. Known as ‘pragmatic markers’, Denis has found that the average, city-living Canadian doesn’t use ‘eh’ nearly as much as other people (particularly Americans) would believe.

“I think there’s that perception [of the] rural, blue-collar Other — those are the people that use ‘eh’ and they use it all the time. But that’s not necessarily true, at least in the work that I’ve done,” Denis says. “The work that I’ve done has been mostly on urban Canadian English, and we just don’t see a lot of ‘eh’ . . . It’s like maybe tops 5 per cent, depending on when somebody was born. I think there have been other people looking at Northern Ontario where it’s a little bit higher, but it’s not drastically higher.

“When I have talked to people about Canadian English, people will always say, ‘oh but Ontario people sound like this’, or, ‘Alberta people sound like that.’ And we just don’t find the evidence to support that,” Denis explains. “I think what’s happening is they’ve probably heard one or two people who were doing something a little bit weird and so they associated that with the other.”

For Denis, the history of ‘eh’ is as interesting as the word itself. ‘Eh’ first appeared in an 1800s novel written by Thomas Chandler Haliburton, but it only became a Canadian cultural icon in the mid 19th century. As with most Canadian cultural markers, Denis explains, it was defined by Americans.

In the 1970s, Time Magazine ran an article about Canadian border guards proving traveller’s Canadian-ness by listening for ‘eh’. A decade later, Canadian/American sketch show SCTV ran a sketch depicting “The Great White North”, a fictional Canadian TV show featuring the beer-drinking, hockey-loving brothers Bob and Doug Mackenzie. Unsurprisingly, the Mackenzie brothers use ‘eh’ a whole lot — much to the delight of their neighbors to the south.

“And so you got Americans thinking, ‘OK, not only are Canadians these plaid-wearing, beer-drinking whatever, they also use ‘eh’ all the time,’” Denis says. “And then, since the 80s, you see like American media — whenever there’s a Canadian character there’s always a joke of an ‘eh’ or an ‘oot and aboot.’”

True to form, Canadians began to take pride in that distinction.

“I’ve called it a re-appropriation of ‘eh’,” Denis says. “It’s kind of like this complex back and forth where Americans are making fun of Canadians for using ‘eh’, but Canadians don’t want to be American, so they use more ‘eh’, right? . . . It’s not necessarily in everyday conversation, but it’s this identity tool.”

So what do Canadians find in ‘eh’ that speaks to their idealized sense of identity?

“I mean obviously Canadians are extremely diverse, whether we’re Indigenous or settlers or later arrivants, we’re all very diverse,” Denis says. “ [But] when I was growing up, in civics class, we would always read about the Canadian peacemakers. That was sort of like who Canada was on a global stage.”

“What ‘eh’ does is [seek] involvement with the person you’re talking to,” Denis continues, referring to the reflexive nature of “eh” that often is used as an invitation for someone else to respond in a conversation. “Now I wouldn’t say those are inherently connected, but it is interesting that both this idea of Canada as a peacemaker and also the national linguistic icon is something that’s used to seek, you know, conversation.”

With that in mind, it might come as a blow to that sense of national identity that we don’t say ‘eh’ as often as we think. Don’t blame Denis, though — that’s not what he wants.

If it was, then he wouldn’t have worn plaid to the interview.

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