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Standard Canadian English is the greatly homogeneous variety of Canadian English spoken particularly all across central and western Canada, as well as throughout Canada among urban middle-class speakers from English-speaking families, excluding the regional dialects of Atlantic Canadian English. English mostly has a uniform phonology and very little diversity of dialects in Canada compared with the neighbouring English of the United States. The Standard Canadian English dialect region is defined by the cot–caught merger to [ɒ] (listen) and an accompanying chain shift of vowel sounds, called the Canadian Shift. A subset of this dialect geographically at its central core, excluding British Columbia to the west and everything east of Montreal, has been called Inland Canadian English, and is further defined by both of the phenomena known as "Canadian raising", the production of /o/ and /aʊ/ with back starting points in the mouth, and the production of /e/ with a front starting point and very little glide (almost [e]).
|Diphthongs||aɪ ɔɪ aʊ|
As indicated in the transcription, /o/ (as in boat) and /e/ (as in bait) have qualities much closer to pure vowel (monophthongs) in some speakers especially in the inland region.
Almost all Canadians have the cot–caught merger, which also occurs primarily in the Western U.S., but often elsewhere in the U.S., especially recently. Speakers do not distinguish the vowels in cot and caught which merger as either [ɒ] (more common in Western and Maritime Canada) or [ɑ] (more common in Central and Eastern Canada, where it might even be fronted). Speakers with this merger produce these vowels identically, and often fail to hear the difference when speakers who preserve the distinction (for example, speakers of General American and Inland Northern American English) pronounce these vowels. This merger has existed in Canada for several generations.
The first element of /ɒr/ (as in start) tends to be raised. As with Canadian raising, the relative advancement of the raised nucleus is a regional indicator. A striking feature of Atlantic Canadian speech (the Maritimes and Newfoundland) is a nucleus that approaches the front region of the vowel space, accompanied by strong rhoticity, ranging from [ɜɹ] to [ɐɹ]. Western Canadian speech has a much more retracted articulation with a longer non-rhotic portion, approaching a mid-back quality, [ɵɹ] (though there is no tendency toward a merger with /or/). Articulation of /ɒr/ in Ontario is in a position midway between the Atlantic and Western values.
The words origin, Florida, horrible, quarrel, warren, as well as tomorrow, sorry, sorrow, etc. all generally use the sound sequence /or/ (as in gory), rather than /ɒr/ (as in starry). The latter set of words often distinguishes Canadian pronunciation from U.S. pronunciation. In Standard Canadian English, there is no distinction between the vowels in horse and hoarse. Due to the cot–caught merger, the merged horse–hoarse vowel is written /or/.
This merger creates a hole in the short vowel sub-system and triggers a sound change known as the Canadian Shift, which involves the front lax vowels /æ, ɛ, ɪ/. The /æ/ of bat is lowered and retracted in the direction of [a] (except in some environments, see below). Indeed, /æ/ is further back in this variety than almost all other North American dialects; the retraction of /æ/ was independently observed in Vancouver and is more advanced for Ontarians and women than for people from the Prairies or Atlantic Canada and men. Then, /ɛ/ and /ɪ/ may be lowered (in the direction of [æ] and [ɛ]) and/or retracted; studies actually disagree on the trajectory of the shift. For example, Labov and others (2006) noted a backward and downward movement of /ɛ/ in apparent time in all of Canada except the Atlantic Provinces, but no movement of /ɪ/ was detected.
Therefore, in Canadian English, the short-a and the short-o are shifted in opposite directions to that of the Northern Cities shift, found across the border in the Inland Northern U.S., which is causing these two dialects to diverge: the Canadian short-a is very similar in quality to the Inland Northern short-o; for example, the production [map] would be recognized as map in Canada, but mop in the Inland North dialect of the U.S.
A notable exception to the merger occurs, in which some speakers over the age of 60, especially in rural areas in the Prairies, may not exhibit the merger.
Perhaps the most recognizable feature of Canadian English is "Canadian raising," which is found most prominently throughout central and west-central Canada, as well as in parts of the Atlantic Provinces. For the beginning points of the diphthongs (gliding vowels) /aɪ/ (as in the words height and mice) and /aʊ/ (as in shout and house), the tongue is often more "raised" in the mouth when these diphthongs come before voiceless consonants, namely /p/, /t/, /k/, /s/, /ʃ/ and /f/, in comparison with other varieties of English.
Before voiceless consonants, /aɪ/ becomes [ʌɪ~ɜɪ~ɐɪ]. One of the few phonetic variables that divides Canadians regionally is the articulation of the raised allophone of this as well as of /aʊ/; in Ontario, it tends to have a mid-central or even mid-front articulation, sometimes approaching [ɛʊ], while in the West and Maritimes a more retracted sound is heard, closer to [ʌʊ]. Among some speakers in the Prairies and in Nova Scotia, the retraction is strong enough to cause some tokens of raised /aʊ/ to merge with /o/, so that couch merges with coach, meaning the two sound the same, and about sounds like a boat; this is often inaccurately represented as sounding like "a boot" for comic effect in American popular culture.
In General American, out is typically [äʊt] (listen), but, with slight Canadian raising, it may sound more like [ɐʊt] (listen), or, with the strong Canadian raising of the Prairies and Nova Scotia, more like IPA: [ʌʊt]. Due to Canadian raising, words like height and hide have two different vowel qualities; also, for example, house as a noun (I saw a house) and house as a verb (Where will you house them tonight?) have two different vowel qualities: potentially, [hɐʊs] versus [haʊz].
Especially in parts of the Atlantic provinces, some Canadians do not possess the phenomenon of Canadian raising. On the other hand, certain non-Canadian accents demonstrate Canadian raising. In the U.S., this feature can be found in areas near the border and thus in the Upper Midwest, Pacific Northwest, and northeastern New England (e.g. Boston) dialects, though it is much less common than in Canada. The raising of /aɪ/ alone, is actually increasing throughout the U.S., and unlike raising of /aʊ/, and is generally not perceived as unusual by people who do not have the raising.
Because of Canadian raising, many speakers are able to distinguish between words such as writer and rider –which can otherwise be impossible, since North American dialects typically turn both intervocalic /t/ and /d/ into an alveolar flap. Thus writer and rider are distinguished solely by their vowel characteristics as determined by Canadian raising: thus, a split between rider as [ˈɹäɪɾɚ] and writer possibly as [ˈɹʌɪɾɚ] (listen).
When not in a raised position (before voiceless consonants), /aʊ/ is fronted to [aʊ~æʊ] before nasals, and low-central [äʊ] elsewhere.
Unlike in many American English dialects, /æ/ remains a low-front vowel in most environments in Canadian English. Raising along the front periphery of the vowel space is restricted to two environments – before nasal and voiced velar consonants – and varies regionally even in these. Ontario and Maritime Canadian English commonly show some raising before nasals, though not as extreme as in many U.S. varieties. Much less raising is heard on the Prairies, and some ethnic groups in Montreal show no pre-nasal raising at all. On the other hand, some Prairie speech exhibits raising of /æ/ before voiced velars (/ɡ/ and /ŋ/), with an up-glide rather than an in-glide, so that bag can almost rhyme with vague. For most Canadian speakers, /ɛ/ is also realized higher as [e] before /ɡ/. For the purposes of the chart below, [eə] represents a very tense vowel, [ɛə] a somewhat tense (or intermediate) vowel, and [æ] a non-tense (or lax) vowel, and the symbol "~" represents a continuous system in which the vowel may variably waver between two pronunciations.
|// raising in North American English|
|Consonant after /æ/||Example words||New York City & New Orleans||Baltimore & Philadelphia||Eastern New England||General American, Midland U.S., & Western U.S.||Canadian, Northwestern U.S., & Upper Midwestern U.S.||Southern U.S. & African American Vernacular||Great Lakes|
|/b/, /d/, /dʒ/, /ʃ/, /v/, /z/, /ʒ/||[eə]||[æ~ɛə]||[æ]|
|/f/, /s/, /θ/||[eə]|
Although Canadian English phonology is part of the greater North American sound system, and therefore similar to U.S. English phonology, the pronunciation of particular words may have British influence, while other pronunciations are uniquely Canadian. According to the Cambridge History of the English Language, [w]hat perhaps most characterizes Canadian speakers, however, is their use of several possible variant pronunciations for the same word, sometimes even in the same sentence.
Like most other North American English dialects, Canadian English is almost always spoken with a rhotic accent, meaning that the r sound is preserved in any environment and not "dropped" after vowels, as commonly done by, for example, speakers in central and southern England where it is only pronounced when preceding a vowel.
Like General American, Canadian English possesses a wide range of phonological mergers, many of which are not found in other major varieties of English: the Mary–marry–merry merger which makes word pairs like Barry/berry, Carrie/Kerry, hairy/Harry, perish/parish, etc. as well as trios like airable/errable/arable and Mary/merry/marry have identical pronunciations (however, a distinction between the marry and merry sets remains in Montreal); the father–bother merger that makes lager/logger, con/Kahn, etc. sound identical; the very common horse–hoarse merger making pairs like for/four, horse/hoarse, morning/mourning, war/wore etc. perfect homophones; and the prevalent wine–whine merger which produces homophone pairs like Wales/whales, wear/where, wine/whine etc. by, in most cases, eliminating /hw/ (ʍ), except in some older speakers.
In addition to that, flapping of intervocalic /t/ and /d/ to alveolar tap [ɾ] before reduced vowels is ubiquitous, so the words ladder and latter, for example, are mostly or entirely pronounced the same. Therefore, the pronunciation of the word "British" in Canada and the U.S. is most often [ˈbɹɪɾɪʃ], while in England it is commonly [ˈbɹɪtɪʃ] (listen). For some speakers, the merger is incomplete and 't' before a reduced vowel is sometimes not tapped following /e/ or /ɪ/ when it represents underlying 't'; thus greater and grader, and unbitten and unbidden are distinguished.
Many Canadian speakers have the typical American dropping of [j] after alveolar consonants, so that new, duke, Tuesday, suit, resume, lute, for instance, are pronounced /nu/, /duk/, /ˈtuzde/, /sut/, /rəˈzum/, /lut/.