Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

You Say Tomahto


The elephant next door

When talking to “Americans,” Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada’s most charismatic and self-assured prime minister, did not mince words.

He challenged the Washington Press Club by saying, “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast — if I can call it that — one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

For more than 200 years now, the twitches and grunts have been constant; the beast and the beaver have long been mismatched bedmates. However, Canadians and Americans have gone far beyond the grunting stage; we have in fact often engaged in friendly verbal and social intercourse. However, our discourse has had its turbulent moments — we are currently bickering over such practical and concepual issues such as softwood lumber, Arctic sovereignty, and border security — but we have managed to be good neighbours (neighbors) in part because we speak the same language — more or less.

As the eminent American broadcaster Robert McNeil (ahem … a Canadian actually) points out in his book The Story of English, Canada and the United States have different linguistic legacies: “Every revolution — and the American Revolution was no exception — has its casualties.

The Loyalists, those who had backed the British, were driven into exile partly by mob violence and partly by desire to protect their investments. Some went to England, some to the West Indies, but the majority fled north to Canada …. This was the beginning of a separate Canadian English.” And so Canadians and Americans started down the road of subtle language differentiation. And, as we all know, language is one of the fundamental components of culture. So, don’t be fooled into thinking Canadians and Americans are one and the same. Just listen to us talk to each other and attempt to avoid misunderstandings.

You’ve played this game before. You say tomahto and I say tomayto; lifts, lorries, elevators, and trucks; and I’ll knock you up in the morning. But did you know that if a Canadian says “I was in a lineup [a queue] for three hours this morning,” his or her American interlocutor might well ask what alleged crime the Canadian had committed? An American lineup is when “cops” parade a nasty bunch of miscreants in front of a victim of a crime for identification purposes.

Our transborder conversations can get quite colourful (colorful) at times. It may even require a lawyer (attorney) with dialectical expertise if you are in contractual negotiations, or in ordering breakfast.

“Will you have bacon with your eggs,” asks the Canadian waitress. “Yes, please,” says the American from Dallas. “I’ll have Canadian bacon.”

The astute waitress knows he is referring to what we Canadians call back bacon, often rolled in peameal.

The bilateral confusion can go from funny to serious. If the American had ordered a glass of “whole milk,” the waitress might have said, “Oh you mean homo!” The potential for offence is grave. It happens to Canadians as well when they are on vacation (on holiday) in “the States.” Even asking for advice as to where to buy running shoes (sneakers) can lead to strange looks, or worse, distrust. And when in the U.S., it’s best to ask where the “restrooms” are, as opposed to the (Canadian) washrooms; and never, of course, the toilet or the loo. And if you are thirsty for something non-alcoholic, you may want a “soda” in the U.S. but pop or a soft drink in Canada. Or if you just want water, in Canada ask where the nearest water fountain is. But if you happen to be in Milwaukee, ask where the “bubbler” is.

My favourite (favorite) linguistic Canadian-American oddity however is their “Y’all” and our quintessentially Canadian “Eh.” The former begins the sentence; the latters ends it. Both are a kind of linguistic permission-giving; both are inclusive; both show respect to the interlocutor. The “Y’all” of “The South” is just good old American openness and friendliness; good manners. Whereas “Eh” is the self-effacing Canadian way of inviting your friend to fill in the details of the preceding sentence as he or she wishes.

Some words we both use over here are spelled the same and pronounced more or less the same, but have much different conceptual and political implications.

When language and differing cultural issues came up recently at a dinner with American journalists, so did the topic of guns. My colleague Cassandra felt it was her duty to inform me that she owned a gun. I must have recoiled because she hastened to add, “Just a little one.” Seeing me flinch again she said, “But I’ve only used it once.” Apparently she scared off a stalker by shooting him in the “butt.” Now in Canada we tend not to amend our Constition to assure we can carry guns; we do however spend millions trying to get hunters to register their rifles, and we raise a hue and cry when illegal handguns get smuggled across our border. Oh, and we would say “bum.”

It’s the British in us.

So, if you want to experience the English language North American-style, y’all come and pay us a visit eh?

To experience Canadian English at its most endearing, visit the Ottawa Valley ( and listen to Valleyspeak.

The Story of English was also an excellent documentary series. For more information on the series, click here.

This article was first published in Emag, the inflight magazine of Eastern Airways, one of the UK’s principal regional airlines.

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