Study looks at the way Torontonians speak English

Differences in the way Torontonians speak English may have more to do with how people express their ethnic identity than with any problems they are having learning to speak Canadian English perfectly, a study from York University suggests.

Michol Hoffman and James Walker, professors of sociolinguistics in the Department of Languages, Literatures & Linguistics in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies (LA&PS), studied individuals in Toronto’s Chinese and Italian communities. They compared them with people of British and Irish descent to learn whether ethnic identification affects how they speak Canadian English and adopt ongoing changes to the language.

Shopping on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Rather than study the effects of ethnicity per se on language, they looked at the effects of ethnic orientation in the study, “Ethnolects and the City: Ethnic Orientation and Linguistic Variation in Toronto English”, which appears in the journal Language Variation and Change.

“We recognized that individuals may have different attitudes and orientation toward the values and characteristics that are associated with their ethnic group,” said Hoffman. “So we asked them a number of questions to measure how much they identify themselves as belonging to a certain group. For example: Do you watch TV in Italian or English? Did you grow up in a neighbourhood that was predominantly that ethnicity? Are most of your friends of that group?”

In addition to rating the survey participants’ ethnic orientation, the researchers took note of their ethnicity, generation and sex. First-generation Italian- and Chinese-Canadians, whose first language is Italian and Cantonese, respectively, scored highly on ethnic orientation, expressing stronger affiliation to their ethnic group. There was some transfer from the first languages in the first generation, but it does not appear to persist in the second and third generations: linguistically, younger Italian- and Chinese-Canadians who are native speakers of English appear to pattern after their British/Irish-Canadian cohorts.

“The biggest difference between ethnic groups is the rate at which they use linguistic features, such as dropping the ‘t’ or ‘d’ from certain words, for example pronouncing ‘told him’ as ‘tol’ him’, and the degree to which they participate in an ongoing change in vowel pronunciation by Canadians, so ‘bit’ sounds more like ‘bet’, ‘bet’ sounds more like ‘bat’, and ‘bat’ sounds more like ‘bot’,” said Walker. “However, when we look beyond rates of use to the linguistic structure, we find more similarities than differences. Given that the differences we see among ethnic groups are more a question of degree than of kind, we think they may be strategically adopting them − or not adopting them − to express their values and identity.”

Whether these particular linguistic differences are introduced through transfer from other languages in the first generation or already exist in Canada when they arrive, there is evidence that second- and third-generation speakers adopt them and use them intentionally, Hoffman and Walker said. They are further testing this idea by examining other phonetic and grammatical features, as well as collecting further data from the Greek, Portuguese and Punjabi communities. The results of their research should inform public debate about the impact of ethnolinguistic diversity on Canadian English.