Friday, September 27, 2013

About "about"

It doesn't happen often, but every now and then, an American makes his or her way across the border to Canada.  A small portion of those who do come here notices that we sound a little different from them, and a small portion of those who notice has the audacity to say something about it.  Out loud.  Can you imagine?

Here is the most recent example.

The word that tends to epitomize this difference is usually "about", which they claim we pronounce like "a boot", although some say "a boat" is a better reflection of what the word sounds like to an American.  The most common response from Canadians upon hearing this seems to be denial.

Here is the most recent example.

It's an odd response to me, considering how much energy has been spent here trying to justify the border identify differences between the two countries.  Here we have a distinguishing feature, albeit a very small one, that has been noticed by those that we've been trying to distinguish ourselves from, yet we don't want it.  Will we ever be happy?  Probably not.

Of course, those who deny that the "about" sounds the same as either one of the two supposed phrases are right to do so, because they don't actually sound the same.  But given the persistence of this perception, one can't help but wonder if maybe there's something to it.  The easy explanation is "Stupid Americans", because that's the easy explanation for everything.  Why can't I find decent looking clothes come in my size?  Stupid Americans.  Why is math hard?  Stupid Americans.  Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar?  Stupid Americans.

But surely, even if Americans really are stupid, they can't be so stupid as to be unable to tell "about" from "a boot" and/or "a boat."

Part of the denial, I think is just a case of what seems to be a universal rule that other people are the ones with the accents, and we're (whoever "we" happens to be) the ones who speak normally.  However, the main reason they keep saying we pronounce certain words and phrases the same isn't because do, but because we pronounce them differently from Americans.

The sound that -ou- makes in "about" is what's called a diphthong, which means roughly that our mouth starts in one position and gradually changes to another.  One difference between Canadian and American pronunciation is that when -ou- comes before certain consonants, t and s mostly, we tend to shorten the pronunciation of it.  For example, the -ou- in "bout" is shorter than the -ou- (written with -ow-) in "bowed", the past tense of "bow" as in "take a bow."  For Americans, the sound has the same pronunciation no matter what consonant follows. 

It's the first half of -ou- in particular that gets shortened, so the second part, which sounds more like an -oo- sound, gets emphasized.  The first part doesn't disappear entirely, but it gets shortened enough that unless you're accustomed to hearing it, you won't.  So some Americans will hear an -oo- where we hear an -ou-.

Another difference between Canadian and American English is in the pronunciation of the so called long -o- sound, the one represented by -oa- in boat.  The American pronunciation is also a diphthong, even though it's not written as one.  You'll see this if you look up the word in a dictionary that uses the International Phonetic Alphabet. On the other hand, the Canadian pronunciation of the long o is almost a pure vowel.  The first part of the American -o- is the same as the first part of the Canadian -ou- in words like "about."  The second part of the American -o- is similar to the second part of the Canadian -ou-, so to an American ear, "about" can actually sound very similar to "a boat," even though they don't actually sound the same to a Canadian.

So no, we don't actually pronounce "about" like "a boat" or "a boot".  But yes, the American perception of Canadian pronunciation is based on something real.


Some related comments:

  • I have a Romanian friend who tried to tell me the pronunciation of the Romanian word for Monday.  When he said it, it sounded like "loon" to me.  When I repeated it, he said there was an "ee" sound at the end.  It's spelled "luni." So I tried again, but I was then informed that the "ee" sound was too long.  This, I think, compares to the tendency of Americans to miss that first part of the -ou- diphthong in words like "about" and "house".  A Romanian's ears are tuned to notice that very short "i" at the end just like a Canadian's ears are tuned to hear the full -ou- diphthong, and Canadians will miss the very short "i" just like Americans will miss the very short first part of the "ou."
  • "Eh" is another supposed marker of Canadian English, and something Canadians will object to in chorus when someone points it out.  This is even sillier than objecting to "ou", because "eh" is used worldwide, even in American English.  There is a usage of the word that is unique to Canada, though.  Perhaps this usage is falling into disuse, though.
  • The analysis above is somewhat simplistic, since accents are not uniform across either Canada or the United States, as this map illustrates.  In particular, the phenomenon described above is not as strong on the west coast of Canada as in other parts of the country.
  • The phenomenon is known as Canadian Raising.  It's Wikipedia, so caveat lector, but what's written there is consistent with other, more authoritative sources that I've read on the matter.
  • Although Canadian English is different from American, the "full hoser" accent that's used on American TV shows is a caricature.  We generally don't talk like that unless we're imitating Americans imitating us.  Occasionally, though it's very rare, I do run into someone (usually rural, and many generations Canadian) who sounds remarkably close to it.
  • I don't really know if the most common response is denial.  It could just be a squeaky wheel type phenomenon, where the loudest reactions come from those who don't believe it.
  • The first site that I linked to above, What's Different in Canada, does provide an interesting list of the many, usually small differences between the two countries.  He hasn't got to ketchup and picked flavoured potato chips yet, though.

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