As a fledgling journalist in 1964, I was assigned to cover federal politics for United Press International in Ottawa and it was a tremendous learning experience, including linguistically.
As I worked with an older crowd of top-notch reporters on Parliament Hill, I realized I did not speak English the way they did.
My English was influenced by what I heard at home, with European-born parents who spoke Yiddish to each other, and in my neighbourhood in Lower Outremont and Jewish school. The sing-song of Yiddish-inflected speech was part of our English. Yiddish words like Shlimazel (chronically unlucky person), meshugge (crazy), and bubkes (worthless) were part of our linguistic world.
I was determined to mask it. I wanted to imitate the central Canadian English enunciation and vocabulary I heard in the halls of Parliament.
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But I never lost some of the inflections I absorbed as a youngster, such as the very noticeable hard “g” sound in “singer.” There also has been a sea change in the acceptance of ethnic accents and expressions and it is quite fashionable to use Yiddish words like “shlep” for drag, “macher” for big-shot and “farklempt” for choked up.
My situation is hardly unique. Montreal’s linguistic geography is varied and fascinating, and, according to Charles Boberg, associate professor of linguistics at McGill University, an exception to the rule of “the general lack of strong linguistic differentiation among European descended ethnic groups in North American cities.”
As he argues in a paper he published on ethnic patterns in the phonetics of Montreal English (Journal of Sociolinguistics, 2004), statistical analyses have shown significant difference in the vowel production of participants in a laboratory study of Montrealers of British/Irish, Italian and Jewish ethnic origin.
These differences are attributed to the minority status of English in Montreal and de facto residential segregation of ethnic groups in relatively homogeneous neighbourhoods.
The effect of ethnic ghettoization tends to “restrict the access of immigrants and their children to native models of native Canadian English,” Boberg argues. It also perpetuates ethno-linguistic differentiation longer than in cities where English is the majority language and ethnic groups are less segregated residentially.
And Canadian English as a whole has its own distinctive features. Boberg compares the vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar to standard British and American English in The English Language in Canada (Cambridge University Press).
One of his undergraduate students in honours linguistics, Thomas
Gettig, recently tested volunteers to see whether the thesis, that newer-generation Ashkenazic Jews demonstrate less linguistic differentiation than the previous ones, is correct. He looked at whether younger people say their vowels differently and how they perceive vowels.
“It has been found over the past decades that younger people are speaking very differently from their parents,” he said. “It’s called the Canadian shift. Take the word ‘mass.’ Older people say it one way while younger people have more of an ‘ah’ sound.
“Older people say ‘stress,’ while in Ontario I have a friend who tells me how ‘strahssed out’ he was about his ‘schahdule’. It’s happening all over Canada as young people are speaking very differently, and I’m looking at how those possible differences are having an effect on how people process speech information, not just how they speak.”