oot & aboot

Canadians who have ever encountered American perceptions of Canadian speech will be familiar with the idea that Canadians say, for instance, “oot” and “aboot” instead of “out” and “about”. What’s up with that, eh?

I mean, really. Canadians can hear each other perfectly well and have no problem telling whether someone is saying mouse or moose. If we walk into a shoe repair shop and say, “I’ve come about a boot,” it doesn’t sound like we’ve just said the same thing twice. Not to us, anyway. But it does to some Americans.

This is due to two things: categorical perception (I’ll get to that in a moment) and something linguists call Canadian raising. No, that doesn’t simply mean we were raised in Canada. What it is is that before voiceless consonants, many Canadians raise the first part of the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ so it is really like the vowel in up. Americans don’t really take great notice of our different pronunciation of the vowels in eyes and ice because there’s no other vowel the ice vowel sounds closer to, but the diphthong in out has moved up to where it falls within the range of sounds the Americans in question process as “oo”.

And this is what linguists call categorical perception. All speakers of all languages do it: a given sound is not always made exactly the same by all people at all times, so we learn (at a very early age) to process whole sets of sounds as the same sound, and we generally take no notice of the differences between sounds in a set. The /p/s in pot and spot are different, for instance – the one in pot has a puff of air after it, whereas the one in spot does not. Hold your hand in front of your mouth as you say both and you’ll feel it. This difference is a phonemic difference in many languages – in Thai restaurants, for instance, you’ll probably notice that there are p’s and ph’s but they both sound like “p” to you. Well, the ph one is like the one in pot, and the p one is like the one in spot.

Likewise, the /l/ in Calgary is quite a different sound from the one in loud, but we tend to take no notice. And of course we know how speakers of many other languages can’t make a good distinction between our beat and bit (Russian acting teacher Sonia Moore referred to sections of scenes as bits, but her accent led her students to think she was saying beats, and that has passed into standard acting vocabulary). And so on.

So while Americans and Canadians both have “oo” and “ow” sounds, the borders between them are different. And many Canadians raise the first part of the diphthong before a voiceless consonant, pushing it into where Americans hear it as a version of “oo”.

But I should say that not all Canadians do the same thing. The ice raising is more widespread – I grew up with that in Alberta. But raising before voiceless consonants is not common with /aʊ/ in Alberta and the rest of the west (especially not in the higher socioeconomic strata) – it’s more standard in Ontario and east. (Do you do it? Say loud and lout and see if you can hear a difference.)

Nonetheless, Albertan out can still sound like “oot” to many Americans, especially northern and northeastern Americans, who use a lower and more front vowel for “ow” (sometimes even more like /æo/, i.e., starting with the vowel in cat) so that all Canadian versions of “ow” sound kind of “oo”-ish to them.

But you know how it is. So many people think they’re the only ones without an accent, and whatever sounds so to them must be so. And this idea among Americans that Canadians say “oot” and “aboot” is so firmly rooted that some Americans won’t even listen carefully. “You’re from Canada? Say out.” “Out.” “He said ‘oot’! Oot! Oot! Oot! Canadian, eh? Eh? Eh? Oot! Oot! Oot!” Really, it gets to sound like apes and jungle birds. Makes me want to give them a boot…

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17 responses to “oot & aboot

  1. “Categorical perception” is pretty obvious once you said it. I’d never thought about it, but it’s why us Southerners (SE US) can understand Yankees.

  2. Another example I just remembered: in a Buffalo accent (or any of several other northeastern US accents), the way they say the name Anne is likely to sound to Canadians – and to many other Americans – like Ian.

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  6. Scott Los Angeles

    Apes and jungle birds? I’ve never read a more slanted blog entry, aimed only at lowering the international community’s perception of Americans for what is really harmless jiving. I am American, and I do not know a single person who thinks they are actually faithfully reproducing the Canadian accent with a mere “aboot”. It’s called generalization. Try reproducing a Texas or Florida accent without falling within the realm of generalization.

    I am tired of Canadians watching South Park (or any other shows of markedly low-humor) and assuming that Matt Stone and Trey Parker are our god damned ambassadors or something. Maybe Canadians are watching a bit too much T.V., and drawing a few too many conclusions than is healthy for a good perspective.

    Not everyone hangs out reading dialect blogs all day, hating on everyone who doesn’t perceive the nuances of dialects very similar to their own, which are seldom noticed by anyone other than linguists and pretentious bloggers.

    I can’t help but notice a bit of anti-American sentiment underlying this whole thing. Just say it outright, if you’ve got some problem with us, instead of inferring on your one-sided blog that we are a pack of apes who can’t understand something as simple as linguistic diversity.

    And I thought Canadians were good-humored. I guess they are just as snobby as other commonwealth subjects. Or is that a generalization?

    • My, my, my. Stop and take another look around to see who’s humourless. Also reread the whole article. Carefully this time. The whole thing is couched in qualifying terms – for instance, I clearly say “some Americans,” and state that categorical perception is a universal thing in language, and so on. The conclusion is meant as humour – that’s why it’s exaggerated. Indeed, you might have picked up on the light tone of the whole article, if you didn’t have such a chip on your shoulder. Really, you’re wasting a perfectly usable snit.

      Also: I’m a dual citizen, Canada/US. I’m the first person in my family born in Canada. I grew up in Canada and live there now, but I lived in the US for several years while in grad school, which is where I really got a lot of “He said oot!” Sure, they were being funny. Got a little tired after a while, though. But your idea that I’m some emblematic humourless Canadian who doesn’t understand the US is, uh, not well founded.

      So, really, take a chill pill. Read more carefully. Stow your snit. Grow a sense of humour.

      • Scott Los Angeles

        Your blog entry was well written and explained the Canadian Raising very well.

        That ‘apes and jungle birds’ comment rubbed me the wrong way, though. I hear a lot of comments regarding Americans’ intellect. That gets pretty old, too.

        And it’s not a snit, it’s a tirade! Seriously though, I got off point and began talking about other things I had read elsewhere. Of course your blog wasn’t an invective against Americans.

      • Thanks. I really didn’t intend to impugn Americans’ intellects. And I do understand being tired of other people thinking you’re dumb because of where you come from… I’m from Alberta, after all… :P

  7. Scott Los Angeles

    Whoa, I didn’t know there were Alberta-haters. The only place in Canada I have ever visited was Alberta. Very beautiful. First living being I saw was a goat chained to someone’s garage. Very strange, didn’t know you guys kept them as pets (or was that a crazy person’s house?).

    Anyway, great blog. I really do appreciate the existence of literary and linguistic blogs and communities on the internet. It’s good stuff.

  8. As a Canadian living in the United Kingdom, I get jibes about our pronunciation all the time – from Brits and Americans alike. Intellect doesn’t seem to matter.

    My perception of this blog post was that it was a scientific (linguistic) explanation of the reasons why the world thinks we say ‘aboot’, not an assault on any other population.

    Just as an aside, my American friends identify me as Canadian when I say sorry. We’ve noticed that they say ‘Saw-ry’ and I say ‘Sore-y’. What’s that about?

    • Ah, yes, the or diphthong. For most Canadians, that and oi are the only places that they use the mid-low back rounded vowel that in the International Phonetic Alphabet is written [ɔ]. In many other versions of English, that sound is a distinct phoneme that you will hear in words like caught, but in Canada it’s generally heard just in those two instances, and we use a low back unrounded [ɑ] the rest of the time. American accents actually vary; some will have a very clear, even stronger, version of [ɔ] in sorry, even with a slight on-glide [w] sound; more often, I think, you will hear it as you describe it, with that vowel merged with their version of the low back unrounded vowel, which can be a bit more forward than ours. Accents differ, vowels shift… I’d really love to know exactly what factors lead to that. If I could do a dissertation on that and figure some of it out, I would be happy…

    • But of course regardless of how you say sorry, they’d know you’re Canadian because you say it! Who else will say “Sorry!” when someone bumps into them or interrupts them? And other people think we’re so polite and deferential… We’re really passive-aggressive. In Canadian, sorry tends to mean “Don’t do that.”

  9. This is an older post but I feel oddly compelled to comment.

    James, All Canadians have Canadian Raising. On “OU” almost always. 99% of Canadians pronounce about closer to “aboat” (or something only the IPA could spell). You do it too most likely when you’re speaking quickly and not paying attention to your speech (as with I). I know it’s annoying, but we have an accent. It goes far beyond categorical perception, Canadians really do use a weird vowel, or produce a weird vowel quality on words which is extremely noticeable not just to Americans but to even Australians ect.

    • Everyone has an accent! But not everyone in Canada has the same accent. I’m not just trusting my ear on this. There’s ample published acoustic analysis showing the non-uniformity of Canadian raising across the country, especially on the ou. See, for example, The Atlas of North American English by Labov et al., or the many articles you can find with search on the topic on scholar.google.com. Some researchers are also finding characteristics of Canadian raising in some American locations. There are two isoglosses here, one for each diphthong, and regardless of who is drawing the map, neither matches the Canada-US border, and neither includes all of Canada.

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