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…