What Are The Differences Between Canadian And American English?

Is Canadian English its own language variety? And if so, what makes it different?
What Are The Differences Between Canadian And American English?

Canadian English seems neither here nor there in the grand scheme of English varieties. On the one hand, Canadians prefer the “British” spelling of words like “colour” or “centre.” On the other hand, everyone who has heard an anglophone Canadian speak will notice that the pronunciation is closer to General American English. In fact, most people will have a hard time differentiating Canadian English from American English speakers.

But every once in awhile — most famously when Canadians say “out,” “about” or “eh” — there’s no denying that Canadian English has some unique characteristics. So what are they? Let’s have a look at Canadian English compared to American and British English.

What Is Canadian English?

The term “Canadian English” is inadequate to describe the country’s linguistic variety ⁠— just as we can’t say there’s one true American, British, or Australian English. 

What’s usually referred to as Standard Canadian English is the language variety spoken by Anglophone or multilingual speakers who were born in Canada and who live in urban areas. Some definitions include other factors, such as specifying the variety that is spoken across central and western Canada among middle-class speakers from English-speaking families

The regional dialects of Atlantic Canada are usually not included in the definition of Standard Canadian English.

Canadian English is a product of several waves of immigration and settlement over more than two centuries. That’s why it’s little surprise that it has obvious influences from the United States, Britain and Ireland! At the same time, Canadian English has been developing distinctive features since around the early 19th century, so it’s not just a mix of other accents.

What Does Canadian English Sound Like?

It’s all about the vowels

Full disclaimer here: We at Babbel are language geeks, and we get excited by detailed linguistic analyses. If you don’t share that excitement, we understand. So as a summary, Canadian and American English are very similar in pronunciation. So similar, in fact, that they are often grouped together as North American English.

However, there are slight differences in the vowel sounds. If that explanation satisfies you, scroll to the next section. (No hard feelings.) If you want to know more, continue reading about the wonderful world of sound mergers and vowel shifts.

One distinct feature of Standard Canadian English is the so-called cot–caught merger. In varieties where this merger has taken place, two historically separate vowel sounds have merged into a single sound. This means that words like “cot” and “caught,” “stock” and “stalk,” “nod” and “gnawed” are pronounced identically. This linguistic feature is standard across most of Canada, but is emerging in only some areas of America, such as in California and the Midwest.

The cot–caught merger triggered other vowel sounds to change as well. This process is called the Canadian Shift. We should note that the name makes the phenomenon sound more uniquely Canadian than it is because there are closely related shifts happening in the United States as well.

Do Canadians say ‘oot’ and ‘aboot’?

This is the information you’re actually here for, isn’t it? Let’s make this quick and easy since we’re pretty sure this cliché originated with the TV-Show South Park: Canadians do not pronounce “out” and “about” as “oot” and “aboot.” Instead, Canadians raise the OU vowel sound slightly (meaning that the tongue sits higher in the mouth), so the words “out” and “about” sound closer to “oat” and “aboat.”

Spelling In British, American And Canadian English 

Many people think that the biggest difference between Canadian English and American English is the spelling — after all, Canadians use British spelling, right? Not really. Canadian spelling combines British and American rules and adds some domestic idiosyncrasies.

For example, French-derived words such as “colour” or “centre” retain British spellings. Likewise, it’s a Canadian and British spelling practice to double consonants when adding suffixes: Compare Canadian/British “travelled,” “counselling” and “marvellous” to American “traveled,” “counseling” and “marvelous.” In American English, such consonants are only doubled when stressed, like in “controllable” and “enthralling.”

On the other hand, words derived from Greek, like “realize” and “recognize,” are spelled with an –ize ending in Canadian and American English, whereas the British counterparts end in –ise. Canadian English also uses the American spelling for nouns like “curb,” “tire” and “aluminum,” rather than the British spellings “kerb,” “tyre” and “aluminium.”

As if this weren’t confusing enough, Canada has some special rules for punctuation, capitalization, hyphenation and other topics. When in doubt, you can use the Canadian style guide from the Canadian Translation Bureau to help you out.

Canadian Vocabulary

As with spelling, Canadian English shares vocabulary with American and British English. While these vocabulary selections might seem random at first, they’re usually connected to political ties, trade relations, and other social and historical factors. For example, Canada’s automobile industry has been heavily influenced by the United States from its inception, which is why Canadians use American terminology for the parts of automobiles. For example, Canadians use “hood” over “bonnet,” “freeway” or “highway” instead of “motorway,” and “truck” in place of “lorry.”

In contrast, most of Canada’s institutional terminology and professional designations follow British conventions. This isn’t surprising, considering Canada is part of the Commonwealth and was part of the United Kingdom.

Additionally, Canada has some unique vocabulary. We collected some (but not nearly all!) uniquely Canadian terms for you.

Food And Drink

  • Timmies: Tim Hortons, a popular Canadian coffee shop
  • double-double: A coffee at Tim Hortons with two portions of sugar and cream each (if you want milk instead, order a double-double with milk)
  • regular: A coffee at Tim Hortons with one portion of sugar and cream each (if you want milk instead, order a regular with milk)
  • homo milk: Short for homogenized milk, milk containing 3.25% milk fat
  • peameal Bacon: “Canadian bacon” (known in Canada as back bacon) which is coated in cornmeal or ground peas
  • KD/ Kraft Dinner: Macaroni and cheese
  • Caesar: A cocktail containing vodka, tomato juice, clam broth, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce, quite similar to an American Bloody Mary

People

  • Canuck: A Canadian person. This term is used by Canadians themselves and not considered derogatory
  • Newf/Newfie: Someone from Newfoundland and Labrador, sometimes considered derogatory
  • Mainlander: In Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, the term Mainlander refers to any mainland Canadian, sometimes considered derogatory
  • Caper/Cape Bretoner: Someone from Cape Breton Island
  • Bluenoser: Someone from Nova Scotia
  • Islander: Someone from Prince Edward Island or Vancouver Island
  • First Nations: Native Canadians. This term does not include the Métis and Inuit, so the term aboriginal peoples is preferred when all three groups are included

Other

  • washroom: A public toilet
  • loonie: The Canadian one-dollar coin. This coin is named after the common loon, the diver bird that is found on the reverse of the coin
  • Toonie (less commonly spelled tooney, twooney, twoonie): A two-dollar coin. The name is a portmanteau of two and loonie
  • eh: A Canadian question tag (see the video above)

Header Photo by sebastiaan stam on Unsplash

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Author Headshot
Katrin Sperling
Katrin (Kat) Sperling was born and raised in Potsdam, Germany and moved to Toronto, Canada after high school. Since her Hogwarts letter still hadn't arrived by her 20th birthday in 2011, she finally had to face reality and went to study English and German linguistics in Berlin. Luckily, linguistics turned out to be just as magical, and Kat is now very happy to write about learning languages for the Babbel Magazine.
Katrin (Kat) Sperling was born and raised in Potsdam, Germany and moved to Toronto, Canada after high school. Since her Hogwarts letter still hadn't arrived by her 20th birthday in 2011, she finally had to face reality and went to study English and German linguistics in Berlin. Luckily, linguistics turned out to be just as magical, and Kat is now very happy to write about learning languages for the Babbel Magazine.

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