I’m done the Strathy Unit piece, eh?

This week I spoke with Anastasia Riehl. If the name rings a bell, then, thank you, you’re a loyal reader of our blog, and you likely remember her from my interview with her and Abdullah Sherif about the work of the Endangered Language Alliance of Toronto. However, Professor Riehl wears many hats, and at Queen’s University, she is the Director Of the Strathy Language Unit.

I spoke with her about this excellent resource for the study of Canadian English.

[One of the many projects of the Strathy Language Unit is on Wolfe Island, Ontario

[One of the many projects of the Strathy Language Unit is on Wolfe Island, Ontario]

Michael Iannozzi : First of all, what is the Strathy Language Unit?

Anastasia Riehl : The Strathy Language Unit is a research unit at Queen’s University dedicated to studying the English language as it is used in Canada. It was founded by a bequest from Queen’s alumnus J.R. Strathy almost 35 years ago. Mr. Strathy was very interested in issues of English usage and was dismayed that most discussions of the time focused on Britain or the U.S. He wanted to create a unit devoted solely to Canadian English. It was at the time, and remains, a unique project.

MI : When was the Unit founded? What were its original aims and goals, and how have those changed?

AR : The original focus of the unit was to study “standard” Canadian English and to produce a usage guide. These initiatives remain important aspects of the unit’s work, but both have also changed over time. One change concerns our shifting notions of “standard”. Today most language scholars would dismiss the idea that there is one correct way to speak English in Canada, and a set of rules that we all must follow. This does not make the idea of the “standard” irrelevant, however, but rather opens interesting lines of inquiry about what we view as the standard and why – and how sociolinguistic factors like age, sex, region, ethnicity and social class, to name just a few – shape our notions of the standard. (In fact the first conference held by the Strathy Language Unit was called “In search of the standard”, so this perspective has actually been central to the unit for some time.) The idea of the standard also remains relevant because many people care a great deal about what they perceive as good grammar. If a journalist in your local paper uses a word in a way that readers think is incorrect, the paper will likely get dozens of extremely cranky letters! Why people care so much about language, and what people perceive as correct are also interesting questions.

Another way in which work at the unit has changed – and changed quite drastically in just 35 years – is the advent of new technologies. In the early days of the unit, teams of students scanned documents using large, expensive pieces of equipment in order to create a digital database for language study. Years of such work can now be done in mere hours online. Most early resources of the unit were produced in hard copy and had limited distribution – the corpus of Canadian English, the working papers series, a bibliography of Canadian English. All of these resources are now available online to a much wider audience, along with initiatives that were not possible before, such as our website and blog.

MI : What is the Strathy Corpus of Canadian English ?

AR : The Strathy Corpus of Canadian English is a database of about 50 million words assembled for the purpose of studying English usage and change in Canada, roughly spanning the years 1970-2010. It consists mostly of written language samples but includes some transcripts of spoken language as well. The corpus was one of the first major projects of the Unit. When the first director, W.C. Lougheed, began assembling the corpus in the early 80’s, it was a relatively novel thing to do. Since that time, corpus linguistics has really taken off, aided by changes in technology that have made it much easier to collect and navigate large quantities of data.

In 2013, we worked with Mark Davies at Brigham Young University, who hosts several large corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus, to create a searchable online version of the Strathy Corpus which is now available on his website.

MI : Why is the Strathy corpus different from an entirely spoken corpus? How can fiction, and carefully written pieces of material be used for the study of Canadian English?

AR : Since the Strathy corpus contains mostly (although not entirely) written material, it is different from a spoken corpus in the ways that written language is different from spoken language. Written language tends to be more formal and exhibit change more slowly (certainly in terms of the types of traditional materials in the Strathy corpus, although this may be less the case if we were talking about personal blogs, texts, online forums, etc.). Also, aspects of pronunciation are typically not captured by written language.

You asked about fiction. Something I am particularly interested in is how dialect is represented in fictional dialogue. What aspects of a dialect do writers choose to represent; how do they represent them; and how closely do these aspects correlate with actual speech? In the past couple of years we have had graduate students from the English department exploring these questions. One student, for example, examined the dialogue of Aboriginal English-speaking characters in Canadian literature and grouped the representations of dialect into different categories, including phonetic variation conveyed through the orthography such as <‘bout> for <about> and non-standard verb agreement such as <he come> rather than <he comes>.

MI : What are some of the goals of the Language Unit as it studies Canadian English?

AR : Our goal is to be a valuable resource for students and scholars of Canadian English as well as the general public, so most of our work is focused on creating and distributing resources to facilitate research by others and also undertaking our own data collection projects.

Some of the resources that we have created and maintain include the Strathy Bibliography of Canadian English, our occasional paper series Strathy Student Working Papers on Canadian English, the Strathy website and blog which among other things follows media stories about Canadian English, and the online Strathy Corpus of Canadian English.

As for projects, one of our big long-term projects is recording personal histories of residents of Wolfe Island, Ontario. We have been conducting interviews with island residents for several years now, transcribing the recordings and then creating a database which will be used for research on language and local history. We are also developing a new project that we are quite excited about that we’re calling the Canadian Voices Map. We should have more to share about that one within the next year.

The unit also hosts occasional conferences, such as the 2014 Change and Variation in Canada, supports the undergraduate linguistics course Canadian English at Queen’s and funds student research and conference travel.

MI : What is Wolfe Island, and why has it been important for the Strathy Unit?

AR : Wolfe Island is located in the St. Lawrence River between Kingston, Ontario and Cape Vincent, New York. It is the largest of the Thousand Islands and has a year-round population of about 2000 residents. In 2010 we started recording islanders sharing stories of their lives, in collaboration with the Wolfe Island Historical Society. We are transcribing the interviews and creating a corpus for linguistic and historical research.

We chose Wolfe Island as a research site for several reasons. First, many of the residents are from families that have been on the island for several generations, with deep cultural and linguistic ties. Second, until fairly recently, many residents lived the vast majority of their lives on the island, in the physical sense that travel to and from the island was not always available or easy, and also in terms of communication, with phone service, for example, arriving later to the island than the mainland areas nearby. This means that many islanders had less contact with English speakers outside of their community than was typical on the mainland. We were also encouraged to undertake the project by the support and enthusiasm of the Wolfe Island Historical Society, a local group which had already been collecting oral histories by long-time residents. There is a great deal of pride and interest in island history among the residents, and this has resulted in enthusiastic support for the project within the community.

MI : What is the Guide to Canadian English Usage ?

AR : The Guide to Canadian English Usage was one of the unit’s first main projects. One of Mr. Strathy’s wishes was that the unit produce a usage guide focused on Canada rather than one that looks to Britain or the U.S. as a model.

We usually think of usage guides as “prescriptive” instruments that tell people what to say and how to say it, which is in contrast to the “descriptive” work of linguists which aims to describe what people actually do say based on observations of real speech. This usage guide is different and in a way is not well-served by the term “usage guide”. It focuses on lexical items that are interesting in the Canadian context – in some cases because the words are unique to Canada but in most cases because the words tend to raise questions about usage or spelling in Canada due to their observed variability. In the entries, the editors – Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine – aim to convey their observations about how the words are used based in part on research with the Strathy corpus, in many cases including sample citations from the corpus. It is intended as a usage guide in the sense that someone wondering what the Canadian standard is for the usage or spelling of a certain word can consult the guide; however, the guide usually does not offer one clear answer but rather explains any observed variation.

I would say that this guide actually strikes a nice balance between prescriptive and descriptive aims. The introduction to the guide includes a great discussion of these often competing perspectives.

MI : How has the work done at the Language Unit changed over the past couple decades due to the changing makeup of our country’s demographics and ethnicities?

AR : One of the areas of Canadian English research that I find the most interesting is how we think about the role of English in our increasingly multilingual urban centres such as Toronto and Vancouver. In the latest census, for example, only 51% of Toronto residents reported English as their mother tongue. How do we define a “standard” for Toronto, and what sort of English do we teach in schools? What varieties of English are spoken in different ethnic enclaves? Are there features of Toronto English that differ from Vancouver English given the different populations of heritage language speakers? There are very interesting research projects underway at U of T and York exploring some of these issues.

MI : One of the things the Strathy Language Unit aims to do is engage the public about Canadian English. How do you think the public can be engaged in talking about Canadian English?

AR : The public is definitely already thinking about and talking about language. Through our website and blog, our projects and events, we hope to encourage the public to think and talk about these issues in the framework of Canada’s unique linguistic history and landscape. Not long ago, the world looked to Britain, and then later to the United States as well, for models of English usage. English in Canada has its own story, its own features and its own varieties that deserve to be studied and celebrated. Like Canada, countries throughout the world are increasingly embracing their own national varieties rather than look to external standards.

MI : How Canadian would you say your speech is?

AR : I am originally from the Midwestern U.S., but after having lived in different English-speaking communities in North America and overseas, I would say my English is now a hybrid! Given the region where I grew up, I do have many features typically associated with Canadian English… lexical items such as “pop” rather than “soda” and aspects of pronunciation such as the back vowel merger (where “cot” and “caught” are pronounced the same). Funnily, in some ways my speech is more “Canadian” than the speech of my students, most of whom are from Southern Ontario. For example, I use “positive anymore” as in “Kids grow up fast anymore”, a syntactic feature sometimes associated with Canada, but I have yet to meet a single student in my Canadian English course over the past five years for whom this is grammatical.

MI : What is your favourite feature of Canadian speech?

AR : I suppose my favorite features of Canadian English are those that, even after years of living in Canada, catch my ear whenever I hear them and that I can’t imagine being able to say myself. One that I notice multiple times a day is be done or be finished followed by a direct object as in I’m done the dishes. Every time I hear this an “ungrammatical” buzzer goes off in my head! It keeps my work fun and interesting.

[Research Assistants hard at work in the Strathy Unit]

[Research Assistants hard at work in the Strathy Unit]

Thank you to Anastasia Riehl for agreeing to be interviewed a second time for our blog.

As a native speaker of Canadian English, it had never occurred to me that there was anything regional or “Canadian” about saying, for example, “I’m finished the interview”. I use this type of phrase all the time, so now I have one more thing to guinea pig myself with, but only after I’m done the blog post.

The Strathy Language Unit is an excellent resource for researchers, Canadian English learners, and anyone with an interest in how Canadians speak English. The Unit has so many projects and resources on-the-go, and there are many we didn’t even cover in this interview, so if you want to learn more you should definitely snoop around their website.


Take care eh,

Michael Iannozzi