Learning Mandarin at 0, English at 10, French at 22

By: Jingshu Helen Yao, Master of Museum Studies student / Summer Intern at the CLM

Language acquisition is my area of interest and I am fascinated by the theories about the connections between language learning and age, language distance, and level of exposure.

Sometimes I observe people and ask questions to draw connections between what I learned and real-life scenarios, but the best subject to study is always myself. Since I decided to challenge myself and pick up French, I started to reflect on my experience learning other languages.

Linguists believe that everyone with regular cognitive ability is able to acquire their first language effortlessly under normal development. The abilities to comprehend and to speak are considered innate, similar to the ability to walk or run. Like many, I have no memory of the acquisition process of my own first language. I am a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese and the knowledge I have regarding Mandarin is mainly unconscious knowledge, or competence. I could easily distinguish grammatical sentences but would have difficulty explaining the exact grammatical rules. On the contrary, when I learned English in school, I learned systematic information about English clause types and conjugation rules, or what is commonly referred to as grammar by non-linguists. Even after more than a decade of study, I still make mistakes speaking or writing English, but if I need to lay out the rules of the English language one by one, I might do better than many native speakers who didn’t study linguistics or English grammar. This type of knowledge is conscious, like solving a math problem or citing a verse. I need to actively think about what I need to say and whether sentences are grammatical before producing them, whereas the same process is more intuitive for a native speaker. Even though the task became less demanding as I became more fluent, it was almost impossible to ever process English as a native speaker does.

“Le nouveau taxi!”, beginner’s textbook for learning French as a second language, Chinese edition. (Photo: Jingshu Helen Yao)

Learning French this summer reminded me of the initial stage of learning English. I struggle to produce every sound, pause for long times to think about what I need to say and how to say it. However, learning a foreign language as a child and an adult is rather different. On one hand, I have a big advantage of having studied linguistics and understanding terms such as “tense”, “aspect”, and “grammatical gender”. If I had been exposed to French at a much younger age, the complex verb conjugation rules and the masculine and feminine genders of nouns would have completely throw me off, since none of them were in my first language Mandarin. I would have asked questions such as “Why are the chairs feminine and why are the walls masculine?”, to which the answer could only be “That’s how the language works.” That definitely wouldn’t have satisfied the mind of a child. As an adult learner, I am more comfortable with just remembering the genders rather than trying to figure out why. On the other hand, I didn’t feel as much pressure when I tried to pronounce English words as a child. I wasn’t aware of “having an accent” and wasn’t as embarrassed about making mistakes as I am now. Even though I understand that making mistakes is a natural process during learning, I find myself less expressive and less willing to speak out loud, which is a barrier in language learning.

Aside from age difference, language distance is another factor that I think about. Mandarin is very distant from English geographically, historically, and structurally. Learning English meant learning completely different phonological rules and morphological structures. For example, a syllable in Mandarin usually contains only a consonant and a vowel, whereas an English syllable can have several consonants together in a cluster, and a syllable can end with consonants. English also has a larger vocabulary than Mandarin. On the other hand,  French and English are much closer, since they are both Indo-European languages and French heavily influenced English in its development. The two languages share many words that were either of the same origin or borrowed from one another. Even before I started learning French, I could figure out part of the French information on a snack package using the knowledge I already had in English.

Closeness of French and English shown in the Indo-European family tree.
Source, emphasis by CLM.

I was often asked how many languages I speak when people learned that I study linguistics. The question frustrates me from time to time since linguists are not human-shaped Google Translate. Rather than learning languages themselves, they study everything about languages. However, learning a new language as a linguistics student is a fun experience and my journey learning French has just begun.

Why do I have an Accent and Should I be Ashamed of It?

By: Jingshu Helen Yao, Master of Museum Studies student / Summer Intern at the CLM

I have an accent and I’ve never liked it. I sometimes say “sank” instead of “thank” and “worm” instead of “warm”. If you say “had” and “head” without any context I won’t be able to tell the difference. Pronunciations are the coordination of our brain and muscles. Sometimes even if my brain knows what to do, my tongue and my facial muscles are just not used to moving that way. It is valid to feel pressure when speaking with an accent, since it is the first thing others notice when you start to talk; accents can be connected with negative impressions like “broken English”, or even “uneducated”. My language insecurity is one of the reasons that led me to linguistics in the hope that I could “fix” my English, but the study of language science took me on a very different journey.

Pitch, Spectrograms and Formants

Before diving into the details of speech sounds and their features, let’s get the terminologies out of the way. As the physicists suggest, sounds are waves. The way in which our mouths create such waves is similar to how musical instruments do. Our teeth, the roof of our mouth, and our tongues, are like keys or strings that determine the speech sound we produce. Their position and placement will change the sound produced by our vocal fold vibration, which becomes the dynamic speech we eventually hear.

Researchers in different academic fields have tried to visualize sounds in order to better study them. Sounds can be characterized by features such as pitch (frequency) and loudness (intensity/amplitude). A sound with a constant pitch (simple periodic sound) can be represented by a simple waveform as follows.

Sin curve showing periodic oscillation every 17 seconds.
Simple waveform (Image from ResearchGate)

However, human speech is very complex. It consists of waves at different frequency levels that add on to each other and can be difficult to visualize. Spectrograms are employed by acoustic phoneticians to analyze human speech.  A spectrum is a display that shows the intensity of each level of frequency and allows us to study the features more closely. Formants are dark lines that are formed in the areas with a high intensity, which can be seen most clearly in vowel sounds. Formants are represented with a red line in the following image.

Spectrogram of 1.475873 seconds of speech showing area of highest intensity in the centre of the speech
Insert formants. (Image from EdHUK)

For the purpose of this article, we will only be looking at the first and second formants of vowels. They indicate the height and frontness of our tongue position when we produce the sound.

Phonetic Differences Between Languages

Every language has a phonetic inventory, which consists of all sounds (phonemes) that are possible in the language. For example, the “th” sound in English is rather rare in other languages and makes it difficult for a second language speaker to master. Not being able to produce the exact phonemes is the top reason for having an accent.

While I am fully aware that I sound different from a standard Canadian English speaker, I was curious to find out what my vowels look like. Thus, I did a small test using Paart, a program developed by phonetic scientists from the University of Amsterdam, Paul Boersma and David Weenink, to create spectrograms from audio recordings.

I was relatively young when I learned English and lived in an English-speaking environment for several years. Therefore, I can sometimes distinguish and produce the sounds that are not in my first language: a notable pair is “a” as in “bad” and “e” as in “bed”. When I pay a lot of attention to my speech and consciously remind myself to differentiate the phonemes, I can distinguish the pronunciation of “a” and “e” in careful speech. However, in a natural conversation setting where I am simply trying to get my meaning across, my pronunciation of the two sounds tends to be very similar.

With Paart, I recorded three audios: in two of them, I carefully pronounced “bed” and “bad” respectively, and in the third audio, I put both words in one sentence “My bed is bad so it hurts my back.” Then I analyzed all the audios and noted down the values of the first and second formant of each vowel.

            Helen’s careful speech:

                        Bed: F1: 530 F2: 2041

                        Bad: F1: 751 F2: 1890

            Helen’s natural conversation:

                        Bed: F1: 589 F2: 1833

                        Bad: F1: 586 F2: 1756

            Standard Canadian English:

                        Bed: F1: 600 F2: 2930

                        Bad: F1: 860 F2: 1550

In addition, I noted the standard Canadian English value (according to research data from the University of Manitoba) as a reference. A higher number in F1 corresponds with a lower tongue position, while a higher number in F2 corresponds with the tongue further forward. The data show that when Canadian English speakers produce the ‘e’ sound in ‘bed’, the tongue is high in the mouth and forward; for the ‘a’ in bad, the tongue is pulled back and lower.

It is easy to tell from the data that both of my productions, in careful speech and in natural conversation, deviate from the standard Canadian pronunciations.  This suggests that I will always sound a little different no matter how hard I try. However, in careful speech, there is indeed a distinct difference between my ‘e’ and ‘a’ sounds, whereas in my natural speech, ‘e’ and ‘a’ are almost identical, especially with respect to the value of the first formant.

Accents are not avoidable when it comes to producing sounds that are not originally in our first language. Language learning is closely related to one’s age because the ability to produce new sounds decreases as one grows older. Having an accent doesn’t imply deficiency or unskillfulness but simply the fact that one’s muscles are not used to moving in a certain way. Speakers can be trained to change their pronunciation in careful speech, but accents are unlikely to be removed completely.

I started learning linguistics because I wanted to improve my English. However, instead of “fixing” my accent, I learned to consider it from a different point of view. In my studies I learned about the wide variety of sounds that are used in the languages around the world. Each individual language normally has an inventory of between 20-37 different sounds (UCLA database). Instead of struggling over the sounds that I am not capable of producing, I have learned to appreciate how diverse human languages are and how unique each language can be.

Click this link to the International Phonetic Alphabet to see and hear the different sounds in languages around the world.

International Phonetic Alphabet

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


The West Coast’s “Victoria Dainty”

This week’s interview involves a discussion of the English of the West Coast—and in particular that of Victoria, British Colombia. We often have a hard time distinguishing people from most parts of Canada (Quebec and the East Coast aside), and from Ontario to BC, the accents may appear on the surface to be roughly the same.

However, Professor Alexandra D’Arcy studies Victoria English, and she has found that the similarities we see today weren’t so similar in the past. She studies the language diachronically, which means over a period of time—in her case a long period of time. If you do interviews in a community and leave, then you can’t discover the changes over time, except by comparing the older speakers to the younger ones, and by making assumptions about the differences the older people have from the younger. By studying Victoria’s English using recordings and interviews over more than a century of time, Professor D’Arcy can see the changes happening over the years through the voices of the people from the past.

She was kind enough to explain how this all works, and how Victoria used to be a much more distinct accent than it is today.


Fort Victoria before becoming Victoria proper. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fort Victoria before becoming Victoria proper. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Michael Iannozzi : I think some people think of Canadian English as having two varieties: Newfoundland and everywhere else. How do you see English in Canada?

Alexandra D’Arcy : Well, I see lots of diversity. East of Ontario we have Quebec, the Maritimes, and Newfoundland and Labrador (and of course, Newfoundland is defined by dialect variation). That entire area has a rich history, with various influences in terms of historical input—regionally, linguistically, religiously, ethnically. From Ontario to BC, however, things aren’t quite as undifferentiated as the rhetoric suggests. We forget that the cities are one thing but that the vast rural and semi-rural areas of the country are another thing entirely, and they contribute a lot to the story of Canadian English. Those voices get backgrounded, but that’s starting to change. More and more sociolinguists are getting out of the cities, and so our view of Canadian English is about to change. These are exciting times.

MI : English has an enormous geographic area in Canada, so where would you say the varieties are? Is it as easy as dividing up the country? If it isn’t, why not?

AD : That’s an interesting question. I think the answer is a nuanced one. There are broad regions, definitely—just look at the Atlas of North American English or Charles Boberg’s large-scale survey work. Some of those regions align with provinces, but others don’t. And then within regions there are smaller dialect boundaries, and so on. But of course, that’s the typical picture that emerges from researching dialects. The more detailed you get, the more you build features beyond sound into the picture, the more diversity you root out. So, the more work we do on Canadian English, the more regional angles we apply, the more diversified the picture will become. And of course, the emergence of archives of recordings spanning larger lengths of time is going to bring an entirely new perspective to our understanding of English in Canada.

MI : Your work has focussed on the English spoken in Victoria, BC, and you have collected data spanning a great length of time. How much data do you have, what kind of data is it, and how much time does the data span?

AD : Great question! I have about 300 hours of data—oral histories and sociolinguistic interviews. The oral histories come from two main sources: University of Victoria Libraries had some archival materials that I was able to acquire rights to, and then I was also able to secure rights to a subset of the Imbert Orchard Collection, through the CBC and the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM). Most of these recordings come from the 1960s, and we used the RBCM Archives to focus on speakers in the Imbert Orchard Collection who were born and/or raised in Victoria. So, between those two collections we have 42 locals, born 1865–1936. The bulk of the sociolinguistic interviews were conducted in 2012, with local Victorians. This collection has 162 speakers, born 1913–1996. I’m pretty proud of this corpus, actually. We have lots of first generation Victorians, but we also have second, third, fourth, five, and sixth generation speakers. I think that’s pretty cool. But, if you put the archival recordings together with the contemporary ones, you end up with a window on local speech that spans just over 130 years. So that’s exciting. We’re also very lucky because the University of Victoria Libraries holds the entire history of the local newspaper, which started as The British Colonist in 1858. In fact, the archives have been digitized through to 1920. After that, it’s into the microfiche files, but that’s fun in its own way. But what this gives us is complementarity of data. We have the spoken record, through the recordings in my lab, and we have a formal written record, through The (British/Times) Colonist. This gives us additional insight to the history of the variety.

MI : What have been your findings about Victoria English?

AD : Victoria English today isn’t strikingly different from what you hear in Vancouver or Toronto. Some locals tell of being asked where they’re from when they visit other places, but there’s no signature in their speech that indexes or registers ‘Victoria’, locally or otherwise. However, there was a time when a certain sector of the population had a distinctive accent. I call it Victoria Dainty, but on the island it’s known as ‘The Van Isle Accent’. It comes from the posh private schools, established and run by English Reform teachers, which served to entrench English norms and—as one scholar framed it—allowed the children of immigrants to ‘grow up English’. You still hear this accent in Victoria, but the speakers are all in their late sixties and older now. It’s truly an obsolescent variety, and to get a sense of how unique it is, most Victorians don’t realize that they’re speaking to another local when they talk to these people. In fact, many are surprised when I tell them this accent exists and are astounded when I play recordings. They really are something to hear…we’re talking in some cases third and fourth generation Victorians.

As to contemporary Victoria English, well, the picture is quite complex, but I don’t think that’s particularly surprising. For some features, like the introduction of direct quotes, Victoria English is no different from Toronto English, or Perth English in Australia for that matter (e.g. I’m like ‘No way!’). But some aspects of local speech make us truly Canadian, like general extenders (e.g. I like art and stuff like that) and the way the vowel in words like goose is pronounced with the tongue more forward in the mouth. But of course, there are also things that seem to set Victoria apart. Whereas most Canadian dialects shifted pretty early on to words like tube pronounced as ‘toob’, Victoria English tends to keep the older pronunciation,’tjoob’ [the British pronunciation].

MI : Has the English of Victoria changed over the decades, and if so in what way? Has it moved closer to or further from what we would consider “Standard Canadian English”; that is the English of Central Canada [Also known as CBC English].

AD : In a very fundamental way, Victoria has always been part of the General Canadian dialect region. The greatest proportion of settlers and immigrants has consistently been other (i.e. Loyalist and Loyalist-descended) Canadians. But, Victoria wasn’t erected as a seat of government or trade—it was erected to establish a colony where the children of English immigrants could maintain their ‘inalienable heritage’ as British subjects. In other words, there was some pretty heavy ideological baggage in the city’s roots! In so far as moving closer to, or away from, General Canadian English, well, that’s hard to say. The target is moving, because of course, change is ongoing and constant. Victoria participates in those changes, but the devil is in the details. Does the city participate in the same way, with the same end result? That’s something I’m going to leave hanging for now.

MI : If you could go back and collect something extra about the data you have from the past, what do you wish had been collected?

AD : It would be great to know how long those people’s families had been in Victoria. For the contemporary recordings we know that we have first to sixth generation Victorians. That’s a super informative angle, but unfortunately it’s very difficult to track with the older data. Most of the speakers were likely first generation, but it’s possible that some are second and third generation. When did their families get here, and where did they come from?

MI : Have the subjects covered in interviews changed over time?

AD : Absolutely, but that’s a function of the materials. In most cases we are getting oral histories, and the topics are typically specific to the function of the oral history when it was collected (was it about the history of UVic, was it about growing up on the island, etc.). The beauty of these materials though is that they contain personal stories, and of course, the narrative is the gold of the sociolinguistic interview, so this brings a critical degree of comparability. If people are engaged in relaxed, casual conversation, it helps align the data. At the same time, we know that topic, setting, interviewer and the like all affect speaker performance, so this affects absolute comparability. We do our best with what we have. [The environment in which the interview is taking place and interviewer herself can and do affect the way people speak. For example, if you are speaking to you best friend who is recording you at your home, you will speak differently than if it were someone from the CBC, and you were in a studio]

MI : In light of the current use of social media, YouTube, television news, etc. Do you think projects such as yours will be easier or more difficult in a hundred years?

AD : Thanks to the Internet, there’s no doubt that potential sources are multiplying, but it all comes down to what your research questions are. At the end of the day, they’re what determines what is usable and what is valid, empirically. A lot of online content is accessible (and let’s assume that we are talking about content that is genuinely public and available for data mining), but that does not automatically entail that it is appropriate and justifiable given the aims of the research. And frankly, without detailed information about the speakers, the information-load of the materials is hampered. Give me an old-fashioned oral history any day!

MI : If someone from the turn of the 20th century Victoria sat in a coffeeshop today, what would most strike her about the English in Victoria today?

AD : I think their largest impression would be ‘What is this? Why does it sound so horrid? It’s not proper!’ Of course, I don’t believe any of this and I don’t agree, but nobody likes language change—it’s never “for the better”. On top of that, beliefs and impressions about language are inextricably linked in beliefs and impressions about people. And let’s face it, even the most “respectable” elderly women wear pants these days, so just imagine the reaction to early 21st century adolescents, the very same group that is responsible for “ruining” the language more generally!

MI : Do you have a recording or interview that is your favourite? A person who you like best from the recordings? If so why?

AD : I actually don’t. There are stories and exchanges that really capture me, but not individuals per se. Of course, some of the recordings are less engaging than others, but that’s human nature. Generally I find that if you take the time to listen, and I mean really attend to what is being shared, most people have interesting and compelling lives in some respect. Everyone has experienced joy, sadness, anger, love—the stories around these experiences are funny or heartwarming or heartbreaking. Not everyone is an accomplished story teller, but between the lines is life. Mostly what I feel is lucky—lucky that I got the opportunity to listen to people.

Victoria Harbour

Victoria Harbour

A sincere thank you to Professor D’Arcy for taking the time to talk about her fascinating research. It may not seem important at the time, but the interviews that take place with family, friends, or people on the street, may end up becoming important tools for linguists, sociologists, and others to study the way things once were.

Recording family members’ stories, and having them discuss the stories of their life will make an important piece of your family history, and a cherished record of your family’s past. It may also someday help someone like Alexandra D’Arcy learn about the history, culture, and community of which your family is a part.


Take care eh,


Michael Iannozzi