Interview with Prof. Rosen

Professor Rosen is the subject of this week’s post. She is a professor at the University of Manitoba, and a Canada Research Chair. Her work has focussed on French outside Quebec, rural Canadian English, and Michif.

I asked her about her research on rural and Prairie English.


Michael : How did you decide to become a linguist?rosen

Professor Nicole Rosen : I was living in France when I applied and got in to Queens, I was living as an exchange student, and I knew I wanted to do something with language, but I didn’t know exactly what. So I just read through the entire course calendar at Queens to see what the options were. Then I saw linguistics, and I thought ‘that sounds cool, you get to study all these different languages, but you don’t have to just study literature’. Because I was already really into science, but I also always liked literature. Then I took a course, and I was just hooked from the very beginning.

MI : You’ve been made a Canada Research Chair. What does that mean, and how does that affect your research?

NR : It is funded at least in part by the federal government, and they fund academics in a number of different areas, to foster research in Canada. What it does is it allows you to focus on research. It is fantastic. It has been really good; I feel like I’ve been able to study what I’ve wanted to.

MI : What brought you to study English in the Prairies?

NR : It started, well I grew up in Winnipeg, so I grew up in the Prairies. And, I grew up with a number of relatives from small towns with a Ukrainian background, who were farmers really, and I always kind of noticed the fact that they spoke differently. I was from the city and they were from the country. I always noticed that, and I especially noticed that once I started studying linguistics. I was just always interested in knowing how the different backgrounds shaped people, and I noticed that the real difference seemed to be between the country and the city, and I never saw anything written about rural Canada. So it was something I was always interested in, but I just feel like I’m finally able to get around to it now.

MI : Why is it important to study rural English, and how do you think, or have you found, that it differs from the cities?

NR : There’s been different settlement patterns, and life is just different in the Prairies. And it is important to get a view from across Canada, and not just extrapolate what we learn in Toronto to the rest of the country, because the rest of the country is not Toronto. They don’t necessarily sound like Torontonians.

MI : Do you think that in studying linguistics, cities are studied while the rural areas between them are skipped over?

NR : I think there has been, but I think it is understandable. There are two reasons, I think. Normally you do sociolinguistics where you are. The amount of fieldwork you have to do, it takes a lot of time, and it’s expensive. And the other part, is that you need people from the area you are studying. You want to try to limit the amount of impact the researcher has on the people being studied by using interviewers from the area. It is better to get locals to do the interviews for you [This is known as the observer effect referring to the impact that the researcher has on the way the people being studied speak].

And there’s so much to be done all over Canada anyway. It’s not like people are deliberately skipping over rural areas; there’s just lots to do, and it makes more sense to do that where you are. Universities tend to be in cities, and especially with those that have linguistics departments.

MI : How would you describe the word identity as it relates to language? And especially as it relates to rural identity?

NR : The rural identity is one of the things I’m currently wondering about. In the Prairies there was block settlement, which means areas were settled by one group, so you’d have a Ukrainian settlement, and then a Mennonite settlement, and a French settlement. I wonder if that has made the network of people tighter knit, and therefore less likely to change the way they speak to match the way they speak in, for example, Ontario.

MI : Because there has been traditionally less mixing, you mean?

NR : Exactly. I have one student who comes from a French town that is next to a Mennonite one in Manitoba, and she says you can tell which of the towns a student comes from by the words they use. Only someone from the Mennonite town would use that phrase or word.

I think a lot of how identity relates to our dialect is below our consciousness. I think we’re representing ourselves to other people. So if we feel like we’re part of a certain group, we get that across by the language that we use. I think sometimes it is on purpose, and sometimes it isn’t.

MI : How has the recent boom, specifically from the oil industry, changed the makeup of the Prairie populations, and how has that shaped language or those block communities that you mentioned?

NR : There are so many people coming from elsewhere in Alberta, I can’t really speak to Saskatchewan although that is happening more-and-more. I think you’re getting a lot more mixing now than before. My expectation would be that the dialects would be becoming a lot less strong in those areas where a lot of people are coming from elsewhere [known as dialect-levelling, when dialects meet and they merge to become more “standard”].

MI : Finally, are there any words that you’ve come across that you find particularly “Prairie” or “rural” that you want to share?

NR : Well there’s definitely some words that are Prairie. The one that everyone talks about in Saskatchewan is “bunnyhug”, which is a “hoody”, and that’s popular there. I’d never heard of it before. Also, apparently “dainties” isn’t common out there [meaning here in Toronto], as in the little desserts you put out at the end of the “social”.

Actually you know what my very favourite one is, from Winnipeg, is “jambuster”. It is actually my favourite word from Winnipeg. These are just regular doughnuts, but instead of the hole they’re filled with jam.

MI : Oh so they’re just a jelly-filled doughnut?

NR : Yea, and I remember growing up watching Bob and Doug, and them talking about jelly doughnuts, and not having any idea what they were talking about. I never thought it was weird until I actually went to Queens, and someone was doing some linguistic research, and there was a picture, and it said, “What do you call this thing?”, and I looked at it, and said “jambuster! Of course. It is different”.

MI : That’s actually so much better than jelly-filled doughnut.

NR: I know, right? Jelly-filled doughnut is boring, but “jambuster” is busting out with jam.



Take care eh,

–   Michael Iannozzi, and the Canadian Language Museum Team