How Canadians Really Pronounce "About"
This week, Gretchen McCulloch is going to help us understand what it is that makes the Canadian accent sound the way it does.
What’s the difference between the pronunciation of house as in a big house and house as in I housed the visitors?
Despite the fact that they’re spelled the same way, the noun house is pronounced with an /s/ sound while the verb house is pronounced with a /z/. (I’m going to spell the verb as houze for the rest of this, just so we can keep track.)
For English-speakers from most countries, the differences stop there. But for Canadians (and for certain Americans, especially from more northern states), there’s also a difference in the vowel, or more accurately, the diphthong.
What Is a Diphthong?
A diphthong is a combination of two vowel sounds. For the ow diphthong in the word how, you start with the /a/ in la and gradually move your tongue towards the /u/ in blue, that is, a bit higher and towards the back of your mouth, while at the same time your lips get rounder. Try it: aaaaaaaauuuuuuu aaaauuuu aauu. If you speed it up, you get the diphthong in how. For people who pronounce house and houze with the same diphthong, that ow is the diphthong they’re using.
But for people who pronounce them differently, there’s a second diphthong. This one starts with the vowel in cut and moves towards the same /u/ in blue. But notice how if you switch back and forth between the vowels in la and cut (ah uh ah uh), the only thing that really changes is that your tongue moves a little bit higher. So if you go from the cut vowel to the blue vowel (uhhhhhooooo) and speed it up a little, you’ll get a diphthong that’s pretty close to what Canadians produce in house-the-noun. Because the difference between the two diphthongs is whether they start with the la vowel or the slightly higher tongue position of the cut vowel, this phenomenon is known as Canadian raising.
Does Canadian Raising Only Happen with House?
As you may have guessed by now, Canadian raising isn’t only limited to the difference between house and houze. There are a whole bunch of other words where this distinct diphthong also happens, such as the famous about, as well as couch, mouth (as noun) south, mouse, lout and so on, but not in words like loud, browse, mouth (as verb), gouge, or vow. (Listen to Gretchen McCulloch, a Canadian, pronounce these words.)
Is this just random, or do these words have something in common?
What Features Are Shared by Words with Canadian Raising?
Let’s compare the /s/ sound in house or mouse and the /z/ sound in houze or browse (ignore the spelling). What’s the difference between sssss and zzzz?
If you place your hand on your throat while you switch between the sounds sssss and zzzzz (seriously, try it!), you’ll feel that your throat is vibrating or buzzing during the zzzzz and isn’t buzzing during the sssss.
What about the rest of the sounds in the words with Canadian raising? The “t” in about and lout, the “ch” in couch, the “th” in mouth and south, and the “s” in mouse are all pronounced without buzzing, which linguists refer to as being voiceless. Now what about the words without Canadian raising? The “z” sound in houze and browse, the “d” in loud, the (second) “g” in gouge, the “th” in mouth (verb), are all pronounced with buzzing, which is referred to as being voiced. Also in the group of words that don’t have raising are words without any final consonant at all, as in how and vow.
So Canadian raising is a systematic change in the pronunciation of the diphthong /au/, such that the first part of the diphthong is pronounced slightly higher in the mouth when it’s in front of a voiceless sound. Some scholars have argued that historically, all English speakers had this distinction, and that it’s the dialects outside Canada that have innovated by lowering the diphthong, but Canadian raising is still the most common name for this phenomenon.
The Other Half of Canadian Raising
There’s also a very similar pattern, which we can think of as the other half of Canadian raising, which happens with the diphthong /ai/ as in aisle. The diphthong /ai/ is composed of the same /a/ as in la plus the /i/ in machine: try saying aaaaaaiiiiiiii first slowly, then quickly: aaiii. Canadians make a higher version of the /ai/ sound before /s/ and other voiceless sounds, as in ice, than before /z/ and other voiced sounds, as in eyes, the same pattern that happens with /au/ before house and houze. (Here are some example recordings of both types, and here are some diagrams of the vowels.) The /ai/ raising is also found in many more areas of the United States than the /au/ raising, so many people don’t recognize it as distinctly Canadian, even though they’re both triggered by a diphthong before a voiceless consonant.
If Canadians pronounce house and about with this other diphthong, where did anyone get the idea that they say hoose and aboot?
So if Canadians pronounce house and about with this other diphthong, where did anyone get the idea that they say hoose and aboot?
The answer to this isn’t in the mouths of Canadians; it’s in the brains of the non-Canadians who hear them, and it’s a thing called categorical perception.
Basically, categorical perception means that your brain tries to perceive the world according to the categories that it already knows, and it takes a lot of new evidence to get it to form another category. For example, if your language has words for yellow and red but not orange, you’ll group the lighter, goldier oranges in with yellow, and the darker, ruddier oranges in with red. (In fact, English didn’t use to have a word for orange, and this is why we say redhead and not orangehead.)
You Hear What You're Used to Hearing
So if you’re a person who doesn’t produce Canadian Raising, and you don’t talk much with people who do, your brain isn’t used to having to distinguish between the sounds of these two different diphthongs. And that means that when you do encounter the unfamiliar diphthong, it’s different enough that you realize it isn’t your regular how, but you don’t have a distinct category to put it in, so you subconsciously shove it in with another similar-enough vowel, in this case the /u/ in aboot (or sometimes the /o/ in “a boat”). But to people who actually do hear Canadian Raising on a regular basis, and therefore do have these two categories already established in their minds, saying that the Canadian pronunciation of about sounds like aboot is about as silly as talking about red pumpkins.
The next time you meet a Canadian (and my apologies to my Canadian readers to whom that must seem hilarious) and you think you hear an aboot or hoose, listen a little closer and see if you can hear the diphthong that starts with the u in cut and ends with the u in blue. uuuuhhhoooooo.
This article was written by Gretchen McCulloch who blogs at All Things Linguistic. Check out her site for lots of other great posts.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.