Saturday, February 19, 2011

The low vowel in Canadian and American English

A feature of Canadian English is the pronunciation of borrowed words with low vowels. Borrowed words such as pasta, Mazda, drama, and taco are often pronounced with the front vowel of "cat" whereas Americans tend to use the back vowel of "far."

Charles Boberg found that for 15 such borrowings, the Canadian pronunciation was always more likely than the American pronunciation to have the front vowel . For example, 82% of his American informants pronounce "panorama" with a front vowel in the third syllable, compared to 94% of Canadians. In a parallel manner, 5% of the Americans in his study pronounced pasta with a front vowel in the first syllable, compared to 81% of Canadians.

The following table provides a list of items Boberg used. For nearly each word, at least 70% of his Canadian informants had a pronunciation with the front vowel, with the exception of "macho," "taco," and "Vietnam." In these cases, however, the Canadian pronunciation was still more likely to use the front vowel than the American pronunciation was.

American pronunciation with low back vowel/Canadian pronunciation with low back vowel (in the case of multisyllabic words, this applies to the stressed syllable)

panorama 18% 6%
Pakistani 21% 9%
Iraq 28% 7%
pyjamas 58% 15%
plaza 75% 16%
Colorado 86% 26%
Vietnam 86% 44%
taco 88% 48%
Slavic 89% 15%
Mazda 93% 18%
macho 93% 68%
llama 94% 29%
pasta 95% 19%
lava 95% 23%
drama 95% 25%

Here is a list of many more borrowed words that tend to have the front vowel in Canadian English:

places- Acapulco, Basque, Colorado, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Nevada, Slavic, Slovakia, Vietnam, Yokohama, Yugoslavia
foods- avocado, bratwurst, cilantro, goulash, nacho, pasta, pecan, pistachio, souvlaki, taco
products- Datsun, Fiat, Lada, Mazda, Nissan, Yahoo

It is clear that Canadians are far likelier to use the front vowel in borrowed words than Americans. In many cases, the use of the front vowel is rare in American English. As a result, this is a feature which serves to distinguish Canadian and American English.

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