MONTREAL – If Montreal’s English dialects were flavours, the one spoken by people of British descent would be vanilla.
Asked to describe their accent, most old-stock anglos draw a blank.
“I guess I’m not savvy enough to know,” says Sally Aitken, 72, a former Westmount city councillor who grew up in Outremont and Beaurepaire and attended private schools in Ontario and Westmount.
In a city where you can hear a multitude of languages and accents between two métro stops, it’s kind of hard to pin down what constitutes a mainstream English Montreal accent.
Is it the posh, mid-Atlantic dialect of Montreal-born actor Christopher Plummer?
Is it the French- and Irish-inflected brogue heard in Point St. Charles and Verdun?
Or is it the way people talk on the West Island, which is to say, pretty much like anyone in Calgary or Vancouver?
Montrealers of British ancestry talk more or less like English Canadians elsewhere, says Charles Boberg, a sociolinguist at McGill University who has studied Montreal English for the past dozen years. “It’s the local variety of standard Canadian English,” he says.
According to Boberg, Montreal is unique among Canadian cities in having three distinct English dialects. In a study of the speech patterns of 93 anglophone Montrealers, Boberg found striking differences between people of British, Jewish and Italian heritage. For example, many Jewish Montrealers pronounce the hard “g” sound in “hanger” and “singer” while many Italian Montrealers emphasize the final consonant in words like “skirt” or “joke.”
Such differences are reinforced by the fact that English is a minority language in Quebec, Boberg says. About 450,000 Montreal-area residents speak English as their first language, while 2.4 million speak French and 785,000 speak another language.
Nearly 400,000 Montrealers trace their ancestry to the British Isles.
The concentration of ethnic communities in certain neighbourhoods also perpetuates local dialects, he adds.
Of the three groups Boberg studied, British-origin Montrealers share the most traits with Canadians elsewhere, he says. “The British Montrealers are like the control group.”
Canada has a surprisingly homogenous accent from coast to coast, Boberg says. In fact, the English-Canadian accent is very similar to that of Americans west of the Rockies.
One thing British-origin Montrealers have in common with other Canadians is the famous “ou” sound in “out and about.” English Canadians tend to say “oat and aboat.”
English Canadians – including Montrealers – also pronounce “pasta,” “drama” and “plaza” the same way they say “fast” and “cat.” That’s a great source of merriment to Americans, who pronounce those words “pawsta,” “drawma” and “plawza.”
English Montrealers have a neutral accent that was long considered a standard in broadcasting, according to Julia Lenardon, a dialect coach who works with local actors and business clients. However, in recent years, the idea of a neutral accent has lost currency because regional accents are now considered more acceptable in broadcasting than in the past, she says.
One thing that distinguishes Montreal anglos is that they pronounce “marry” and “merry” differently; other English Canadians say both words as “merry.”
Montrealers also pronounce “hand” and “family” differently from other Canadians, who tend to say “hee-and” and “fee-amly”.
Spoofs on “Canajans” who insert “eh” between every second word don’t go over as well in Montreal as in English Canada because Montrealers don’t sprinkle their sentences with the interjection. “When you get a lot of ‘ehs,’ it’s probably someone from Toronto, observes Chaim Steinberg, an English and history teacher at Bialik High School who moved to the city three years ago from the U.S.
Montrealers tend to enunciate the word Toronto more than residents of that city, who say “Tranna.”
History helps account for such differences, says Boberg. Ontario and the Maritimes were first settled by United Empire Loyalists whose accent left a lasting imprint. In Montreal, most English-speaking immigrants came directly from Britain, he says.
Long before novelist Hugh MacLennan described French and English in Montreal as Two Solitudes, the city’s English-speaking community had its own two solitudes: rich and poor. Philanthropist Herbert Brown Ames depicted how British-Canadian, Irish-Canadian and French-Canadian workers lived and laboured together near the Lachine Canal in The City Below the Hill, an inventory of industrial conditions published in 1897.
To this day, some former Point St. Charles residents retain traces of French and Irish influences in their speech. “They shorten things: It’s not St. Gabriel’s, it’s St. Gabe’s. It’s not the Point, it’s the Pint,” says Don Pidgeon, 73, a former Griffintown resident who now lives in Dorval.
Verdun resident Brian Pressner says he can spot a Point St. Charles accent instantly.
Old-timers from the Point will say, “I wasn’t a-scared of him,” Pressner says. “The way you would say it, there was always that little bit of bluster to it,” he says. Point residents also say, “ ‘I haven’t boughten it yet,’ ” he adds.
In Verdun, people talk about “unthawing” food, as in, “I’m going to unthaw a steak for supper,” Pressner says. “My sister lives out in Edmonton and she still says that.”
People in southwestern Montreal have an interesting way with place names, says Paul Moreau, 69, the owner of a transportation company who lives in LaSalle.
Bourgeois St. in Point St. Charles is pronounced Burgess.
Verdun (the borough) is pronounced with the accent on the last syllable, but the avenue is pronounced VERdun.
St. Willibrord’s Church is always pronounced Willibroad, he adds.
Up the hill from the city’s industrial core, where 19th-century captains of industry built lavish mansions, spoken English was almost untouched by French influences because much of the anglo elite didn’t speak it. As the late Senator Hartland de Montarville Molson quipped: “My father spoke French with a Bank of Montreal accent.”
British-sounding actor Christopher Plummer grew up in the Golden Square Mile, the great-grandson of Sir John Abbott, Canada’s third prime minister. But his posh mid-Atlantic accent was already rare in Montreal by the 1930s.
“We used to be ashamed of our Canadian language,” humorist Stephen Leacock wrote in 1936. But the vogue for affecting a British accent died out between the two World Wars, according to Leacock. “We say ‘yep!’ when we mean ‘yep!’ and we don’t dare try to make out it’s ‘yes,’ which is a word we don’t use; and if we mean ‘four’ we say so and don’t call it ‘faw,’ ” Leacock wrote.
Nowadays, it’s not always easy to distinguish a Westmounter from a Torontonian or Vancouverite, says Joceylne Andrews, 37, a librarian at Westmount Public Library who grew up in Westmount.
“Sometimes you can tell but sometimes you can’t, though. I think some people who are very well educated tend to sound somewhat the same across the board. It starts to blend into a more common accent,” she says.
Pointe Claire resident Terry Taylor can’t hear any difference between West Islanders’ accents and those of English Canadians in other provinces. The large number of West Island residents who come from other places means it’s hard to identify a particular local accent, she says. “We have a lot of Europeans, Germans and Dutch. We have good friends from Pakistan.”
In Point St. Charles, too, an influx of newcomers is introducing new accents, says Leslie Harris, manager of the lunch program at St. Columba House.
“When I grew up, it was white bread. Everyone was white. Now it’s culturally diverse. You used to be Irish or French back then. You just have to walk along Centre St. to see the diversity.”