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Canadian speech is frequently peppered with the filler word ‘ eh’. More than an interjection during pauses, this has become a defining characteristic of Canadian speech. Read below as writer M. Godoy explains the various uses and cultural references where ‘eh’ occurs.
Text by: M. Godoy     Country: Canada

sk someone to think of Canada, and nine times out of ten they will squeeze their eyes shut and conjure up vast landscapes of cold mountains, of snow and hockey. Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver, and – to be fair – they wouldn’t be far off. Any amount of variation upon the endless themes of nature, wildlife, cold, and poutine could be expected. However, ask someone to imitate a Canadian and there’s only one possible response: the eh.

I tried this experiment with a Danish friend of mine, Rikke, who studied abroad for a year in Sarnia, Canada. This is how the conversation played out:

Me: Hey Rikke, I’m writing an article on Canadian culture and stereotypes. Care to comment?

Rikke: “Let’s go and play hockey, eh?” That’s a real Canadian sentence.

Not only does this phrase incorporate Canada’s national obsession with hockey, but it fully embraces the peculiar linguistic tick that has come to symbolize Canada and Canadians just as much as snow and ice and beavers do. It is versatile, it is ubiquitous, it is the eh.

Eh? Not following? Let me explain more clearly. Eh is the expression, or filler word, most widely associated with Canadian English. It is of popular belief that if you engage a Canadian in conversation, they will constantly interject eh in front of, in between, and at the end of their sentences, depending on the context.

Eh has many uses, of which at least ten have been identified. The different types of eh are used in statements of fact (it’s cold out, eh?), commands (don’t forget, eh?), a way of saying “pardon me” (eh? What was that you said?), and in the telling of narratives (I was walking to the hockey rink, eh, when I realized I forgot my skates), to name just a few.

This short two letter interjection has been the subject of much academic study and debate, and these studies are preoccupied with exactly how Canadian eh is. Some academics insist that it is uniquely Canadian. For example, in Mark M. Orkin’s book Speaking Canadian English, it’s stated that eh is “so exclusively a Canadian feature that immigration officials use it as an identifying clue.” Others make the argument that eh is a linguistic feature that is found in many English speaking nations, and therefore cannot be solely attributed to Canadian culture. For instance, eh exists in Africa, but it is purely used as an affirmative sound and is usually more drawn out: ehhhhh.

In my own humble Canadian experience, eh is widely used throughout Canada although certain demographics certainly use it less than others, for instance: new immigrants. Matt, a Canadian living abroad, says “I think different people use eh in different ways, but they all use it whether they admit it or not. It’s probably a question of class. Rural folk would be more proud of their usage of eh as it is part of their Canadian culture, whereas the bourgeoisie would be more likely to claim they speak proper English.”

I think it is important to make the distinction that academics are the ones who are fuelling this debate, because according to the rest of the world, eh is so typically Canadian that it is frequently satirized. And by satirized, I mean we get laughed at.

There are a plethora of Canadian television shows – Great White North, the Red Green Show, The Royal Canadian Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, The Rick Mercer Report – that poke fun at all the great Canadian stereotypes, eh included. This is not to say that popular American television and film doesn’t do its fair share of teasing. South Park devoted an entire episode to the blaming of Canada, while Hollywood does its bit too. What’s more, American pop culture has a way of reaching audiences across the world, and this has played a large role in spreading the magic of the Canadian eh.

The pervasiveness of eh was made apparent to me when I was eighteen, the first time I ever lived abroad by myself. When I was very young, my family moved overseas because of my dad’s job and we lived in several countries. Even upon return to Canada we moved around, living in a few different cities in Ontario. For this reason, I think, I never noticed the use of eh in my speech. That is, I never noticed it until the Disney film Brother Bear was released while I was living in Denmark.

Brother Bear is a feature-length cartoon that in true Disney style stars various speaking animal characters, including two moose. These moose characters, Rutt and Tuke, are voiced by the famous Canadian hoser heroes, Doug and Bob Mckenzie, from the TV show Great White North. In 2004 I moved to Denmark for a year and, to my surprise, I became more Canadian than I had ever been before, because living overseas has a way of making you cling to your roots. All the Danish kids, with Rutt and Tuke’s dopey caricature of Canadians fresh in mind, loved pointing out exactly how often I did use eh.

At first, I was utterly surprised at the rate that previously unnoticed ehs popped out of my mouth. After surprise came denial, and then finally acceptance. In the end, there was really nothing else to say, except: I guess I’m pretty Canadian after all, eh?


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Basic Summary – A1

The word ‘eh’ is an important characteristic of Canadian speech. It is so commonly used that if you ask someone to imitate a Canadian, there is only one way to do it: using the eh. Eh is the expression most widely associated with Canadian English. It is believed that if you talk to a Canadian, they will constantly use eh in front of, in between, and at the end of their sentences.

This short two letter word has been the subject of much academic study and debate. Eh has many uses: at least ten have been identified. The different types of eh are used in statements of fact (it’s cold out, eh?), commands (don’t forget, eh?), a way of saying “pardon me” (eh? What was that you said?), and in the telling of narratives (I was walking to the hockey rink, eh, when I realized I forgot my skates), to name just a few.

According to much of the world, eh is so typically Canadian that it is frequently made fun of, especially in TV programs.

Comprehension

Below you will find text comprehension questions. Read and listen to the text and answer the questions (we recommend you read first and then listen).

C, eh? N, eh? D, eh? CANADA!

Quiz

 

Grammar in Use

Below you will find PDF documents with the Grammar in Use.

Elementary. “But” as a linker of contrast.

Advanced. Linkers of Contrast.

Vocabulary

Eh?

Nature in Canada