13 January 2008

Eh, eh?

A Canadian character in an episode of The Simpsons that we watched the other day was marked as such by ending his sentences with the word 'eh'. I'd heard of this supposed Canadianism before we moved here, but thought that it didn't sound that much different from the use of 'eh?' that you hear in Britain.

Having spent a lot more time talking to Canadians since then, I realise that the use of this tag (as linguists call it) is actually quite different. In England, 'eh?' is usually associated with a question (or is an alternative word for 'pardon?'). Here it seems to be more similar to the use you hear in the UK of 'like' or 'you know' - as a sort of audible punctuation mark. But it's more widely used than 'like' and 'you know' are in England, although there is a similar stigma attached to its use.

There's been research into it - Mark Liberman at the Language Log describes a survey carried out at the University of Toronto by Elaine Gold, which explains the different uses of the word. It's the 'narrative' use that sounds strange to British English speakers. Here's the example Gold quotes, from an earlier work by Walter Avis:
"He's holding on to a firehose, eh? The thing is jumping all over the place, eh, and he can hardly hold onto it eh? Well, he finally loses control of it, eh, and the water knocks down half a dozen bystanders."

I don't remember hearing 'eh' used this way (or at all, really) when we visited Alberta and British Columbia in 2006 and that is borne out by Gold's paper, where her survey suggests "that eh is used more in central Canada than in the west".

She also looked at the response of immigrants to the word:

New immigrants quickly pick up the use of eh, with two-thirds reporting use of eh with opinions after less than five years in Canada. They associate the use of eh with their developing Canadian identity: one speaker, who had been in Canada for less than two years, said, "I was kind of proud when it slipped out of my mouth the first time."

I'm too aware of 'eh' now for it to 'slip out' like that, but I'll be monitoring the children for signs of incipient ehs.

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