Accents changing across the Prairies, researchers say

Say the word "bag." Now say the word "beg." How similar those two words sound when someone says them can be a measure of where they’re from, according to a linguistics researcher and associate professor at the University of Manitoba.

How we say 'bag' and 'beg' can reveal where we're from

There is such a thing as a 'prairie accent' and it's changing, researchers say. (Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock)

Originally published on June 7.

Say the word "bag."

Now say the word "beg."

How similar those two words sound when someone says them can be a measure of where they're from, Nicole Rosen, a linguistics researcher and associate professor at the University of Manitoba told the Calgary Eyeopener.

Rosen's presentation about the Canadian vowel shift at the recent Congress 2016 Conference at the University of Calgary, highlighted how people living across the Prairies pronounce the letter A is changing.

"There's lots of different vowel shifts going on," said Rosen, also the Canadian Research Chair in Language Interactions. 

"This one we're looking at, the sound 'a' before a G is raising. We say that it's raising because what's happening is your tongue is higher in the mouth than before.

"But it's just before a G, so in a way it's actually splitting. So the 'a' before other sounds, like in 'map,' is different from the 'a' in bag, which is almost like an 'e,' like in beg.

"So bag and beg, depending on who you are, if you are a younger person in Calgary they probably sound the same. If you are an older person from a more rural area, or like Toronto for example, they don't sound the same, so it's happening with certain people and not others."

Calgary an epicentre of change

"Change tends to happen in cities first and then it kind of moves outward," said Rosen.

"You can think of it as fashion. Fashion changes more in the city than it does in the country and then it eventually gets to the country and it's sort of the same thing with language change."

In Calgary, the oil industry has attracted people making it a melting pot of languages and accents from around the world, which has helped shape the accent changes, linguistics researchers are noticing.

"Calgary is a very large city and has a lot of people that are coming from a lot of other places and when you get a lot of different people from different places with very loose social networks, people end up hearing how other people talk a lot and they start to change the way they speak, too."

'Prairie accent'

Is there such a thing as a "prairie accent?" Rosen thinks so. 

"It's subtle, but it's there."

But defining the prairie accent is trickier than hearing it.

Recent work out of McGill University also explores regional accents, as recorded on video:

"That's the hard part. First of all, there isn't a lot of research that's been done on it so we're just kind of trying to figure out how to define it," said Rosen.

"There are a number of different types of phonetic features that cluster, so it's not the case that only the Prairies have some of these features. But there's certain features that are more prominent on the prairies and they kind of overlap with other features," she says.

"Then all together it ends up sounding prairie-like but you might not realize it until you go somewhere else and somebody asks you, 'where are you from, you sound different,' or 'you sound like home,' are you from the prairies?'"

With change constant, Albertans could sound much different 20 or 30 years from now.

"There will be certain things that will mark us, just like somebody in Texas or somebody in England, we're all speaking the same language but you can hear differences," said Rosen.

"So the Ontarians are changing. Actually, they're 'a' before N, whereas we are not as much. We're changing the 'a' before G. The reasons behind this are a bit mysterious but we know it's happening because we can hear it."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener