Research details different accents across the Prairies

Ongoing research from linguistic student Bryce Wittrock is looking at pronunciation differences between Prairie provinces. Early findings indicating there may be a difference in the way people speak depending where you are in Alberta.

Measurable differences in vowel delivery were found in Edmonton, southern Alberta and Saskatchewan

Bryce Wittrock, 23, is researching Canadian prairie dialect differences. (Stephen Cook/CBC)

Travel from Edmonton to Lethbridge, Alta. and you might notice locals speak a little differently.

That's what a linguistics student at the University of Alberta has discovered as part of ongoing research. 

Student Bryce Wittrock, 23, looked at the differences in dialect between Prairie provinces.

In a paper published in the Canadian Acoustics journal, data shows measurable differences in certain vowel pronunciations between "southern Alberta and Saskatchewan English" and "Edmonton English."

One example from Wittrock's research is the pronunciation of "fired."

He found that in Edmonton, many pronounce the word differently than those in rural, southern Saskatchewan.

A University of Alberta student discusses the differences in how people in Edmonton, southern Alberta and Saskatchewan pronounce some words. 0:20

"That's an environment where a lot of previous studies wouldn't expect to find that," Wittrock said Friday. "Not everyone pronounces those words like that all the time, but it's a really fun example and something that future work is definitely going to be on."

Wittrock spent the summer driving around southern Alberta and Saskatchewan to record audio from 24 native English speakers, getting people to say certain words and phrases.

He also struck up conversations with them and compared the results to samples from a previous study using students who grew up in or near Edmonton.

"When I moved to Edmonton for school, I wondered if people in my new home speak like they do at my old home," said Wittrock, who hails from Medicine Hat. "I had an opportunity through studying linguistics to actually make this a study and find out with actual measurements and computers."

Some of the sound differences the project has identified includes vowels like the short 'i' in "hid" or "pig" and the short 'e' sound in "head" or "bed," he said.

"Those two sounds are more distinct — different from each other — in Edmonton than they are from the southern speakers," Wittrock said.

English dialects in Canada are spread over larger distances compared to a country like the United Kingdom because of the country's history, according to Wittrock.

Settlers and colonists brought their accents to Canada and people carried those ways of speaking across the country, he said.

"But over time, when different kinds of social circles don't interact with each other as much anymore, that's when they kind of drift apart and change," Wittrock said.

Language and identity

Benjamin Tucker, U of A linguistics professor and the paper's co-author, said there has been little work done comparing communities in southern Alberta.

"There's no kind of comparison looking at how southern Alberta is different from other parts of Alberta or Saskatchewan or British Columbia or any number of places," he said.

Canadian dialects are generally grouped into three or five categories, according to the research paper. They include an inland/Prairie dialect that roughly covers the area from the Rocky Mountains to northern/Western Ontario.

"The Prairie provinces are more interesting than maybe we thought before," Tucker said. "We're not all the same. There's a lot of different groups and variability in the groups that are really interesting.

"Over the long-term, hopefully we'll learn something about how we build identity and how we tie language into what that identity is."

Wittrock said it's too early to say why differences exist, although possibilities include an urban/rural divide or job differences.

"What that actual variable is that the change depends on is something that we'll hopefully learn as more data gets analyzed."

The study forms the basis of Wittrock's honors thesis. In his final year of an undergraduate degree, the linguistics major just finished applications for graduate school days ago.

"I'm enjoying research very much and it's something that I would love to continue doing," he said. "I would love to make a career out of learning more about language variation and change."


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