Some Canadians used to speak with a quasi-British accent called Canadian Dainty

The age-old "tomayto-tomahto" debate may bear the remnants of Canadian Dainty, a quasi-British accent spoken by upper middle class Canadians that is now mostly extinct, according to a Toronto linguist.

Schoolchildren taught to say 'tomahto,' 'shed-yool' over Canadian pronunciation in Victorian era

Vincent Massey, the country's first Canadian-born governor general, spoke with an extreme form of the quasi-British accent Canadian Dainty. (Associated Press)

Everything British is better. At least that was the sentiment in 19th-century Canada when the upper middle class developed a hybrid speech style that was not quite Canadian and seemingly British.

That quasi-British accent — coined "Canadian Dainty" by Toronto linguist Jack Chambers — is now mostly extinct.

But as the country celebrates its 150th anniversary, the University of Toronto linguistics professor says the emergence of the accent and its later demise were a testament to "the maturing of the Canadian personality."

Listen to Canadian Dainty with Peter Stursberg

CBC reporter Peter Stursberg reports on Dutch famine zone in 1945.

"It was Canadian English, the kind of English that I'm speaking right now, except it had certain British features overlaid on top of it," Chambers said. "And it was considered to be a kind of prestigious Canadian accent."

Immigration influence

Its origins date back to the two earliest settlement waves, Chambers told CBC News.

In 1776 — the first wave — thousands of British Loyalists fled the American Revolution and put down roots in Upper Canada or what is present-day Ontario.

"What happened, at that point, was the accents all across North America — on both sides of what was the United States border, the new border — the accents were uniform.

Jack Chambers, a linguistics professor at the University of Toronto, says Canadian Dainty was a 'kind of prestigious Canadian accent.' (Petar Valkov/CBC)

"They were all formed from 18th-century British English. So people who had settled in Canada sounded like people who had settled in the United States by and large."

In the 19th century, however, the British governors of Canada "decided that there were far too many what they called American-based Canadians on our side of the border."

That resulted in the second wave of settlement, which brought an influx of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish immigrants to Canada.

"They intended this to dilute any American sentiment that might be here in Canada," Chambers said.

British speech deemed superior 

But the massive migration brought with it a consequence.

"They started teaching schoolchildren to say 'tomahto,' to say 'shed-yool.'"- Jack Chambers, linguistics professor at the University of Toronto

"They thought the people who were already here — that is, the Canadians who were born here — they thought they sounded odd because they sounded like North Americans instead of like Brits," Chambers said.

Listen to Canadian Dainty with Lorne Greene

Lorne Greene warns of holiday driving hazards in 1956.

And at the time, British etiquette and speech were perceived as superior, he said.

"They immediately tried to impose certain Britain standards on Canadian English and it was moderately successful. I mean, it lasted for almost a century."

Vincent Massey spoke with an Anglo-Canadian accent. (Library and Archives Canada)

During the Victorian era, children were instructed to "enunciate clearly" and swap native Canadian pronunciation for the British counterpart, according to Chambers.

"So they started teaching schoolchildren to say 'tomahto,' to say 'shed-yool' — all of those features they considered to be proper."

A prominent example of the accent in action is Vincent Massey. The country's first Canadian-born governor general spoke with an extreme form of the accent called Anglo-Canadian.

Listen to Vincent Massey's 1939 Dominion Day address

Vincent Massey’s Dominion Day message in 1939.

Canadian poet Irving Layton ridicules that phenomenon in Anglo-Canadian:

A native of Kingston, Ont.
—two grandparents Canadian
and still living

His complexion florid
as a maple leaf in late autumn,
for three years he attended

Now his accent
makes even Englishmen
wince, and feel
unspeakably colonial.

"We were very proud that he was the first-ever governor general of Canada who was born a Canadian and yet when you hear him speak he doesn't sound like a real Canadian," Chambers said.

'Class accent'

The quasi-British pronunciations were a marker of the elite, Chambers said.

"The best educated people, the ones who went on to become doctors and lawyers and teachers in Canada, were the people who absorbed those lessons best."

Those in the working class "were untouched by it."

"Of course, it wasn't what the common people were doing," Chambers said. "Lots of people in Canada reckoned that they were not as educated, not as well-equipped to work in the world as certain others, and that's what happens when you get class accents."

The Canadian Dainty accent is similar to the Mid-Atlantic accent, native to Old Hollywood, which melded American English with British pronunciation.

Perception shift in latter half of 20th century

The accent started to wane in the 1950s and onward, Chambers said. And attitudes toward it started to shift, too.

"In the first decades of the 20th century, people who heard their bank manager or their minister speaking with the Canadian Dainty features thought that person is educated and intelligent," he said. "In the second half of the 20th century, when people heard their bank manager, clergymen speaking with a Canadian Dainty accent, they may have been thinking, 'Boy, that sounds pretentious to me.'" 

Today, the age-old "tomayto-tomahto" debate may bear the remnants of Canadian Dainty but it is rarely, if ever, heard.

"Things have changed. It's taken a couple of decades but now we are speaking Canadian English, without any kind of patina of British respectability."