The end of a dialect?
One of Canada's most distinct dialects might not be around much longer
The second a Cape Bretoner opens his or her mouth, longtime radio reporter Peggy MacDonald has a pretty good idea of what part of the island they’re from.
"Sometimes I can't quite put my finger on it," she said from the CBC Cape Breton headquarters. "But when I hear it, I know."
It might be a particular turn of phrase, how the person pronounces certain words, their manner of speech, or even a cadence, that will tip her off.
“There is a misperception off the island that there is only one Cape Breton accent,” she said.
But, there are “multiple variations” of the English language.
“Any Cape Bretoner will tell you that,” she said.
Her particular favourite is “what the ol’ timers call the ol’ Scotchy accent,” said MacDonald.
“It’s a beautiful, very deliberate way of speaking, usually with impeccable grammar,” she said.
“It still has a bit of the Gaelic lisp in it and it’s spoken in a very slow way, with kind of a drawl.”
But the accent is getting tougher and tougher to find, she said. It’s dying off with the old timers themselves.
“Every now and again when we get somebody like that that we can put on the air,” she said. “I just love it.”
Death or development?
“Whenever we talk about traditional dialects, we’re always afraid they’re dying out,” said Matt Hunt Gardner, a Ph.D. linguistics student at the University of Toronto, and one of the few people who has studied the dialects of the island.
To say Cape Breton English is dying, is to not understand how languages work, he said.
“Language changes all the time … dialects exist on a continuum,” he said.
“Whoever lives in Cape Breton and speaks English is speaking Cape Breton English,” said Gardner. “Instead of dying, we can talk about convergence.”
Traditional dialects are becoming more uniform and melding together – whether it’s on Cape Breton specifically or throughout the rest of the country.
Michael Kiefte, a Dalhousie University professor who documented dialects across Nova Scotia, agrees, but also notes the phenomenon isn’t restricted to Cape Breton.
Places all over the world are suffering from what he called dialect flattening, “where everybody is starting to sound more or less the same.
“The dominant culture is becoming so pervasive that young people in particular are identifying more with that than the more traditional culture and community,” he said.
As more people travel, get jobs and set up in different parts of the country, the more their native dialects start to converge.
Connection to the homeland
When it comes to Cape Bretoners, Gardner said the connection someone has to their homeland also plays a big role in the strength of their dialect.
“Sounding like a Cape Bretoner was not a good thing for a very, very long time,” said Gardner, a Sydney native.
“Up until recently when a lot of our industrial [activities] were shut down in the 90s, the view of Cape Bretoners from outside was people who … might be hard workers, but they weren’t very smart; they were drunks, they were party animals, they were backwards because of the way they talked and [the way] they thought about things.”
When Gardner was young, he was told if he wanted to be successful, he had to go to university and get off the island – something that would difficult if he sounded like what people believe is the traditional Cape Bretoner.
It was terrible, he said, but it was the attitude for many years, particularly in the industrial areas of the island.
“My parents and grandparents would correct me when I would say anything they thought sounded local,” said Gardner. “If I ever said the word ‘b’y,’ that was spanking territory.”
But the attitude has changed since, he said. When he interviewed high school students, they were indifferent about the way they sounded, whether they had an accent or not, he said.
“They didn’t have strong feelings like their grandparents,” said Gardner.
What determines the strength of someone’s accent is complicated, he said. But there is a key determination: “Nowadays, it has to do with how invested you are in Cape Breton,” he said.
The more connected a person is to their community – consciously or unconsciously – the more committed they tend to be to sounding like their ancestors.
Those feelings, as Gardner mentions, can also vary between different parts of the island.
“If you associate a dialect with poverty and joblessness, that tends to carry over into how you think about that dialect,” said Kiefte.
Siblings in the same family can often sound different from one another as well.
“People who sound like they’re from the dominant culture don’t really have that same connection to their local community as people who have a very strong dialect,” Kiefte said.
Some areas have a strong connection and have kept stronger traditional accents alive longer than others, while some communities have connected a completely new cultural identity to an evolved form of the traditional accent.
But, trying to lose the Cape Breton accent is still a common occurrence, according to MacDonald.
She often talks to people who have left the island and tried to ditch their accent while off getting an education.
“[But] you can still hear traces of it,” she said. “It’s part of an identity.”
A brief history
“The big thing that determines why different areas sound different in North America has more to do with the first people that settled there, and less to do with the people who came later.”
- Linguist and historian Matt Hunt Gardner
Dialects can be broken into three distinct groups:
- Industrial Cape Breton English (Sydney, Glace Bay, New Waterford)
- Gaelic influenced Cape Breton English (Inverness, Judique, Ingonish)
- Acadian influenced Cape Breton English (Cheticamp, Isle Madame, L'Ardoise)
While Cape Breton is part of Nova Scotia, its history is quite different.
Like the many parts of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton was first settled by the French, known as "Île Royale".
By the 1700s, however, while the Acadian settlers were deported from the rest of the province, Cape Breton still belonged to the French.
While English speakers were settling the rest of the province, it wasn’t until the 1800s, after the American Revolution, that Cape Breton was handed over to the British and became home to the northern New England Loyalists who fled their former homes in search of a new homeland.
During the first half of the 19th century, the island experienced an influx of Gaelic-speaking Scottish immigrants, who settled in the highlands and set up fishing villages on the Western part of the island. Their influence still dominates a lot of Cape Breton Island culture.
By the 1850s, coal mines had started to open up in what is now known as Industrial Cape Breton, attracting another influx of immigrants - more from Scotland, many from Ireland and Newfoundland.
The mines, however, continued to be owned by the upper class loyalists, so the English-speaking Irish and Newfoundlanders became the translators between the loyalists and the Gaelic-speakers – linguistic fusions that can still be heard today.
Once the Sydney steel plant opened up in the early 1900s, the immigration patterns got even wider.
People who were migrating to Canada to farm in what are now the western provinces, once they landed in Halifax, were instead driven up to the industrial area of the island by the allure and security of the steel plants.
“You get features of all those things that survived to this day in Cape Breton English in varying amounts depending on where you are,” said Gardner. “Part of the reason there are fewer differences between people nowadays is that the structure that kept communities distinct from one another are no longer there.”
Gaelic is no longer widely spoken, distances separating people aren’t as far, and the influence of American TV is getting stronger by the day.
“A lot of the differences have ironed out,” he said. “People have figured out different ways of understand their place in the community.”
Ontario and the Western provinces:
Ontario and the western parts of Canada were settled by the mainland Loyalists - typically coming from what was then Western Pennsylvania or upstate New York - who sounded much different than the coastal Loyalists who settled in the Maritimes.
As the settlers followed the railroad from Ontario to the rest of western Canada, the turns of phrases, pronunciations and sentence structures followed along with them.
Linguistically, having such a large geographic area with such similar dialects and accents, is quite the phenomenon, said Gardner.
“It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” he said. “So when we think about how Canadians should sound, that’s the model – anything that is different from that is going to somehow sound different.”
Retired Miner, Glace Bay
Industrial Cape Breton English
Sheldon McNeil worked for nearly 30 years in the Cape Breton coal mines. Although he retired 16 years ago, he still spends five days a week going back underground to teach tourists and students about his ancestry, as a tour guide at the Cape Breton Miners' Museum in Glace Bay.
McNeil is a third generation miner. His descendants came from Barbados and Scotland to work in the mines when they first opened up in the 18th century.
Glad Tidings Christmas Shoppe owner, St. Peter's
Gaelic Influenced Cape Breton English
Marion MacLeod started the Glad Tidings Christmas Shoppe in her garage 22 years ago. She was born near Port Hawkesbury, but grew up in St. Peter’s. Her father was Scottish and her mother was from Inverness county.
Antique shop owner, Arichat
Acadian influenced Cape Breton English
Floyd Martell knows his family has lived in the Arichat area of Cape Breton for at least five generations. He is also Métis – 12 generations back, his maternal ancestor was a Mi'kmaq First Nation and his paternal ancestor was French.
Born and raised in Arichat, he recently moved back from Toronto and opened up a little antique shop called U Found It!