U of T linguistics prof researches Torontonians' unique speaking style

Derek Denis and his students are examining Toronto's city slang and distinctive accent

Derek Denis, an associate professor of linguistics at U of T Mississauga, is researching how Toronto's diverse languages are influencing English locally (photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Do you say "Toe-rohn-to" or "Tronno"? And what about that old stereotype that Canadians tend to say "aboot"?

While such distinctions in how we speak English are subtle and may be explained by a difference in dialect or variety, it’s how these subtle changes occur in a multicultural city like Toronto that interests Derek Denis, an associate professor of linguistics in the department of language studies at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

While teaching one of his courses, Denis told his students about Multicultural London English (MLE), a multiethnolect – a way of speaking with influences from multiple different languages – studied by linguists.

A subsequent conversation with a student led him to wonder if Toronto also had its own multiethnolect.

Denis and U of T Mississauga students Vidhya ElangoNur Sakinah Nor KamalMaria Velasco and Srishti Prashar conducted research and found that the Greater Toronto Area does indeed have its own multiethnolect – which they call Multicultural Toronto English (MTE).

It’s a way of speaking that arises from a variety of unique features present in Toronto, including the vast diversity of languages spoken in the city. The team's findings were published earlier this year in the Journal of English Linguistics.

“I was telling [students] about the development of a new pronoun – which is the ‘man’ pronoun – in MLE,” Denis says.

“Pronouns are slow to change linguistically, so the fact there is this new pronoun was exciting, and one of my students put her hand up and said, ‘We have that here, too.’”

An example of this is, “I almost missed the TTC, but mans made it here anyway,” where “mans” replaces the pronoun “I.” Variations heard in Toronto and in London include man, mans and mandem.

Indeed, “mans,” “Tronno“ and other such terms are features of MTE, Denis says.

The study found that among immigrant youth communities in the Greater Toronto Area, the way vowels are pronounced differed from previous reports of how Canadian English is spoken.

While similar phenomena have been documented in European cities, there hasn’t been a lot of research on the subject in North America, prompting Denis' interest in looking into the way Torontonians speak.

“I grew up in Scarborough, in a pretty diverse area,” Denis says. “You hear all kinds of English around you, all kinds of accents. So I started looking into this in an academic way.”

Denis’ team of work-study students collected data through interviews of youth in ethnolinguistically diverse regions of the GTA, which involved a set of questions to answer, casual conversations and a word list to read aloud.

“We noticed particular vowel realizations,” he says. “So, we created a list of about 100 or so words that had those target sounds in them.”

The researchers investigated a mix of vocalic phenomena, but two of them – “Canadian raising” (for example, the difference in the way Canadians and Americans pronounce “about”) and “goat” monophthongization – particularly caught Denis’ attention.

“Canadian raising affects two vowels,” Denis says. “When the vowel is followed by a certain sound, the realization of that vowel is a little bit higher in the mix. It’s subtle.”

However, the not-so-subtle “aboot” is what Americans hear us say, as the phenomenon doesn’t exist in American English. Denis says the presence of such a stereotype results in a social meaning attached to how the word is pronounced. As a result, his team's research shows that young Torontonians are trying to avoid pronouncing the word in any way resembling “aboot.”

As for the phenomenon of “goat” monophthongization, Denis explains that a monophthong is a sound formed by one vowel in a syllable – like “cat” – while a diphthong is a sound formed with a combination of two vowels in a syllable, like “coin,“ or the subtler  “goat.”

“It’s the process of a vowel that is normatively produced as a diphthong becoming a monophthong, so there’s less movement of the tongue,” Denis says.

Denis and his team found that in MTE, the youth surveyed exhibited “monophthongization” – a two-vowel syllable turning into a one-vowel syllable – with the word “goat,” where the “oa” sound became more of an “oh” sound: “goat versus “goht.”

“‘Goat’ monophthongization is probably the phenomenon we can most clearly link from an influence from Jamaica patois,” Denis says. “The vowel in Jamaican patois is not quite exactly the same, but we can trace the influence to it.”

MTE results from what linguists called a “feature pool,” where several variables influence how a language slowly changes over time. In Toronto, some of those features might be associated with ethnic diversity, such as with the “goat” example. But some features arise from the authenticity of being from a particular community – such as in the difference of how the word “Toronto“ is pronounced within the city itself or by others from elsewhere.

The results of the team's research showed a great deal of variability in the ways of speaking among youth in immigrant communities – the result of various changes and developments in how English is spoken across Toronto, notes Denis, who continues his research on MTE and plans to publish a book on the findings.

“It’s like this mixture that people pick and choose from,” Denis says. “That’s why I hesitate to call this a dialect because it’s not exactly that – it’s a pool of features that individuals use to develop their own linguistic style.”

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