The English language in Canada

The English language in Canada: Status, history and comparative analysis. By Charles Boberg.  (Studies in English language.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xviii, 272. ISBN 9780521874328. $110 (Hb).

Reviewed by Susanne Wagner, Chemnitz University of Technology

In six chapters, Charles Boberg discusses some of the key issues involving the English language in Canada. The title of the book may come as a surprise to some readers, who might have expected to see ‘Canadian English’. This terminological shift is in fact one of the hallmarks of B’s book. When discussing varieties of English, many experts make a chronological—developmental—distinction between ‘English in X’ and ‘X-an English’, with the latter generally reflecting a more advanced, homogenized stage, while the former also allows for English as a second language (ESL) or even English as a foreign language (EFL) varieties (e.g. ‘English in China’ but not ‘Chinese English’).

In the Canadian context, however, this perceived step back has its origin elsewhere, namely in the increasing diversity of the English language in Canada, which to a certain extent mirrors changes in American English. We are thus dealing with the third stage in an evolution progressing from dialect mixing (‘English in Canada’)  to dialect levelling (‘Canadian English’, established through contact, spread, and westwards expansion),, and finally to dialect differentiation (‘English in Canada 2.0’, established through the development of new regional, ethnic, and social varieties).

There are other reasons that B prefers ‘English in Canada’ over ‘Canadian English’. First of all, B does not look at English exclusively, which would be impossible in the Canadian context. French and its status in relationship to English in different parts of the country not only plays a historical role, but also has once more come to the forefront of linguistic interest in recent years, primarily because of the language choices of immigrants. It is thus not surprising that B puts English into perspective in the very first chapter of the book; in Canada, English is ‘one of two languages’. The French-English perspective is complemented by the regional perspective, concerning dialects, as well as by the contrastive perspective, concerning North American English, and hinges on the ‘same but different’ concept when relating American English to Canadian varieties.

In over fifty pages, Ch. 2 provides a thorough overview of Canadian settlement history and patterns, making the chapter a good go-to reference for historical facts and their role in the foundation and establishment of Canadian English. Many tables, largely based on census data and earlier publications, help to illustrate the major stages.

Ch. 3 discusses three core areas of variation, namely vocabulary, phonology, and grammar, from a comparative perspective. American English is primarily used for comparison, and occasionally British English, focusing on traditional vocabulary choices. Grammatical (or rather morphosyntactic) differences are few, and on six pages, B only lists some tendencies that for the most part await more detailed analysis.

Based on B’s earlier work, Ch. 4 deals with vocabulary choices as well as ongoing changes in the lexicon. B’s North American Regional Vocabulary Survey (NARVS) project established bundles of lexical isoglosses that help clarify dialect boundaries within Canada. Ch. 5 gives an in-depth overview of current changes not only from the traditional regional perspective, but also with regard to social and ethnic variation.

In the final chapter of the book, B provides concise summaries of the previous chapters and addresses future directions, which are of particular interest and provide ample ground for future research on various levels.