canadian English

How long you been home?

We continue Canadian English month with a guest post by ELT writer and blogger Ken Wilson. Ken has an American wife, a Canadian mother-in-law, an Irish son-in-law and a Spanish sister-in-law. His Yorkshire nephew’s wife is from St Vincent in the Caribbean. He spends a lot of time in North America, particularly in the Canadian Maritime provinces.


As a regular visitor to Canada, I enjoyed reading Sherry Noik’s contribution to this site. Sherry hit the spot with her description of the way Canadian English has a foot in both camps, as it were, with the influence on vocabulary, usage and spelling of faraway British English and the closer and essentially more global influence of US English.

I usually spend the summer with my wife’s family in the fairly remote Canadian outpost of Prince Edward Island (PEI), one of the Maritime provinces in the east of the country. PEI has two claims to fame: it was the birthplace of confederation (i.e. it’s where they signed the documents to make Canada a nation) and it’s the home of Anne of Green Gables, the memorable, energetic character created by Lucy Maud Montgomery.

You see the effect of the former in names – the bridge which connects the island to New Brunswick is the Confederation Bridge, for example – and the latter in the names of stores and restaurants. Various tourist retail outlets are called Gee Willikers!, which is Anne’s favourite expression of surprise.

How long you been home?
My Canadian brother-in-law has a Spanish wife and two sons. Many years ago, I travelled to PEI with his first son Enrique, who was five years old at the time, lived in Spain and spoke no English. Everyone greeted the uncomprehending boy with the same question: How long you been home? I’ve been going to PEI for nearly 40 years, but no one ever asks me that question, because I’m not a blood relation of anyone from the island.

The sharp intake of breath
The first thing I noticed about PEI English was the sharp intake of breath (SIOB). Almost every response from the taciturn fishing folk of North Rustico consists of a sharp intake of breath, whilst saying ‘Yep’. The SIOB means so much more than ‘Yes’, though. My conversations with North Rusticans go something like this:

Me: Hi, how you doing?
Reply: SIOB (quite high-pitched) = I’m doing fine.
Me: Catch anything today?
Reply:   SIOB (shorter) = We did, but the catch was down on yesterday.
Me:   I’d like to go fishing tomorrow. Weather looking good?
Reply:  SIOB (longer) = Probably. You’ll have to come back in the morning to know for sure.

Scandinavians reading this will know what I’m talking about. The sharp intake of breath is common in Scandinavia, and seems to have come to maritime Canada via Norway and Scotland.

Do you play soccer-ball?
I’m a sports fan and when I’m away from home, I love watching sport on TV to learn new words, whether I’m watching the sport in Brazil, Japan or North Rustico. After all these years, I still don’t understand the nuances of American Football or baseball, but the increasing popularity of another sport closer to my heart has led to me learning some new words and phrases.

One of the first questions I remember being asked by a young Canadian was: Do you play soccer-ball? I’m certain that this is not standard Canadian English, but I’ve definitely heard many younger islanders use it.

There is no doubt that islanders have taken to ‘soccer-ball’ in a big way. It refers to soccer, of course, not football, to avoid confusion with American Football, which Canadians also play, but in far fewer numbers than they used to. Confusingly though, a lot of Canadian professional soccer teams use the FC suffix (e.g. Toronto FC), meaning Football Club.

Canadians talk about covering another player, not marking him/her, and I gather some people call soccer footwear cleats rather than boots. In the game itself, a game when the scores are the same can be a draw or a tie, but both words are used, as shown in this report about a Canadian playing in the English Premier League. The report also shows the North American habit of using graphic nouns to replace the word score.

Canadian David Edgar, 19, nailed the tying goal yesterday to help Newcastle United to a 2-2 draw with Manchester United, the team leading the English Premier League.

Here’s another graphic description of a goal from a Canadian soccer report, this time about an Italian Serie A match:

The equalizer from Pablo Armero was a howitzer from well over 30 yards out that zipped past third-choice Fiorentina keeper Vlada Avramov.

However, it’s clear to me that sports writers down in the US have been working hard to develop a language of soccer which is entirely their own. I have no idea what most of the following paragraph means.

Dropping Donovan into a tre-quartisa role in the 4-4-2 behind Jozy is an interesting option. If you essentially place Donovan in a displaced CF role, he can still supply in a link-up role between MF and F, and you fix the problem of finding a reliable goal-scoring threat to take some pressure off Jozy. Clint Dempsey will hang back in his usual role at outside mid, occasionally pinching in to support the attack.

For a native speaker of British English, there is so much to learn!

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Ken Wilson

1 Comment

  • A good post from Ken which highlights the micro-local dialects that abound in my homeland. Having been born and raised there (and even spending a great deal of time in the Maritime provinces) I have never, ever heard anyone say ‘soccer-ball’ when referring to the game of soccer. One of my favorite expressions from my time ‘out east’ is ‘hard in the head’ which means ‘annoying’.

    “Did you hear her going on and on about it? Yeah, she’s totally hard in the head.”

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