Speaking of Montreal

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McGill Reporter
November 21, 2002 - Volume 35 Number 06
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Speaking of Montreal

Quick -- say "Mary was merry when she went to marry."

Photo Linguistics professor Charles Boberg
PHOTO: Owen Egan

If you pronounced Mary, merry and marry differently, you are from a) New York, b) England or c) Montreal.

"In English, variations tell you where people come from," says Linguistics professor Charles Boberg. As for the above sentence, most North American English speakers pronounce the words m/ary/erry/arry the same way, save for us Montrealers, who distinguish between "merry" and "marry," and our New York cousins, who differentiate them all, just like the British.

How the world's languages are rendered is the stuff of linguists. Boberg specializes in North American varieties of spoken English; and has turned his finely tuned ear towards Montreal.

Boberg says a good listener can tell what region folks are from by the vocabulary they use. If a group is casually discussing furniture and one fellow refers to his chesterfield, he's probably an older Canadian (whose daughter nonetheless might say "couch"). An American west coaster's soda is a Midwesterner's pop is an old-school Bostonian's tonic. To us Montrealers they are soft drinks, and pop to the rest of Canada. If a new gal in the office calls the water fountain a bubbler, impress her by guessing she's from Milwaukee. And where else in North America would you hear an English speaker say, "I'll take the autoroute to the dépanneur"?

Distinctions can be heard in grammatical structure, too. For example, as a social indicator, "I didn't buy no apples," would be said by someone who is working class, or trying to be, yet the semantic meaning, "I didn't buy any apples" is clear.

"People basically self-construct themselves socially," Boberg says. Just like what kind of car or house they buy or clothes they wear, how someone talks pegs their status. "People change the way they speak as an indicator of social situation."

Another way speakers mark themselves is by pronunciation, Boberg says, especially of their vowel sounds. Do you pronounce leisure to rhyme with seizure or pleasure? This difference can be heard easily and written orthographically (like the "ee" in meet or the "e" in met). Even finer distinctions, like the slightly varied vowel sound in "couch" as said by an American or a Canadian, can be represented by using the International Phonetic Alphabet. The IPA is a system of symbols that can represent sounds, including tone variations, force, and even where in the mouth the sound is formed.

But what if the subtleties in sound are too fine to pinpoint, or seem different to each researcher? "The problem with the ear is it's not so consistent," Boberg says.

Technology can be more reliable. "A computer decomposes those sound waves to their component frequencies," says Boberg, which brings precision to an auditorily fine field. Speak a few words into a microphone and the software Computerized Speech Lab renders your utterances visually, giving an acoustic analysis of the vowels.

Boberg explains that "a spectrogram shows different peaks of energy in the speech signal, called formants, which indicate the precise position of the tongue in the mouth during the production of a vowel. By measuring the frequency of these formants, we can get a more accurate record of tongue position than we do by listening and transcribing. The frequencies of the first two formants are correlated with the vertical and horizontal positions of the tongue, respectively, and together, they are reliable indicators of vowel quality that can be used to distinguish sounds."

Boberg uses these tools to analyze how English Montrealers sound. He's broken down native English speakers in Montreal into three groups: the Anglo Montrealers of British descent, who predominantly live in the West Island, Westmount or NDG, or in pockets of Verdun or Pointe St. Charles; those with an East-European Jewish background, who have Yiddish as a base; and Mediterraneans of south European extraction, "like Italians who may not be fluent in Italian, but still use it at home."

Anglo Montrealers sound mostly like English speakers in the rest of Canada, Boberg says, but if you include native English speakers of Jewish or Italian descent, Montreal English sounds quite different.

"In Montreal, English is a minority language," Boberg says. There are two factors behind the variation in Montreal's English-speaking ethnic communities, he adds. "There is a weak English model, because French is dominant, and there's self-segregation in homogenous neighbourhoods." For example, Italians who live in St. Léonard go to high schools where 80 percent of the students are Italian.

Research like his contribute to understanding the nature of language in ethnically diverse urban communities, and add to the complexity of describing speech for comparative purposes, Boberg says. If we compared English spoken in Montreal to that of Toronto, we'd get a different comparison depending on which Montreal English was used.

How a speech community came to be demonstrates how groups socialized. For example, the white population of Detroit a hundred years ago was quite mixed, ethnically. But today, due to the American melting pot, they sound more alike than not. Yet the English spoken there may have once been as diverse as Montreal's today.

How we speak gives us a deep connection to a sense of being Canadian. "The traditional areas of folk culture have been replaced by modern culture -- we no longer have traditional folk dances," Boberg says. "One of the few differences between Canada and the US is still the way we speak."

Now, with his pilot project out of the way, he'll be collecting interviews with 72 Montrealers of various ethnic and social backgrounds, and examining how those factors interact to determine how they speak. He's funded by the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture.

Boberg grew up in a multi-dialectical household -- all grist for the budding linguist's mill. His mother was from London, England, his father from Alberta, they lived in the mid-west US, then Edmonton (and he watched Monty Python). "That gave me a flexibility," he said, crucial for grasping the variables that go into creating language.

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