How to speak Canadian

Very soon, Vancouver will welcome the world to the 2010 Olympic Games, and many visitors will be surprised to hear a foreign language. Here’s what you need to know about speaking “Canadian.”

Like the country itself, Canadian English suffers from a bit of an identity crisis: Do we speak the tongue of our British heritage? Or do we employ the vernacular of our closest geographical and cultural neighbour, the United States?

And in quintessentially Canadian fashion, we’ve come up with an offend-no-one resolution: a little deference, a little defiance. Canadian English is the bastard child of a queen and a cowboy.

We honour the monarchy by minding our p’s and q’s, and in using u’s in words like “labour” and “flavour.” In Canada, you enter the “centre” and catch a feature at the “theatre.”

The last letter of the alphabet retains its British pronunciation yet appears American in words like “organize” and “realize” – but we draw the line at calling the bearded Texas rock band “ZedZed Top,” and for that we will not apologize.

We will, however, apologize for any number of other transgressions, real or perceived. We are, as our international reputation holds, a polite lot. You won’t visit many countries where the word “sorry” is interchangeable with “excuse me”: It can mean “Would you kindly step aside to allow me to get to my destination?” or “Thank you for allowing me by to get to my destination” and also “Oh, my, it appears I’ve just walked past you on my way to my destination.”

Our currency is as colourful in name as it is in appearance. The “loonie” is a gold-tone $1 coin depicting that Canadian cottage-country icon, the loon. The $2 coin is bi-metallic (gold- and silver-tone) and is called a “toonie.”

These will come in handy when you go to buy a “two-four.” Having nothing to do with Jack Bauer, this is the largest denomination of bottles you can get in a case of beer. And in most of Canada they are sold by the government. In Ontario, where I live, no one wanted to waste precious happy-hour time ($2 drafts!) coming up with some fancy name, so they just called it The Beer Store. There are 450 of them in the province; there are about 400 Starbucks in the whole country. We have our priorities straight.

You’ve surely heard of Canadians’ love affair with beer? We’ve even unofficially named a holiday after it: Queen Victoria’s birthday, which is May 24th, is known as the “May Two-Four” long weekend. Many two-fours are consumed.

That white stuff on the ground? That’s called “snow.” And we only have one word for it. But you will most certainly hear about the “wind-chill,” a formula employed by weather forecasters to distinguish between amputation-is-imminent cold or simply freeze-your-arse-off cold. This is also a good way to know whether or not you’ll need to wear your “toque” (knitted hat worn in winter by many, worn all year round if you’re an emo kid).

Our (unofficial) national sport is not called “ice hockey,” just plain old “hockey” – ice is the default. Variations include ball hockey, road hockey, field hockey, air hockey and the two months of the year called “the off-season.”

And (Americans, take note), “rout” is what my hockey team does to your hockey team. “Route” – pronounced root – is the path to the nearest donut shop.

Speaking of donuts, they are our national pastry. The French have croissants; we have maple-glazed. For best results, pair one with a “double-double” (coffee with two creams and two sugars). To sound like a real Canuck, say you want to go to “Timmy’s” (Tim Hortons) to get it. Bring back a box of “Timbits” (donut holes), and you’re as golden as a loonie.

On behalf of all the hosers, welcome to Canada, eh.


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