The Manitoba sound

How we speak has been shaped by generations who've traversed this province long before us


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In the summer of 2000, Sheena Fougere and two friends hopped a plane bound for London. The trip was no work, all play: just a fun girls’ getaway, a chance to play tourist in England and have some laughs on the way. This was the year after Notting Hill, the blockbuster 1999 rom-com starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Inspired by the movie, Fougere wanted to visit the titular, prim West London district and peek at its pretty private gardens.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/03/2017 (2187 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

In the summer of 2000, Sheena Fougere and two friends hopped a plane bound for London. The trip was no work, all play: just a fun girls’ getaway, a chance to play tourist in England and have some laughs on the way.

This was the year after Notting Hill, the blockbuster 1999 rom-com starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Inspired by the movie, Fougere wanted to visit the titular, prim West London district and peek at its pretty private gardens.

So that’s where she and her friends were, and what they were doing, when they got slightly lost. This was in the dark days of travel before Google Maps. Fougere flagged down a passing bobby, or police officer, to ask for directions.

The conversation didn’t go quite how she expected.

“Are you from Canada?” the bobby asked.

Fougere, surprised, replied she was.

The bobby looked pleased.

“Are you from Winnipeg?” he asked.

Fougere’s jaw dropped. Yes, she replied, she was from Winnipeg. But how could he possibly have known?

“He said, ‘My roommate is from Winnipeg and you sound exactly like her,’” she recalls. “It was so bizarre for me. Here I am on the other side of the world, walk up to a complete stranger, and he asks me if I’m from Winnipeg.”

It’s a great little story, one of those intangible travel mementoes that springs a second life at dinner parties. But looking back, Fougere says, it also marked one of the first times she realized one could sound Manitoban.

A chance meeting in the midst of a global city. A passing bobby who could pull the thread of one voice from the linguistic tapestry that covers London’s streets. After that, how could anyone not hear themselves differently?

“It totally opened my eyes,” Fougere says. “You never think of yourself as having an accent. The only time I kind of related an accent to Manitobans was when that movie Fargo came out… our accents kind of mirror that, a little bit.”

It’s true: Manitobans don’t think about this much. Our accents aren’t famous or a point of civic pride. Unlike English speakers in New Yawk or Bawwston, we don’t often see our ways of speaking presented in pop culture media.

So we don’t usually conceptualize ourselves as speaking like Manitobans — until someone else points it out.

Yet language is tied to place, as surely as mountains and rivers. The words we use, the colours of our vowels, the way consonants find their way through our teeth: those belong to here, too — and they are changing.

You never think of yourself as having an accent. The only time I kind of related an accent to Manitobans was when that movie Fargo came out… our accents kind of mirror that, a little bit.

-Sheena Fougere

So what do we mean, when we think about how Manitobans speak English?

Every place has its own words, and Manitoba is no different. While we share some slang with our regional neighbours — people wear “gitch” in, but only in, all prairie provinces — other terms are more fully our own.

Where Ontarians go to “the cottage,” for instance, most Western Canadians go to “the cabin.” But only in Manitoba is it so common to go to “the lake” — at least, in a way that means a cabin as much as any individual body of water.

So there are terms specific to local geography; even to local liquor regulations. You can buy a two-four of beer anywhere in Canada; only in Manitoba will you go to the “vendor,” or buy “offsale,” because “the LC” is closed.

When linguists think about how we speak, they delve deeper. What they chase is not just what we say, but how we say it: where we place stress on different syllables, how our vowels take shape in the space of our mouth.

That’s a more complicated business than merely picking out quirky words. Even for trained linguists, it’s a painstaking process: regular people’s speech must be recorded and analyzed, every sound mapped and scoured for patterns.

● ● ●

At the University of Manitoba, linguistics professor Nicole Rosen is on a mission to understand that better.

Ever since Rosen got the language bug, she’s wanted to document Manitoba’s English. Partly, that’s because it hasn’t really been done before; there have only been a handful of studies of Manitoban English. None are definitive.

Yet she knows something about how Manitobans speak stands out. When Rosen, who is from Winnipeg, moved to Toronto for grad school, colleagues in the Big Smoke picked up on her accent: “You sound different,” they told her.

But how? That’s harder to pin down. For one thing, there’s no one Manitoban dialect; English can sound very different in Winkler than it does 60 kilometres away in Roseau River First Nation, let alone in Winnipeg or Thompson.

Still, there are a few broad trends. Think of the way many Manitobans tend to say the name of the province, rushing through the “ma” and the “ni” to get to the real meat of the word: the thick, emphasized “o” of “toba.”

That’s just one example. Linguists have found other vowels that live on the Prairies, in ways they don’t elsewhere in the country. Other Canadians may find our pronunciation distinctive; some Americans may find it downright funny.

“I think we do sound just a little bit more hick than other people,” Rosen says with a laugh.

Now, Rosen wants to know why. In 2013, she set out to collect and analyze recordings of English speakers from across key Manitoban ethnic communities. That work, she hopes, could help create a roadmap of how we speak.

Working with a team of grad students, she started by recording Filipino and Mennonite speakers. Next, she plans to do the same with Ukrainian and indigenous people, simply to document how their English words flow.

These groups were not selected at random. They span the indigenous heart of these lands, and three of the largest waves of non-anglophone migration. Language carries not just meaning, but the history and movements of people.

The same way Newfoundlanders speak with the lilt of a muted Irish brogue or southern Ontarians speak with a clip inherited from Loyalist settlers, it’s likely Manitobans carry the weight of our past on our tongues.

It’s not so far behind us, after all. Today, we think of Manitoba as a primarily anglophone province, but this is a relatively recent situation. For the first half of the province’s life, English was not nearly as common in the home.

Some of the shift towards English was deliberate, destructive and colonial. Residential schools decimated indigenous languages as a matter of policy. Children were forced to speak English. Many lost their mother tongue entirely.

In settler communities, the shift was more benign. Through to the mid-20th century, waves of immigration brought languages other than English or French, including Ukrainian, Plautdietsch (Mennonite Low German) and Icelandic.

At some point, most Manitobans from those communities switched to full-time English. Most second- or third-generation Ukrainians or Mennonites now don’t speak their grandparents’ or great-grandparents’ language.

Yet Rosen suspects some of what we hear in Manitoban English can trace its roots back to those settlers.

This phenomenon is well-known in linguistics. When one language seizes dominance from another, sound patterns can hop along for the ride. They can even rub off on other groups, when diverse populations speak to each other.

For instance, that hearty “o,” as in the latter chunk of “Manitoba?” It’s hard to be certain, but Rosen guesses it could find its roots in Plautdietsch; the vowel sure sounds equally at home in Low German as it does in regional English.

“It sounds like it, for sure,” she says. “It’s not certain enough to make a claim on it, and I don’t think I can say it definitively, but that’s something that would be worth investigating.”

Speaking Manitoban, to be short, is a shared effort of everyone who lives here — and everyone who came before.

● ● ●

In the mid-19th century, visitors to the Red River Settlement described a daily life that was bursting with language. The trading post of Fort Garry echoed with the sounds of Cree and Ojibwa, English and French, even Scots Gaelic.

For a time, Cree became the lingua franca, or language of common communication. Many white Hudson’s Bay Co. traders could speak it, as did most First Nations and Métis, so it bridged the gap between tongues.

Languages evolve much like living organisms do. The intermingling voices of the Red River Valley created a fertile environment for change, a sort of linguistic primordial soup; what grew out of that were new ways of speaking.

The most famous of these is Michif, a Métis language that still dazzles linguists for its ingenuity — it neatly mixes French nouns with Cree verbs. There is no other language in the world that shares quite the same structure.

But there was another way of speaking that sprung here, lived a vibrant life on the plains… and then disappeared.

It was called Bungee, and much like Michif, it was a product of cultural fusion. As English and Scottish traders settled in the Red River Valley and married indigenous women, their descendents found a tongue that was their own.

(The definitions of Bungee are fuzzy; at one time, it was called simply “the Red River dialect.” Others considered all English spoken by anglo-Métis to qualify as Bungee; for now, we’re focused on the most distinct, southern variant.)

In contrast to Michif, which is not intelligible to a monolingual Cree or French speaker, Bungee was not so divergent from its roots; it is properly considered a dialect of English, rather than a full-fledged language of its own.

Still, Bungee was a stew of languages. It drew words and grammatical features from Cree and Gaelic. For instance, Bungee speakers didn’t distinguish between gender pronouns: “he” and “she” were both used, interchangeably.

This, linguists believe, is likely a reflection of the fact Cree makes no such third-person gender distinctions.

Elsewhere, its Scots influence was obvious. Bungee speakers would “slock” a fire rather than douse it; one speaker’s brother used to call her “titty,” an old Scottish slang for “sister.”

Its rhythm, too, had a distinctly Scottish flavour. Consider this Bungee sentence, recorded in the middle of the 20th century: “Bye me, I kaykatch (nearly) killed it, two ducks with wan sot (one shot).”

By the time Eleanor Blain, then a linguistics student at the University of Manitoba, set out to document what was left of Bungee in 1986, the dialect was on its last legs. The last remaining speakers were a handful of seniors.

So Blain’s mission, she wrote in a 1989 thesis, was one of “salvage.” In other words, she set out only to preserve what was left of a moribund tongue for posterity. If Bungee was fading from life, it would not vanish from history.

This work proved to be a challenge. Language is often made to carry the weight of society’s problems. The way we speak can be a source of pride and identity; for members of oppressed groups, it can also be made to hold shame.

When Blain set out to ask elderly Bungee speakers about their language, she sometimes met with silence. Many of them didn’t want to be recorded; others became uncomfortable when asked directly about the way they spoke.

Soon, she realized why. Many of the last Bungee speakers did not identify as Métis, but as white. Grown up surrounded by racism towards indigenous people, even the linguistic connection to their heritage was sensitive.

As Blain gained speakers’ trust, their language began to open up. It was colourful, expressive, its very heart tied to the Red River Valley. It was a language by and for people who lived life on the plains and told rip-roarin’ stories.

For instance, Blain noted how some Bungee speakers made use of an old Cree word, “chimmuck.” It was originally an onomatopoeia of sorts; it meant the sound of a stone splashing in water, or any sort of similar splashing object.

But in a particularly colourful adaptation, Bungee speakers used the word to mean “drop dead.” One woman recalled an older man who refused to see a doctor about his heart problems: “When I go, I’ll go chimmuck,” he told her.

There is little left of Bungee now; it was never well-documented, and died in near-silence in the last 30 years. If it left any impact on Manitoba’s English at all, it would be difficult to extricate from the waves of speakers that displaced it.

Still, its flickers in history books offer a reminder: languages converge here, ways of speaking are born here. At least one of those ways died here, too. Manitoba’s history is tied up in tongues — and so, for that matter, is its future.

● ● ●

After 18 years of marriage, Rod Bautista and his wife, Jen, know each other as well as any two people can.

So when Bautista, 43, hangs up the phone, he’s not surprised when Jen can guess exactly who he was speaking to. It’s not just because of what he says to the person on the other end of the line — it’s because of how he says it.

“She can totally tell,” Bautista says with a laugh. “When I speak to my dad, or my aunt, they speak perfect English. But somehow I have a Filipino accent when I’m speaking to them. It’s just ingrained in the way that I speak to them.”

The thing is, Bautista doesn’t realize he’s doing it. The shift is as natural to him as breathing; it’s never a conscious decision. When he tries to pinpoint the difference, the first thing that comes to mind is he just “sounds more Filipino.”

Linguists call this an ethnolect, and to academics who spend their days tied up in the minutiae of how sounds find their ways through societies, it’s exciting. It carries traces of the past; it can also point the way towards the future.

In 2014, Charmaine Manalang was a grad student at the U of M. Working with Prof. Nicole Rosen, she set out to record speakers from among her own Filipino friends and family, a first step in analyzing how her community speaks.

Many of the people she recorded do not speak an indigenous Filipino language, of which Tagalog is the most common. They may understand it, but fluency in a Filipino language is uncommon among people born or raised in Canada.

Yet as Rosen’s team listened to the recordings Manalang collected, they began to hear some unique features.

When I speak to my dad, or my aunt, they speak perfect English. But somehow I have a Filipino accent when I’m speaking to them. It’s just ingrained in the way that I speak to them.

– Rodell Bautista

For one, young Filipinos’ speech was notably modern; their vowels were far along a curve, known as the Canadian Shift, that is remaking Canadian pronunciation. (This change has similarities to a shift that happened in California.)

This quality is subtle and is not one most English speakers would consciously notice. But in some Filipino-Manitoban youth, vowels smooth out. They’re made further back in the mouth and don’t jump out so dramatically.

What’s notable is that, even though most of these youth don’t speak Tagalog, their vowels seem to echo those in the Filipino language. Which means they could be carrying their parents’ words into their lives as young Canadians.

“Everything is a little bit softer in Tagalog,” says Manalang, now a speech therapist at Riverview Health Centre. “That’s something my parents would always point out: ‘That’s an English sound, that’s something we don’t do.’

“And I noticed it when I was talking to my friends (in English), that we wouldn’t put as much emphasis on some of those sounds as other Manitobans would.”

It’s not just pronunciation that they’re bringing along for the ride. Young Filipino-Canadians swap familiar Tagalog words with non-Filipino friends; often, being teens, it starts with things that exasperated parents might yell at them.

So in some schools now, diverse social groups shout “bilis” instead of “hurry up.” They might tease each other with Tagalog swear words and slang, of which there is a lot, passed between friends with a conspiratorial giggle.

Meanwhile, Manalang has overheard non-Filipino folk calling each other “kuya,” which means older brother, or “ate,” which means older sister. (In Tagalog, those terms are a respectful way to address anyone slightly more senior.)

Much of this cultural sharing happens in schools. Some of it happens in a cozy restaurant on Corydon Avenue.

● ● ●

In 2012, Roddy Seradilla fixed up a food truck, Pimp My Rice, to bring traditional Filipino cuisine to the streets. From the start, he saw it as a way to bridge cultures: the menu featured pronunciation guides beside names of dishes.

The reason, Seradilla says, was to help customers feel more comfortable ordering.

For many hungry folks who showed up at the truck, it was the first time they had tried Filipino food. He wanted to make it easy for them.

“Once I had regulars, you could see the pride when they came up and said, ‘I’ll have a tocino today,’” he says.

It was the first Filipino food truck in Winnipeg, and it was a resounding success. Downtown lunch crowds flocked to Pimp My Rice; if more Manitobans know what pancit noodles are today, then Seradilla’s truck is a big reason why.

On the heels of that success, in 2015 Seradilla opened Bisita, a sit-down restaurant on Corydon. He decorated the walls with Filipino carvings and hundreds of family photos, connecting diners to both cultural legacy and cuisine.

The restaurant’s staff is diverse. It includes folks like Seradilla, who were born in Canada, and relative newcomers from the Philippines. Some of Seradilla’s staff are not Filipino but, for all, language is part of the experience.

For Seradilla, it’s been a long journey to reach this point. Growing up in St. Vital, one of the only Filipino children in his school, he distanced himself from Tagalog and any hints of its inflection, looking to blend in with the other children.

“I remember, I would see and hear people ridiculing my parents on how they spoke,” he says. “It really bothered me, that someone could be so ignorant… it seems like accents are more appreciated now, than they were before.”

But as an adult, Seradilla’s view on his heritage language shifted. He began visiting the Philippines to immerse himself in learning Tagalog. Today, he is fluent, and the language rings throughout Bisita’s dining room and kitchen.

“My servers, the majority are non-Filipino,” he says. “They’ve just had a blast learning. Pronouncing the dishes is their first introduction. They’ll come back to the kitchen and say ‘(Customers) were so stoked I pronounced it the right way.’

With us (Filipinos) being so new, and being so big in the city, I’m sure that we’ve made an influence on this community. And the community has influenced us. We’re working of of each other, and I think that’s cool.

-Charmaine Manalang

“It gives confidence in the customer, that these people are passionate and interested in learning.”

Seradilla pauses there, for a minute; a courier from a food-delivery service has arrived to pick up an order.

Curious about the cuisine, he peppers Seradilla with questions: does Bisita serve pancit noodles? How about adobo chicken?

“I have a lot of Filipino friends, so I go to a lot of Filipino socials,” the courier explains. “I know all about the food.”

This is how cultures and languages do business: through friendship, through food, through familiar contact.

Chances are Manitoba is just at the beginning of this sharing: in 2011, nearly one in 10 Winnipeggers identified as Filipino, the largest proportion in Canada. The community is young and growing, and new fusions are taking root.

Just like all of the groups that came here before, they too could make a lasting mark on Manitoban English.

“Can we change the wider community’s speech?” Manalang muses. “Probably. With us being so new, and being so big in the city, I’m sure that we’ve made an influence on this community. And the community has influenced us.

“We’re working off of each other, and I think that’s cool.”

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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