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Generations of born-and-raised Victorians spoke like they were from England, but this local accent is nearly extinct
A moment that sticks out for UVic linguistics professor Alexandra D’Arcy in her research is a particular interview with an elderly woman.
The woman, who was born in Victoria, recalled an encounter with a person at a local bus stop who asked what part of England she was from.
After clarifying that she wasn’t, in fact, from the UK, the stranger was shocked because her accent was just so British.
“Well, I don’t think there’s anything remarkable about my accent,” the older woman said. “I’m born here. I speak just as my parents taught me to speak.”
When D’Arcy later played the recording to colleagues in England, they were astonished to hear the woman’s accent: it was indeed closer to a British accent than what would normally be understood to be a Canadian one. This was a fifth generation Victorian, D’Arcy told Capital Daily with a laugh. “And this is really unique to Victoria. I haven’t come across anything like this elsewhere in the literature.”
From the start, British heritage was very much a part of Victoria’s identity. It’s why you can still enjoy a variety of elegant afternoon teas, an abundance of shops—everything from tattoo parlours to candy stores—are adorned with Old English names, and Tourism Victoria boasts that the capital city is the most British city in Canada.
This English influence extended beyond the architecture and business names to the way people talked.
If you take a peek behind the tweed curtain, in certain pockets of Oak Bay, you may meet an elderly Victorian who was born and raised in the region, but whose accent is notably English.
This accent, called the Van Isle accent, is still present amongst people born before 1960. But it’s nearly extinct.
When D’Arcy was in her undergrad at UBC, she was told that the English in Victoria was really English. Now a professor in the department of linguistics at UVic and the director of the sociolinguistics research lab, D’Arcy has spent a lot of time researching this curiously British accent, how it lingered for so long, and why it’s now nearly gone.
“What we discovered is that the English in Victoria is very much like the English elsewhere in Canada, but we have these pockets of elderly speakers who do sound English,” she said. “And that’s because they were part of this heritage in a very direct way.”
For the most part, English speakers in Victoria now sound pretty much the same as English speakers anywhere west of Quebec. This isn’t surprising in the context of settler colonialism; in countries colonized by the British, like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, linguists have watched one variety of English emerge and replace other dialects.
“It is certain that no Ontario Canadian, meeting another Canadian, can tell whether he comes from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta or British Columbia—or even Ontario, unless he asks,” wrote Francis E.L. Priestley in his 1951 book, Canadian English.
For the most part, this has proved to be true, except, perhaps, in southern Vancouver Island in the 1800s and early 1900s.
To find out why the early English spoken in Victoria retained so much of its English roots, you have to look at the colonizers who settled the area.
Much of the area’s settler population came from Ontario through western migration, but about 20% of Victoria’s settlers came directly from England, many in the late 1800s.
These English immigrants were often sons of elite British families who were not first in line to inherit the family’s wealth, UVic history professor John Lutz said. With financial help from their families, these settlers came to Victoria in order to “seek their fame and fortune,” and brought with them their English accents, a persistent English influence, and a linguistic ideal.
It’s natural for new varieties of a language to form in the settler colonial context when speakers from a range of regional varieties are mixed together, D’Arcy says. But the Canadian English that was forming was considered vulgar by the British. In some British colonized areas, it leads to people pretending to have an accent—in Canada, this quasi-English accent was known as the “Canadian Dainty.” (Notably, Vincent Massey, the first Canadian-born Governor General—born in Toronto in 1887—spoke with the Canadian Dainty accent.)
The Victoria strand of upper-middle-class English setters, however, were so invested in preserving this linguistic ideal and creating a place where their children could be raised English, that they went to great lengths to achieve it. This meant importing English teaching materials, teachers, and headmasters and headmistresses directly from England.
“So, the English immigrants are sending their English children to these English boarding schools, even though they’re now situated on Vancouver Island on the West Coast of Canada,” D’Arcy said. “And it reproduces a linguistic ideal.”
The result: these children, who were born and raised on Vancouver Island, spoke like they had grown up in England. And in many cases, those children’s children, and those children’s children’s children still held onto this English accent, despite being generations removed from their England-habitating ancestors.
“So, you have the folks who have grown up here who sound English, but interestingly, they don’t sound like any living English person today,” D’Arcy said. “Because what their accents actually consist of is a combination of influences: great grandparents, grandparents, parents, teachers, friends.
“Here in Victoria, you have this co-mingling of features that are all recognizably English but none of which, in combination, actually reflect a contemporary English variety today.”
Nevertheless, British colonizers kept what they considered to be prestigious English. That is, until the Second World War. The schools in Victoria with British roots stopped importing their teachers and headmasters, and instruction began coming from elsewhere.
At the same time, the Island began opening up for tourism and day travel, and people began moving to Victoria from elsewhere in Canada, bringing the more standard Canadian English with them.
So today, this English accent is only heard amongst people who were born before 1960.
Throughout much of the city’s history, Victoria has been relatively isolated from the rest of the province. Whereas now, travel to and from the city is fairly easy and can be done regularly, travel to the mainland in the 1800s and early 1900s often required an arduous journey through a mountainous pass to Nanaimo. Even there, boat service was limited, especially in the winter. It wasn’t until 1960, around the same time that air travel started to become affordable, that a ferry terminal was opened on the peninsula.
Due to this isolation, and the restricted opportunities to come into contact with other speakers, the variety of English spoken by the Canadian settlers changed much more slowly in Victoria compared to elsewhere in the country, where contact was more regular and more sustained.
Every generation has its own accent, just like every generation has its own slang. But in Victoria, the generational shift was less pronounced.
D’Arcy says research has clearly shown that, for decades up until about 1960, English speakers in Victoria were three or four generations behind the linguistic change in other urban centres in Canada—even cities as close as Vancouver.
This meant that younger speakers in Victoria spoke in a way that more closely paralleled older speakers elsewhere in Canada.
“It’s only really in speakers born in the 1960s that all of that differentiation levelled out,” D’Arcy said.
Though the Van Isle accent and the conservative English variety is largely gone, some aspects are still present in Victoria English.
For example, it’s more common for Victorians to pronounce a hard ‘t’ (rather than a ‘d’ sound) in words like water and butter. Many Victorians also drop their ‘r’s after a vowel, in words like car and first—linguists call this non-rhotic.
“That’s a very English thing, right, that non-rhotic, which, interestingly enough, outside of an English accent is not prestigious in the Canadian or the North American setting,” D’Arcy said. “Bostonites get mocked for that exact thing.”
In sentences that show some kind of necessity, Victorians are more likely to use “must” instead of “have to”—i.e. “I must be home by noon,” versus “I have to be home by noon.”
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Victorians have also retained higher rates of a sound called the yod, which essentially equates to adding a small ‘y’ sound before a vowel—Nyews vs. news.
Though the yod hasn’t been fully retained in Victoria, it is still present locally, even amongst the youngest speakers.
This particular feature is not only considered English, but overtly prestigious, D’Arcy says. Broadcasters in Canada, like the CBC, prefer this pronunciation on air, and the yod sound is one that is often included in guidelines for on-air hosts to use. But it is rarely used by the general population.
There hasn’t been a lot of research on this particular sound across the country, because the assumption is that it’s just gone, D’Arcy says. While it may have been retained in other more remote communities in BC and Canada, she expects not, because “to get it, you really need an overarching ideology that associates with the prestige norm of British English.”
“That’s why I think Victoria is such a special place in terms of the ecology of dialects and varieties within the province, but also within Canada,” D’Arcy said.
In the US, researchers have been studying the Northern Cities Vowel Shift—which causes speakers in cities like Chicago, Michigan, and New York to pronounce words like “trap” as “tray-ep” and “lot” as “lahht.” Research has found that this way of speaking is disappearing in younger generations. The language in the Great Lakes region is shifting towards a more monolithic English.
This isn’t a surprise from a linguistic perspective. As communities shift and change, so too does the language.
In Victoria, the heavily British-influenced English has shifted so much since the 1960s that the commonly spoken variety is barely distinguishable from Canadian English, unless you know precisely what you’re listening for.
It’s morphed so much, in fact, that D’Arcy argues the Victoria dialect isn’t really a thing anymore in terms of social consciousness. And with ever-increasing movement into and out of the city, it’s highly likely that the differences in how Victorians talk will continue to level out.
But this concept of a homogenous Canadian English is what D’Arcy is planning to study next—using the Victoria materials to compare what has happened with English elsewhere in Canada, and determine whether this idea of homogeneity is real.
“It goes to show how important it actually is: you know, the impact of talking to other people face to face, what that does to language,” she said. “As soon as you open it up, and you start coming into contact with all of these other people from these other places, all of a sudden the pace of change intensifies.”