Ottawa Valley English

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Ottawa Valley English is Canadian English of the Ottawa Valley, particularly in reference to the historical local varieties of the area, now largely in decline.[1] The accents of such traditional varieties are commonly referred to as an Ottawa Valley twang or brogue. The Ottawa Valley historically extends along the Ottawa River from northwest of Montreal through the city of Ottawa and north of Algonquin Park. According to the Atlas of North American English, an Ottawa Valley traditional dialect enclave remains, for example, in Arnprior, which lacks the Canadian raising of // and strongly fronts the vowel sound in /ɑːr/, yet neither marked feature is documented in the city of Ottawa itself or other nearby urban areas, which speak Standard Canadian English.[2][3]:325

In the 1980s, linguist Ian Pringle and colleagues claimed there to be a huge variation in dialect features throughout the thinly-populated Ottawa Valley, notably with large Hiberno-English influence; however, the nature of such variation has never been thoroughly described.[4] At a general phonetic level, the Ottawa Valley twang of "Irish descended people" is characterized by raising of // and // in all contexts, as opposed to the country's more typical "Canadian raising", which is context-dependent.[5] In terms of syntax, the twang features the use of "for to" in place of the "to" initiative.[6]:279 Additionally, various regions of the Ottawa Valley may possess their own vocabularies (lexical features) as well.


While the French were among the first to settle in the Ottawa Valley during the early 19th century fur trade, they were later joined by the Scottish and Irish as the major cultural groups in the region. Work and trade opportunities made settlement in the Ottawa Valley attractive, as well as access to cheap land.[7] The valley’s population peaked in the years following 1891.

Although joined by Belgian, Swiss, Italian, German, Polish, and American Loyalist settlers, these cultures managed to remain fairly distinct from one another.[8] Concentrating in certain areas and preserving heritage languages and religions, these cultural pockets were what eventually led to the formation of the valley’s townships. While the characteristics of the Ottawa Valley twang are evident throughout the Glengarry, Lanark, Renfrew, Carleton Place, Grenville, Dundas, Stormont, Prescott, and Russell Counties, for example, each area also has their unique vocabularies and phonological traits as well.[3]:325

Scottish influence

Following the Napoleonic Wars, Scottish groups settled primarily in the Glengarry, Lanark, and Renfrew Counties. Soldiers that had served the British Crown during the wars were offered free land grants throughout Upper Canada, particularly in the area known today as the Ottawa Valley. Over-represented in the British armed forces, a great number of Scottish men and their families received these grants and ended up settling in the valley.[9] Those who settled in Glengarry County were mostly Gaelic speakers arriving from the Scottish Highlands, who eventually learned English from the neighbouring American Loyalists to the West and South. Many of Lanark County's residents, however, originated from the Scottish Lowlands. While Renfrew County was also a Scottish Highland settlement, many of its original settlers seemed to have known English already upon their arrival.

Irish influence

The Irish were undoubtedly the most significant group of settlers in the Ottawa Valley in terms of numbers. In some townships, as many as 95% of the population claimed to be of Irish ethnicity in 1941. While much of Irish immigration can be attributed to the Great Famine in the 19th century, the Irish were also drawn to the Ottawa Valley for work opportunities, examples being in the thriving timber industry at the time as well as infrastructure projects.[7]

Phonological features

The fronting of the vowel in the sound /ɑːr/ and the consistent raising of // and // in any context, all of which is reminiscent of Irish and Scottish English, has been reported in traditional speakers of the Ottawa Valley. The north shore of the St. Lawrence Valley is home to American Loyalist dialect pockets, including a dominant trend of the absence of the low-back vowel merger.[3]:326 Unlike speakers of Standard Canadian English, these north-shore speakers do not merge the vowels in words like "cot" and "caught", as is the norm in Standard Canadian English.

Lexical features

English in Glengarry features occasional borrowing from Gaelic words, an example being “gruamach” to describe a gloomy and overcast day. Some phonological features are also transferred from Gaelic dialect, such as the marked devoicing of final voiced consonants as well as the alteration of consonant clusters.[3]:327

Many residents of Lanark County originated from the Scottish Lowlands, bringing vocabulary elements of their heritage dialects as well. The term "ben", for example, is used to refer to what most Canadians would call a "living room", or what Ottawa Valley inhabitants would call a "parlour". "Rones" is used in place of "eavestroughs" and "gutters".[3]:327

Phonologically, the English of Renfrew County is not only influenced by Polish speakers in the region, but also by a greater contact with Irish populations.[3]:327

One of the strongest Irish influences on Ottawa Valley twang and the English of the area, in general, is the introduction of "for to". This is a syntactic feature where "for" is added to the "to" infinitive before verbs. The use of "for to" is an important characteristic of Belfast English, a prominent dialect spoken in Northern Ireland.[6]:279 While this is Irish-influenced, there has also been evidence of its use in Early English. Up to around the 1600s, citizens of the poorer and lower classes have been known to use "for to" in their speech and dialogues.[6]:281 The following are common uses of this phrase: It can be used in statements of purpose[clarification needed] ("I went to the shop for to get the cheese"),[6]:280 in exclamations ("For to tell her like that!"),[clarification needed][6]:282 and sentences where the infinitive is featured as the subject ("For to stay here would just be as expensive").[6]:283

Current state

Although home to a large, diverse collection of heritages and cultures, the distinctive traits of the Ottawa Valley Twang are arguably in decline. Years ago in 1975, Chambers observed that "Little of this twang can be found today as most of the surrounding area and all the city have assimilated to General English."[10] As a result, there is also a lack of literature in this subject. The study by Ian Pringle and Enoch Padolsky is among the only research entirely focused on Ottawa Valley and its linguistic features and characteristics.[3]

Even though it is one of the most recognizable traits of the Ottawa Valley twang, the data available in regards to the use of “for to” is limited and susceptible to skewing. While speakers have historically used this syntactic feature, many sentences containing the use of “for to” are considered grammatically incorrect in today’s Standard Canadian English. As a result, the use of "for to" may be underreported, or even further denounced by what is sometimes referred to as "negative over reporting".[6]:282

See also


  1. ^ Cheshire, Jenny. (ed.) 1991. English Around the World: Sociolinguistic Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press, 134.
  2. ^ Labov, William; Sharon Ash; Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 217, 221. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Padolsky, Enoch and Ian Pringle. 1983. The Linguistic Survey of the Ottawa Valley. American Speech 12, 325–327.
  4. ^ Chambers, J. K. "Canada". In: Cheshire, Jenny (1991). English Around the World: Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Cambridge University Press. p. 97.
  5. ^ Trudgill, Peter. 2006. Dialect Mixture versus Monogenesis in Colonial Varieties: The Inevitability of Canadian English. The Canadian Journal of Linguistics 51. p. 182.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Henry, Alison. 1992. Infinitives in a For-To Dialect. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 2, 279–283.
  7. ^ a b Vineberg, Robert. 2010. The Role of Immigration in Ottawa’s Historic Growth and Development: A Multi-City Comparative Analysis of Census and Immigration Data. Ontario: Ottawa Local Immigration Partnership (OLIP), p. 9.
  8. ^ The Valley’s Diverse Cultures. (2014).
  9. ^ Vance, Michael E.. 2012. Imperial Immigrants : The Scottish Settlers in the Upper Ottawa Valley, 1815–1840. Toronto: Dundurn, 53.
  10. ^ Cheshire, Jenny. (ed.) 1991. English Around the World: Sociolinguistic Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press, 134.

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