Rosen explores the language of the Canadian Shift

The easy way to pick a Canadian out of a crowd is to ask them to say "out and about" – a phrase that stereotypically 'outs' a Canuck 'about' as quickly as astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield could tweet from the International Space Station.

Because of our unique way of speaking, and no matter how hard we try to hide it, experts and non-experts alike hear the inflections: Out becomes 'oot' and 'about' becomes 'aboot' – the vowels are changed to alter the sound of the word.

Linguists call this 'raising', and it means that these particular vowels are pronounced higher in the mouth than in other dialects of English.

But there's also a lesser-known way to tell a Canadian apart from other English-speaking people, and it is an important process to take note of because it may fundamentally change how words are pronounced over the next 50 years.

The process, called 'vowel shift' in linguistics, happens all over the world in a variety of ways, but it is named the "Canadian Shift" for the uniquely Canadian direction of the vowel changes.

University of Lethbridge linguistics expert Dr. Nicole Rosen describes it as the way that people shift vowel sounds in words that cause them to be altered ever so slightly.

"For example, 'milk' becomes 'melk'; 'bag' might sound like 'beg,'" says Rosen.

"Other words can change as well – 'pit' starts to sound like 'pet'; 'pet' sounds like 'pat', and 'pat' starts to resemble 'pot'. The change in pronunciation can actually cause communications challenges, in particular within different generations of people who may feel they know how to pronounce words 'properly' based on how they learned them 50 years ago. It is definitely a generational evolution which we have to keep up with."

Rosen, a member of the U of L's Language, Identity and Assessment research group, studies endangered languages such as the Manitoba Metis' Michif language, the differences in speakers of western Canadian English, and the differences in speech patterns between members of the Latter Day Saint churches (Mormons) and non-Mormons.

She says the shift in vowel pronunciation isn't a dramatic event, but a gradual and barely perceptible change that happens over generations.

"We no longer speak Old English, which has become a completely separate language," says Rosen, a fluently bilingual (French) former Manitoba resident. "Parents or grandparents today might give their kids and grandkids a hard time for their so-called 'sloppy pronunciation,' when in fact they are changing the language by using it – it is inevitable, and not something you can 'fix' or 'undo'."

Rosen will be presenting her work at a conference in Paris, France, later this summer. The Language, Identity and Assessment research group recently hosted a conference at the U of L on language and gender.