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Canadian “eh?” originates from the Dutch

March 15, 2013


The Dutch have contributed one word to the Canadian vocabulary, and in fact it’s not even a word; it’s a sound. But how significant it is! The word “eh” has become part of the Canadian national identity.

How is it used?

The only usage of eh? that is exclusive to Canada, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, is for “ascertaining the comprehension, continued interest, agreement, etc., of the person or persons addressed” as in, “It’s four kilometres away, eh, so I have to go by bike.” In that case, eh? is used to confirm the attention of the listener and to invite a supportive noise such as “Mm” or “Oh” or “Okay”. This usage may be paraphrased as “I’m checking to see that you’re [listening/following/in agreement] so I can continue.” Grammatically, this usage constitutes an interjection; functionally, it is an implicit request for back-channel communication.

“Eh” can also be added to the end of a declarative sentence to turn it into a question. For example: “The weather is nice.” becomes “The weather is nice, eh?” This same phrase could also be taken as “The weather is nice, don’t you agree?”. In this usage, it is virtually identical to the Dutch “hè?”, the Japanese “ne?” or the Mandarin “bā”. This usage differs from the French usage of “n’est-ce pas?” (“Isn’t that so?”) in that it does not use a (technically double or emphatic) negative.

The usage of “eh” in Canada is occasionally mocked in the United States, where some view its use – along with aboot, an approximation of a Canadian raising-affected pronunciation of about – as a stereotypical Canadianism. Such stereotypes have been reinforced in popular culture, and were famously lampooned in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Singer Don Freed in his song “Saskatchewan” declares “What is this ‘Eh?’ nonsense? I wouldn’t speak like that if I were paid to.” There are many merchandise items on the market today that use this phrase, such as t-shirts and coffee mugs.

It is often joked about by Canadians as well, and is sometimes even a part of the national identity. For example, a Canadian national team is sometimes referred to as “the Eh? team”. Likewise, at one of their concerts, a member of the Canadian Brass, referring to their arrangement of the jazz standard “Take the A Train”, said that they’d considered calling it “Take the train, eh?”. A classic joke illuminating this: “How did they name Canada? The letters were thrown in a bag, and the first one to be picked was ‘C’ eh?, then ‘N’ eh? and finally ‘D’ eh?”

In the Canadian animated faux-reality show Total Drama Island, one of the twenty-two teens on the show, Ezekiel, is a stereotypical Canadian yokel who uses the term “Eh”, usually at the end of a sentence.

Where does it come from?

“Wat is het koud, hè?” (It’s cold, eh?) is a normal Dutch expression when it’s cold. Just like the Canadian “eh” it’s usually added to the end of a declarative sentence to turn it into a (sometimes rhetorical) question. For example: “It’s cold.” becomes “It’s cold, don’t you agree?”

“Hè?” doesn’t exactly sound like “eh?”, until we move to the south-west of the Netherlands, where dialect speaking people still say “eh?” instead of  “hè?”.

Zeelandic (Zeeuws in Dutch) is a regional language spoken in the Dutch province of Zeeland and on the South Holland island of Goeree-Overflakkee. Commonly considered a Dutch dialect, it has notable differences mainly in pronunciation, but also in grammar and vocabulary, which set it clearly apart from Standard Dutch and make easy comprehension by unskilled Dutch speakers difficult. Linguistically it is a dialect of West Flemish.

The Dutch arrived in North America in the 17th century to establish the New Netherlands colony, but it was not until the American Revolution that an indeterminate number of Dutch American Loyalists entered the British North American colonies. Already considerably anglicized, this group was quickly assimilated into the existing society and masses of immigrants who flooded into the colonies after 1815. Because of economic and social pressures, emigration from the Netherlands grew rapidly at mid-century and in the following decades, but it was directed to the rapidly developing American frontier.

When cheap arable land became scarce in the United States by the 1880s, the Dutch and Dutch Americans turned to the Canadian “Last Best West.” The 2006 Statistics Canada census recorded 1,035,965 (single and multiple response) people of Dutch origin in Canada. The Dutch quickly adopted Canadian culture and traditions, and they have been integrated almost to the point of invisibility.

In the 19th century a lot of people from the Dutch province of Zeeland emigrated to North America. These were hard working people, who were forced to leave their beloved land because of the economical situation, weather related disasters, bad harvests, social unrest, religious issues, etc.

To many immigrants, Canada became their new Homeland, and although they learned to speak English, they kept using their familiar “eh?”.

“We’re now Canadian, eh?”

Jack Vanderwyk

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