Linguistics students chart changes in Toronto English
Research by linguistics professor Sali Tagliamonte on the differences in English language between urban Toronto and smaller locations further afield has been given a boost by a trio of undergraduate students.
"Language change moves from urban centres to outlying areas," said Tagliamonte, a sociolinguist. "This means that Northern Ontario will likely preserve older stages in the evolution of Ontario English. Changes underway in Toronto may not have yet reached small and far-away Ontario towns."
To find evidence, Tagliamonte and students Jingwei Chen, Julia Chin and Ruth Maddeaux travelled to the towns of Temiskaming Shores and Kirkland Lake. There they conducted more than 100 interviews with local residents in order to hear them speak, capturing stories about their experiences growing up in these towns.
In preparation for the fieldwork, Tagliamonte arranged visits to schools, retirement homes and community centres so the students could identify candidates for their research. They also recruited their own subjects once they arrived.
“We scored more than one interview by just strolling into Tim Horton's and trying to look friendly," said Maddeaux, a Victoria College linguistics student.
Their visit bore some interesting results. "We found features of English that are indeed old," said Tagliamonte. "Some of the things I heard and observed can be traced back to the British Isles."
She cites use of words such as "dese" for "these" and "dem" for "them" that is common among people with Irish grandparents. As another example, they found the word “chesterfield” in common use rather than the words “sofa” or “couch”, which are preferred by Toronto urbanites.
"Northern Ontario offers a rich dialect heritage," Tagliamonte said. "People don't realize how much Canadiana is preserved intact in the north country."
"I realized how true it is that a sociolinguist never stops working," said Chin, a linguistics and Asia-Pacific studies student at Trinity College. "Everyone you meet is a potential subject, so we were always making observations and making notes of potential interviewees."
Their final task was to produce a collection of stories for each community to thank them for being so gracious and cooperative, through which they learned the importance of meticulous detail in linguistics research.
"We spent a month transcribing the stories verbatim," said Chen. "You include every 'oh', 'ah', false starts...everything. For every hour of interviewing, you spend 10 hours transcribing." The students then categorized the stories into themes and made booklets that have since been given to the public library and museum in each town.
"I learned so much in a way that's much more in-depth than assignments given in classroom settings," said Maddeaux. "To get there, start doing the work, and actually watch the theories unfold in real life - it's an amazing learning experience."
The research was undertaken as part of Tagliamonte’s Stories from the North: A Grassroots Perspective on History, Culture and Language in Ontario course in the Faculty of Arts and Science's independent experiential study program, in which undergraduate students conduct research with a professor off-campus.