Why do Canadians say ‘eh’ and what does it mean?

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One of the most popular Canadianisms is the use of the word “eh.” Saying it in the usual intonation is a commonly known Canadian linguistic stereotype together with “aboot.”

But have you ever wondered why Canadians say “eh” all the time?

The origin of “eh”

According to CBC News, the use of “eh” predates Confederation. Its first known use was in an Irish play written in 1773 called She stoops to Conquor. More than 60 years later, Thomas Chandler- Haliburton published The Clockmaker (1836) and in it were many dialogues with heavy usage of “eh.” This shows that Canadians have been using it as long as Canadian English has been around.

In the 1970s and 80s, “eh” became more entrenched as characteristically Canadian. In 1971, Time Magazine published an article entitled Canadian English: It’s a little different, eh? which talked about “eh” as a true Canadianism. Then in the 1980s, SCTV’s show, Great White North featured the fictional all-Canadian brothers Bob and Doug McKenzie. They popularized the Canadian stereotype of a hoser, a derogatory term meaning an unsophisticated slob who watches hockey all day, drinks beer all the time, wears a lot of flannel, and ends his sentences with “eh.” The satire made an indelible mark in popular culture.

Why do Canadians say ‘eh’? CBC News

What actually is “eh”

In linguistics, “eh” is called an invariant tag. A tag is a word, sound, or short phrase added after a thought which shifts that thought in some way. “Eh” is of the invariant variety because it doesn’t change every time it is used. In the sentence, “Nice day, eh?”, it is used as a tag which changed the thought into a question. The “eh” here could be replaced by “isn’t it?” and have the same meaning. However “isn’t it” is a variant tag because if the subject and tense of the sentence changed, then you would have to change it, possibly to “aren’t they” or ‘wasn’t it.” But not with the good old “eh.” You can just add it at the end of a statement and not be bothered by subject or tense. It’s so convenient to use, that’s probably why you hear it all the time.

“Eh” is also called a confirmational, which means a word attached at the end of a sentence to confirm if something is true. For example, “It’s getting cold, eh?” or “That game was intense, eh?”

Aside from frequent use, “eh” has also grown to be known as a reflection of Canadian identity because it denotes politeness, friendliness and inclusivity. “Eh” softens a sentence to involve the listener, asking their opinion on the matter. It includes others in the discussion.

The many uses of “eh”

Aside from turning a thought into a question, “eh” can also be used:

  1. to state an opinion – For example: “It was a good movie, eh?”
  2. as exclamation or to express surprise – For sample: “What an ending, eh?” or “What a game, eh?”
  3. to state a request or command – For example: “Put that here, eh?”
  4. to confirm (or soften) a criticism – For example: “You really messed that one up, eh?”
  5. as the narrative “eh” – “Eh” used in storytelling denotes that there is more to come. It also engages the listener, using it to make sure that the person is still listening. For example: “So I went to this party, eh?” “And everyone there was drunk, eh?” “And so, I …”

Many newcomers might find it amusing, even endearing when Canadians use the word “eh” in most conversations. While we might still feel a little awkward using it ourselves in everyday conversations, at least now we know what it means and how it is used. Who knows, one of these days you might catch yourself feeling the urge to end your sentence with a little “eh” to complete your thought. Don’t worry, that day will come. Give it time, eh.

Sources: Why do Canadians say ‘eh’? by Dan Nosowitz, Jan 10, 2017, Atlas Obscura; Why do Canadians say “eh”? BCB News. Both accessed December 14, 2017.

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