Canadians are famous for using the tag eh. But why? Other dialects—for example New Zealand English—also use forms of eh. And all dialects (including Canadian) use similar tags, like huh, right, or innit. So what makes Canadian eh so distinctive?
Partly, it is because Canadians—or at least ‘hard-core’ Canadians—use eh in a particularly complex way:
- On the one hand, we use eh in the same contexts and with the same function as huh; in this, we are only superficially different from US and other dialects, since we all use the tags to confirm essentially the same thing;
- But on the other hand, we Canadian-English speakers also use eh in a distinct context, and with a unique function, that is incompatible with tags like huh—a usage that is strange, unfamiliar, and exotic to speakers of other dialects.
It is that ‘hard-core’ usage that makes Canadian eh distinct, and therefore notable—but the difference in usage is subtle, and (like many complex linguistic phenomena) not obvious even to the speakers who use the tags themselves.
In this post we’ll show you how to identify these two uses of eh, and help you to see the subtleties of how Canadians use the tag in context.
Basic Usage: Confirm the fact, eh
The story below illustrates the context suitable for the basic, more ‘normal’ type of Canadian eh. As you can see, this usage of eh is all about confirming a fact—something you’re pretty sure about, but that you think is worth checking with the other person.
Other examples of this basic ‘confirm the fact’ eh would include, for Canadians:
|‘Confirm the fact’ eh examples||Suitable contexts|
You’re leaving me, eh?
|Say to your girlfriend, when you see her walking out the door with a suitcase.|
You’re gay, eh?
|Say to your roommate, when you find him on the sofa with another man.|
I was really wasted last night, eh?
|Say when can’t you remember what happened the night before, and then your friend shows you incriminating video on social media.|
Most US speakers cannot use eh in these contexts, but the tag huh (also available to Canadians) provides almost identical function. So here, the difference between the dialects is simply that Canadians have an extra alternative for huh—an equivalence popularly recognized as the (only partly accurate!) generalization ‘Canadians can say eh where Americans say huh‘.
Most dialects allow both huh and right as confirming tags in all of the above contexts (with some subtle differences, related to how certain you are about the fact). Other dialects will allow yeah, and some will allow innit. We will explore the details of these alternatives—as well as equivalent tags in other languages—in later posts here at DexterousTongue.
Hard-core: Confirm that you know the fact, eh
Now consider the story below, which illustrates the context for the uniquely Canadian type of eh-tag. In this context, it’s not a matter of confirming whether a fact is true—it’s about confirming whether the other person has recognized, heard, or understood something, which you already know perfectly well.
In the example story, Mary already knows perfectly well that she has a new dog; what she wants is for John to confirm that he has bothered to recognize the fact.
Other examples of this special ‘confirm that you know’ eh would include:
|‘Confirm that you know’ eh examples||Suitable contexts|
I’m Canadian, eh?
|Your new American friends are talking about how great it is to be American, and then they ask you what you think. You’re pretty sure they know you’re not from the US, but it seems germane to point it out. (Note that—even though Canadians can say huh in other contexts—we cannot say I’m Canadian, huh?, here.)|
I’m gay, eh?
|You’re a handsome gay guy, and your roommate’s sister is hanging around a lot, and you start to wonder if she wants to go out with you. You figure she probably knows your gay, but it seems wise to make that clear. (Here you cannot say I’m gay, huh?—unless for some reason it’s just suddenly occurred to you!)|
It’s snowing out, eh?
|Your friend is heading outside with no coat on, and you’re looking out the window at the snow. You think he must be aware of the weather, but you want to check with him that he is aware of what he’s doing.|
This ‘confirm that you know’ eh is somewhat stigmatized, even in Canada: many Canadians who would naturally use eh in the ‘confirm the fact’ sense think this usage sounds sub-standard or uneducated. The usage is, nevertheless, quite widespread in Canada.
Once we have distinguished the two types of confirmation, it becomes clear where and why the Canadian usage stands out: only in Canada have we (or rather, some of us) extended our confirmationals to the ‘confirm that you know’ contexts:
|Confirm the fact||✔||✔||✔||✔|
|Confirm that you know the fact||✔||✗||✗||✗|
Though there is much more to say about confirmationals overall, it is this particular use of eh confirmation which makes us unique.
Some related links, eh
- Wikipedia overview of ‘eh’
- Excellent documentary on Canadian English
- Article on the inter-generational decline in use of ‘eh’ (oh dear eh?!)
- Article arguing that ‘huh’ is a ‘universal word’
- An academic-but-interesting paper on social uses of Canadian ‘eh’
- Austin J.L. 1962. How to do things with words. Oxford University Press.
- Avis, W. 1972. So eh? Is Canadian, eh?. Canadian Journal of Linguistics, 17, 89-105.
- Casselman, B. 1996. Hay is for horses, but eh? is for Canadians. Canadian Geographic July/August:21.
- Gibson, D. 1976. A thesis on Eh. Unpublished MA thesis. University of British Columbia.
- Gibson, D. J. 1977. Eight types of ‘eh’. Sociolinguistics Newsletter 8(1):30-31.
- Gold, E.& M.Tremblay. 2006. ‘Eh? and Hein? Discourse Particles or National Icons? Canadian Journal of Linguistics. Special Issue on Canadian English. (July-Nov.) 51(2/3): 247-264.
- Gold, E. 2005. Canadian Eh?: A Survey of Contemporary Use. In Junker, M.-O., M.
- McGinnis and Y.Roberge, (eds) Proceedings of the 2004 Canadian Linguistics Association Annual Conference http://www.carleton.ca/~mojunker/ACL-CLA/pdf/Gold-CLA-2004.pdf
- Johnson, M. 1976. Canadian Eh. Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 21:153-160.
- Love, T. 1973. An Examination of EH as Question Particle. B.A. Thesis. University of Alberta.