You live in Vang-couver but hail from O-soo-yuss: A hunt for accents

VANCOUVER — English-Canadian accents are famously homogeneous from sea to sea, Newfoundland and Labrador notwithstanding.

There are small differences — if someone says it’s thong-and-bunnyhug weather instead of flip flops and hoody, for instance, they’ll be from Saskatchewan.

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But UBC associate professor Molly Babel has always wondered how that could be?

So when the linguist — yes, a linguist named Babel — was approached by Bob Pritchard, who was curious about accents across B.C., a light went on.

Pritchard, an assistant professor of music technology at UBC’s Point Grey campus, had tried a dialect experiment while he was teaching music theory to a class.

“To give them a break from consonance and dissonance and Bach and Beethoven, I asked five of the students to stand up and say the name of the city they live in,” Pritchard said.

Bob Pritchard, an assistant music professor at UBC, is co-founder along with Molly Babel of DRAWL: Determining Regional Accents With Literature. PNG

After all five said “Vancouver,” Pritchard asked the class if they’d noticed anything.

He was greeted with puzzled looks, so Pritchard had the five say “Vancouver” again. Unknown to the students, all five volunteers had grown up in the Okanagan.

Hands went up the second time, some people heard ‘Vang-couver.’

“I grew up in Vernon and a few years ago I became aware of an Okanagan accent in a few students,” Pritchard said.

So he got in touch with Babel.

“We got together for coffee and out of that chat came this proposal,” Pritchard said.

Their projects is called DRAWL or determining regional accents with literature. Babel gave Pritchard a list of more than 100 words and asked him to write a short story that incorporated them. When someone reads the story that Pritchard wrote onto the online site, Babel studies how the chosen words are pronounced.

“The words had to be in a story because if you just read a list of words you’re focused and self-conscious of how you’re pronouncing them,” Pritchard said. “When you’re reading a story, you don’t do that.”

So far 200 people have signed up online and 100 have left recordings.

“I’m overwhelmed by the interest there is in this,” he said.

Do people from northern British Columbia really say they’re “going up to the coast” before setting out for Vancouver? Is it true that to someone from the Cariboo it sounds like Okanagans speak with a slow drawl? Who says O-soy-yoos, who says O-soo-yuss? Does the north-Island twang exist?

Babel and Pritchard want to find out.

“This idea that Canada, a territory so vast … how can there be such a monochromatic accent spoken across Canada?” Babel said. “That’s always intrigued me.

“I think we’ll find differences (across B.C.), but I’m not sure what those differences will be.”

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