Naomi Nagy

Linguistics at U of T

Talk presented by James at the Dialect and Social Change in Urban Diasporic Communities Workshop, 1-2 July 2010, Queen Mary, University of London.

Ethnolinguistic Variation in Toronto

James A. Walker, York University

Michol F. Hoffman, York University

Naomi Nagy, University of Toronto


The city of Toronto features a high degree of contact between many heritage languages in an English-dominant context, though different groups tend to settle in "ethnic enclaves" in which it is possible to function almost entirely in a minority language and interact largely with people of the same ethnic group. Does this high degree of language contact have linguistic consequences, not only for the English spoken in Toronto, but also for heritage languages that are maintained in subsequent generations? This paper reports on our ongoing research, which attempts to address the effects of language contact in this multicultural setting. Interviewing residents of Toronto of British/Irish background and descent from other selected ethnic backgrounds (Chinese, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Punjabi), we compare the use of English and selected minority languages (Cantonese, Faetar, Korean, Italian, Russian, Ukrainian) across generations and ethnic groups. Further stratifying speakers according to their perceived degree of orientation to the relevant ethnic group, we examine the sociolinguistic patterning of different phonological and grammatical variables. Our results show, unsurprisingly, that the English of first-generation Canadians reflects the influence of their first language, and that their use of their respective heritage language shows no evidence of influence from English. For English, second- and third-generation speakers parallel the British-descent group, though they differ in overall rates of use of particular features according to degree of ethnic orientation. The parallels observed between the younger generations and the British-descent group argue against the hypothesis that ethnolinguistic variation necessarily leads to change in English. In the heritage languages, preliminary findings include correlations between linguistic behavior (in terms of the variable (pro-drop)) and cultural orientation, and stronger correlations between linguistic behavior and orientation toward the heritage language. We argue that the degree to which ethnic orientation affects language use is less a consequence of language transfer and more a reflection of the desire to mark ethnic identity in a multiethnic context.

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