Canadian eh

“I don't know what's wrong with these little wastemen out here eh?”

— "From Time" by Drake


Canadian eh is a word that is usually added to the end of declarative sentences, as in the following:

1) You have a new dog, eh?
          (Wiltschko and Heim 2016:306)

Eh is similar to standard English don’t you and right, which can be used in many of the same contexts (Wiltschko and Heim 2016):

2)  a. You have a new dog, don’t you?
          (Wiltschko and Heim 2016:306)

b. You have a new dog, right?
(Wiltschko and Heim 2016:309)



Who says this?

Canadian eh is used across Canada, though Gold (2004) shows that it is slightly more commonly used in central Canada (Toronto, Ottawa) than western Canada (Vancouver). Gold (2004) also shows that the use of eh did not change significantly between 1973 and 2004.

Use of eh is often restricted to informal speech (Gold 2004; Johnson 1976). Although Gibson (1976) found no correlations between socioeconomic class, gender or race and the usage of eh, respondents to Gold’s (2004) survey associated use of eh with lower-class, uneducated and/or rural men.

Avis (1972) also finds some examples of eh in the speech and writing of American, British, South African and Australian English speakers. However, these non-Canadian ehs had a more restricted set of possible uses than Canadian eh.

Syntactic properties

Position in the sentence

Canadian eh can only appear at the end of a sentence or as a stand-alone utterance (Wiltschko and Heim 2016:309):

3)  a. You have a new dog, eh?

b. Eh? Can you repeat what you just said?

Per Wiltschko and Heim (2016), eh generally cannot appear inside of a sentence:

4) *You eh have a new dog?

One exception involves cases where eh appears at the end of a clause that is pronounced like an independent sentence (Gibson 1976):

5) Now you put your fingers in and turn it all the way around eh so it’s like this
          (Gibson 1976:59)

As a confirmational

A common use of eh is as a “confirmational,” where it is used to turn a declarative sentence into a “request for confirmation” (Wiltschko and Heim 2016:308). In standard English, tag questions like don’t you also perform a confirmational function.

Tag questions like don't you change their form depending on the subject and tense of the sentence to which they are appended &em; for example, don't you becomes didn't you in (6) to match the past tense of the main sentence. However, unlike tag questions, eh is invariant: it does not change its form depending on the context (Wiltschko and Heim 2016:308):

6)  a. I have a new dog, don't I?

b. You got a new dog, didn't you?

7)  a. I have a new dog, eh?

b. You got a new dog, eh?

As we will see below, despite their similarities, Canadian eh can appear in contexts where tag-questions are impossible.

With questions

In standard English, yes-no questions and wh-questions cannot have a tag question or right added to them:

8)  a. *Did you see the game last night, did you?

b. *Did you see the game last night, right?

c. *What are you trying to say, are you?

d. *What are you trying to say, right?

However, eh can be added to the end of both yes-no questions, as in (9a), and wh-questions, as in (9b):

9)  a. Did you see the game last night, eh?
          (Gibson 1976:30)

b. What are you trying to say, eh?
(Gibson 1976:30)

Question polarity

Polarity refers to whether a sentence is negative or positive. In standard English, tag questions can either match the polarity of the declarative sentence to which they are appended, as in (10a) or have reverse polarity, as in (10b):

10)  a. Oh, you're still here, are you?

b. That should be okay, shouldn't it?

c. He didn't do it, did he?

However, a negative sentence cannot have a matching negative polarity tag question:

11) *He didn’t do it, didn’t he?

Eh can appear in the place of both matching and contrasting polarity tag questions, with both positive and negative polarity sentences:

12)  a. Oh, you’re still here, eh?
          (Gibson 1976:30)

b. That should be okay, eh?
(Gibson 1976:30)

c. He didn't do it, eh?
(Gibson 1976:43)

Sentences with matching polarity tag questions are often intended to be sarcastic or challenging (Lakoff 1969:142). Gibson (1976:45) notes that eh can be used to paraphrase sentences both with and without this meaning, though the former is rarer:

13)  a. Oh, you're still here, are you?

b. Oh, you're still here, eh?

14)  a. That should be okay, shouldn't it?

b. That should be okay, eh?

With imperatives

Tag questions, especially with will, won’t or would, can appear on imperatives in standard English, as in (15):

15)  a. Think about it, won't you?

b. Oh lay off, will you?

c. Look at that, would you?

Eh can also appear in this context:

16)  a. Think about it eh!
          (Gibson 1976:48)

b. Oh lay off eh.
(Gibson 1976:49)

c. Look at that eh.
(Gibson 1976:48)

As with declaratives, eh can appear where both matching and contrasting polarity tag questions would appear.

Narrative eh

Narrative eh, also called anecdotal eh, refers to uses of eh like (5) above, and like the following:

17) So I go to this shrink, eh, and he goes like I don’t have no confidence, eh.
          (Wiltschko and Heim 2016:331)

According to Gibson (1976:57), following Love (1973), narrative eh is used to seek a non-verbal response from the hearer as confirmation that the hearer is listening and understands the narrative, much like standard English right.

Semantic properties

Special confirmational use

In its use as a confirmational, eh can be used to confirm that a statement is true, as in (18):

18) You have a new dog, eh?
          (Wiltschko and Heim 2016:334)

Here, eh seeks confirmation from the hearer that the statement “You have a new dog” is indeed true.

However, eh can also be used to confirm someone’s knowledge that a statement is true, as in (19):

19) I have a new dog, eh?
          (Wiltschko and Heim 2016:334)

Here, the speaker is seeking confirmation that the hearer knows that the statement “I have a new dog” is true, for example if the speaker is walking her dog and wishes to confirm that her friend has noticed her new dog. Standard English tag question confirmationals cannot be used to confirm knowledge in this way:

20)  a. #I have a new dog, right?

b. #I have a new dog, don't I?

Although sentences (20a) and (20b) are grammatical, they cannot be used in the dog-walking situation, because they suggest that the speaker doesn’t know whether or not she has a new dog. Canadian eh does not suggest that the speaker doesn’t know.

Semantic restrictions

Johnson (1976) argues that eh can only be used when the assumptions associated with the sentence to which it is being added are weak. In other words, eh “leaves the door open for a different point of view to be expressed” (Johnson 1976: 155), which is also true of standard English tags.

Thus, eh is incompatible with sentences that are based on a strong set of assumptions. For example, although eh is not syntactically incompatible with imperatives, the following sentence would never be uttered by an army sergeant commanding his troops:

21) #Forward, march, eh!
          (Johnson 1976:155)

This is because the sergeant’s assumptions that he has the authority to make the order and that his troops will obey are very strong.

Page contributed by Katie Martin on August 31, 2018.

Please cite this page as: Martin, Katie. 2018. Canadian eh. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at http://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/canadian-eh. Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD).

References

Phenomenon Category: 
Particles
Phenomenon Dialect: 
Canadian English (including Newfoundland English)