Ethnic Identity and Linguistic Variation in a Multicultural Context: English in Toronto

Michol Hoffman

York University, Canada


The interaction of language and ethnic identity has long preoccupied the study of language variation and change (Labov 1963), but such studies have tended to define ethnicity using ‘external’ characteristics, such as race, religion or lineal descent. Given the inherently internal or subjective nature of ethnic identity, such definitions may be unrevealing of social organization and linguistic practice. This paper draws on ongoing research on Toronto English to address the study of ethnic identity in sociolinguistic research.

Toronto features a high degree of contact among speakers of various minority languages in an English-dominant context. However, ethnic groups tend to settle in different neighborhoods (‘ethnic enclaves’) in which it is possible to function almost entirely in the minority language. Such enclaves have been argued to promote “ethnolects” (Carlock & Wölck 1981) that may eventually alter the nature of Canadian English. In the first phase of a large-scale systematic attempt to address the effects of language contact in Toronto, we interviewed 80 residents of Toronto of Italian, Chinese and British descent, stratified according to generation and enclave status, coupling sociolinguistic interviews with responses to an ethnic orientation (EO) questionnaire adapted from social psychology (Keefe & Padilla 1987).

Our analysis reveals stark contrasts between and within ethnic groups. While Chinese speakers have higher EO scores across all generations, Italians have a greater range of scores. These differences are reflected in the analysis of two linguistic variables ((t/d)-deletion, the Canadian Vowel Shift), in which Chinese speakers pattern least like the British control group and second-generation enclave Italians mark their orientation toward their ethnic-enclave status via elevated use of one component of the vowel shift. Our results offer evidence for linguistic transfer in the first generation, but differences between generations suggest that such transfer does not persist. The results for the vowel shift suggest that some speakers make use of ongoing linguistic changes to express their ethnic identity. We explain differences between the communities by their different patterns of settlement: Italian immigration began in earnest after the Second World War, while large-scale Chinese immigration is more recent. Thus, it appears that speakers in the more established ethnic community (Italian) have a greater range of ethnic orientations, and this range is reflected in their linguistic behavior.

Unfolding in a multi-ethnic urban context, this study and its results not only increase our understanding of the development of (Canadian) English, but also allow us to better understand the context in which ethnic identities develop. Furthermore, we suggest that combining different approaches to sociolinguistics provides us with a better means of examining the ways in which linguistic practice not only reflects but also contributes to social organization.


Carlock, E. & Wölck, W. 1981. A method for isolating diagnostic linguistic variables: The Buffalo ethnolects experiment. In D. Sankoff & H. Cedergren (eds.), Variation Omnibus. Edmonton: Linguistic Research Inc., 17-24.

Keefe, S.E. & Padilla, A.M. 1987. Chicano Ethnicity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Labov, W. 1963. ‘The social motivation of a sound change.’ Word 19: 273-309.

Session: Paper session
Variation 1 (Grammar)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 09