“G’wan, B’y”: A Primer on Cape Breton English

by Melissa MacAulay

Published at 2016-10-28

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of introducing my husband and my 7-month-old son to the lovely island of Cape Breton, where my parents grew up. I remember my many childhood trips “out east” fondly, and I relished re-living the experience: crossing the Canso Causeway, driving the Cabot Trail, and looking out over the Great Bras d’Or.


Besides these, one of my favourite things about Cape Breton is the way everyone speaks. My parents and siblings, having spent over 40 years in Ontario now, have mostly lost their accents, but my “Caper” family still have fairly strong Cape Breton accents. 


A Brief History of Cape Breton English

Canadian English is generally thought to be remarkably homogeneous. There are very little — if any — differences between the English spoken by a Torontonian and a Vancouverite. So how did Cape Breton (and the East Coast in general) end up with such a distinct accent?


To begin with, the ancestors of many of the European-descended residents of Cape Breton arrived many generations ago, giving the region time to develop a local dialect (much like Newfoundland). Many Cape Bretoners, for example, are descended from Scots who fled Scotland during the Highland Clearances in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. During this time, an estimated 25,000 people in Cape Breton were Gaelic-speaking Scots.


By the twentieth century, there were roughly 100,000 Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton, although that number plummeted in the coming decades. While visiting family in Cape Breton this month, I heard tales of own my great-grandfather, who refused to teach his own children his native Gaelic lest they be looked down upon by the English speakers of the island.


Today, Cape Breton embraces its Gaelic roots, and holds many Gaelic-related events and activities in an attempt to preserve them. Visitors will notice that many road signs are in both English and Gaelic.  


The Accent

Because of the heavy Scottish (and to a lesser extent, Irish) influence in the area, Cape Bretoners sound different to other Maritimers, and even mainland Nova Scotians.


Simply put, residents of Cape Breton take the Canadian-English phenomena known as “Canadian raising to new heights. For example, while Canadians are typically teased for pronouncing “about” as something like “a boot,” in Cape Breton this becomes something more like “a boat.”


Another characteristic of Cape Breton English is a lack of something linguists call “intervocalic flapping.” In North American English, for example, the word “battery” is often pronounced like “baddery” — over time, the Ts in the middle of the word came to be pronounced more like Ds, since this was slightly easier to say. In Cape Breton English, however, this “flapping” is less common, and words like “battery” retain the T-sound — much like in Scottish and Irish English.


Phrases to Know

Of course, the differences don’t stop there. Cape Breton is home to some distinctly colourful expressions and turns of phrase. Here are some of the most common:


·     “B’y” — A shortened form of “boy,” usually added to the end of a sentence (see next example).

·     “How’s she goin’, b’y?” — A typical Cape Breton greeting.

·     “G’way witcha” or “G’wan” (“Go away with you” or “Go on”) — Used to express polite disbelief.

·     “Youse” — Used to address more than one person.

·     “Right” — Used as an emphasizing qualifier, as in “Youse are right comical!”

·     “Fat Archie” — A cookie made with molasses.

·     “Queerthing” — Can be used to refer to literally anything (usually when proper terms slip one’s mind).

·     “Lord tunderin’ Jaysus” (Lord thundering Jesus) — Possibly stolen from the Newfies. (After all, as the saying goes, a Cape Bretoner is just a Newfie that took a wrong left turn on his way to Toronto.)


Still, there is only one way to really get a grasp of Cape Breton English, and that is to visit the island yourself. Prepare your answers for the following questions — “What’s yer fadder’s name?” “Are you from the Pier, dear?” — and you should be just fine.