Why Do Canadians Say 'Eh'?
When I told friends in the Pennsylvania suburb where I grew up that I was going to college in Canada, their responses tended to come in two forms.
One was about the weather; to a southern Pennsylvanian, any temperature below 25 degrees Fahrenheit is cause for panic.
The other was a volley of linguistic stereotypes about the nation of Canada, involving either “aboot” or “eh.”
There are a few major ways a Canadian could use “eh.” The first is while stating an opinion: “It’s a nice day, eh?”
Another would be as an exclamation tag, which is added to a sentence in order to indicate surprise: “What a game, eh?”
Or you could use it for a request or command: “Put it over here, eh?” And then there’s the odd example of using it within a criticism: “You really messed that one up, eh?”
Other dialects of English and other languages have some similar tags. “Right,” “okay,” “yes,” and “you know” are all used in some of the same ways as “eh.”
In French, “hein” (pronounced “anh,” the same vowel sound in “splat”) is quite similar, as is the Japanese “ne,” the Dutch “hè,” the Yiddish “nu,” and the Spanish “¿no?”
These differ in some ways from “eh,” as “eh” can be used in some ways that the other tags cannot be and vice versa, but what really makes “eh” different is less about the way it’s used and more about its place in Canadian society.
But when your country’s most identifiable linguistic feature is a word that indicates inclusiveness, an openness to discourse, and a moderating effect on strong statements, it’s not such a crazy thing to assume that perhaps those qualities might be found in the people of that country as well.
Even if the stereotype of the obsequious Canuck comes from outside the country, from brash Americans who don’t much care whether or not the listener feels included in their statements, Canadians have claimed “eh” as their own.