May 02, 2005

Open access eh

By now, everyone understands the human value of freely indexed and openly accessible online information. Well, almost everyone -- Michael Gorman thinks that the "boogie-woogie Google boys" are on the wrong track entirely, and Jean-Noël Jeanneney echoes Gorman's concern about the "throbbing anxiety for anything and everything, scattering knowledge like dust". Still, most folks are pleased.

Linguists have a special reason to be happy about these developments, as the Economist pointed out back in January. That's why we here at Language Log have posted so often about new web search techniques, digital library developments, the open access movement and so on. I was reminded of this again when I recommended yesterday that people interested in the meaning of eh should look at actual patterns of use, not just native speakers' intuitions about possible use. Where, I wondered, could you find an accessible archive of Canadian English to study? A few minutes of searching turned one up.

Because the Canadian Hansards are available on line, and accessible to indexing by Google and others, I can search for {eh} on the site of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, and turn up 452 examples. While some of these are French "eh bien", there are plenty of stereotypically Canadian English usages. Looking across all the provincial Hansards, I think you could put together a modest corpus of eh usage, well worth examining in detail.

Here are a few examples, from Ontario unless otherwise specified:

The Chair: Do we have any nominations for the subcommittee?

Mr Craitor: It's me again, eh? I'm pleased to move that a subcommittee on committee business be appointed to meet from time to time, at the call of the Chair or on the request of any member thereof, to consider and report to the committee on the business of the committee, and that the subcommittee be composed of the following members -- the committee Chair as Chair, Mr Gravelle and Mr Klees -- and that the presence of all the members of the subcommittee is necessary to constitute a meeting.

I guess this is an instance of Gold's category 2, "statements of fact", though the example has some other interesting properites. An American equivalent here might be "OK". The same substitution would work in other cases that are rather different in force, for example this instance combining Gold's category 3 ("commands") and category 8 ("insults"):

The Chair (Mr Paul R. Johnson): ... The first order of business I'd like to deal with is, I would like to know if the committee members feel that it's necessary -- I suspect not -- that this portion of our deliberations be televised. We would like to have it recorded in Hansard, no doubt.

Mr Gary Carr (Oakville South): My mom likes to watch me.

Mrs Karen Haslam (Perth): Yes, but we don't and we have to.

Mr Carr: You're going to hear me anyways.

Mrs Haslam: Give us a break, eh?

In other cases, the American equivalent would (I think) be "huh" (or maybe "right"), for example after sarcastic evaluations (which are perhaps instances of Gold's category 4, "exclamations"?):

Mr Marchese: I don't know that any one individual could take credit for that, but Tom Long evidently is a pretty powerful guy. Do you know what he's proposing these days? That we have national testing for teachers. He says, "If Mike Harris could have such popularity now with the general public, I, as the potential leader, am going to suggest that we test all teachers, not just in Ontario but across the land." Brilliant, eh? He's good. Tom Long is so good at this bullshit-I mean this kind of-


or again:

Mr. Christopherson: [...] Beautiful, eh? Beautiful for the employer, but the worker’s out of luck. That’s what this really means, and that’s what they’re hoping will happen. They know what will happen, and so will anyone who’s watching this who’s either had experience being a part of an organizing drive bringing their union in or has negotiated on either side.

Other cases are somewhat opaque to me:

The Chair: You have about seven more minutes you can use. Mr Duncan, do you want to say anything? No. Very well. Third party, Ms Lankin.

Ms Lankin: I'd gladly use that extra time. No, eh? I'm going to speak very briefly on the disability income support program and then turn it over to my colleague to address the Ontario Works bill.

This seems to mean something like "No, actually, I'm going to speak briefly and then turn the rest of time over to my colleague". I don't know whether eh can be used this way in general.

In other cases, eh seems purely to be a device for commanding attention [this one is from Manitoba (link)]:

Hon. Glen Cummings (Minister of Natural Resources): Mr. Chairman, I think the best thing to do is--

Mr. Chairperson: Do you have the minister's mike on? He is not sitting at his seat, eh. He is sitting at Mr. Downey's seat.

There are also a few self-referential uses, as in this speech by Mr. Ramsey of Timiskaming (11 June 1985), discussing "why the guys across the chamber are going out next Tuesday" [i.e. losing an election]:

I do not hold any grudges against these people. We are all going to be making the same salary now. These fellows have probably forgotten how to drive their own cars. We will all be sitting at the back of a Toronto Transit Commission subway or streetcar -- huddled in the back, with our tuques on in the winter and talking as one hoser to another.

I noticed that my legislative assistant kept changing that word to "loser," thinking I was not spelling it right. I meant "hoser." She is not familiar yet with what a hoser is, not being from the Great White North as I am. "Loser" is probably also appropriate here. But we poor hosers could be in the back -- Leo, Alan, Mike and myself -- and we can talk about the problems of the north.

I can think of a new name. Mr. Speaker, I know you are aware of the rat pack in Ottawa. I would have a name for this club of travelling minstrels on the TTC in the wintertime. We could be called the "eh team." I do not mean as in capital A but as in "Good day, eh." "Good day eh," we could say on the TTC.

The Canadian provincial Hansards don't seem to have any examples of "narrative eh", either because there aren't enough examples of the right sort of narrative, or because "narrative eh" is too stigmatized for use in such a context. Perhaps there are some oral histories online that would remedy the deficit?

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 2, 2005 08:06 AM