Eh: What’s the Big Deal, eh?

You may have heard the word eh being used before. Often, it’s found at the end of sentences; for example, you might hear someone say ‘nice day, eh?’. Usually, eh serves to mark a question or initiate some kind of response from the listener, though it can also be used to signal agreement or inclusiveness. We call these kinds of words ‘tag particles’ – they have no set meaning on their own but are often used for a particular communicative function.

The tag particle eh has a long history, dating back in literature to the 1600s. It has been noted across a far-ranging spread of dialects and varieties, including Scottish English, Canadian English, Guernsey English and New Zealand English, suggesting a common British origin. In each variety it shares several semantic and social functions and it is frequently associated with national identity and vernacular use. However, over time these different varieties have also developed dialect-specific uses of eh. Today we’re going to focus particularly on the use of eh in New Zealand English, where it has the shortest but nonetheless very interesting history. But first, we cannot talk about eh without briefly mentioning its prominent role in Canadian English.

Canadian English

Eh has long been recognised as a typical feature of Canadian English, and it is so prevalent and so well-known that it is often the subject of jokes or caricatures of the Canadian accent. Already in the 1970s and 80s it was being used in advertisements, indicating that this particle was becoming widespread and nationally recognised.

Canadian eh has with time become associated with national identity, and this has endowed it with the status of a purely Canadian feature, or ‘Canadianism’, despite the fact that eh also plays this role in a number of other accents. The Canadian variant is typically pronounced as the short, front, mid-high vowel [e], and has a rising intonation. The main function of eh is to mark informality and inclusiveness, as well as seek agreement from the listener. Eh has been found to be widespread across Canada geographically and socially, although it is more frequently used by the lower classes, who tend to make more use of addressee-oriented devices in general. Though it has several functions, Canadian eh is most commonly found in:

Opinions: ‘nice day, eh?’
Statements of fact: ‘it goes over there, eh’
Exclamations: ‘what a game, eh?’
and fixed expressions, such as: ‘I know, eh’ and ‘thanks, eh’.

It is also found in questions, requests for repetition, insults, accusations, and narrative functions, although the questioning and narrative function of eh is often seen by speakers as uneducated, lower class, and rural.

New Zealand English

To jump forward a few centuries to a more recently developed English accent, eh is commonly found in New Zealand English as well. New Zealand English (NZE) speakers tend to prefer eh to other possible tags, leading to its highly salient nature. As in Canadian English, eh is a well-recognised feature, and is also showing signs of growing national awareness, exemplified in its use in a nationwide advert promoting New Zealand’s national soft drink; L&P. This soft drink is an iconic feature of New Zealand, originating and being produced there, and it is partially named after the small town it was created in.

Notice that the spelling here is aye rather than eh. This is most likely because in NZE eh is realised as the diphthong [æe], as in ‘face’, with a slight palatal approximant gesture (meaning that the vowel is followed by a slight ‘y’ sound), unlike Canadian eh which is realized as [e] in IPA. New Zealand speakers generally pronounce eh with a falling intonation, which distinguishes eh from most other varieties of English who typically have a rising intonation, Canadian English included. Eh most commonly occurs at the end of sentences, but is also likely to occur mid-utterance, unlike in most other varieties. For example:

‘the phone will be non-stop eh with all the girls ringing him up and stuff’

Eh performs a number of functions in New Zealand English and tends to be used to a greater extent by working-class speakers and in informal contexts, which overlaps with the patterning we find for Canadian English. The array of semantic roles eh has acquired are both New Zealand-specific and share significant overlap with the Canadian variant. In New Zealand English its most common purpose is to signal, recheck or establish common ground with the interlocutor, but eh can also be used to checking the comprehension of information, confirm shared background knowledge or seek reassurance of the listener’s continued attention. However, question and answer sentences discourage eh, quite unlike the Canadian variant. This wide range of usage may be partially due to the historical developments it has undergone since it arrived on New Zealand’s shores. 

But where did this eh in New Zealand English come from exactly?

Whilst we cannot know for sure with the current information we have, it seems very likely that eh came from Scots, where it is still found today. Previously, the general assumption was that New Zealand English was generally derived from the English of South East England, but now we know that a surprising number of words came from the north of Britain, particularly from Scots. The use of Scottish eh, or rather e (as it is commonly transcribed), is prevalent in some Scots varieties such as Hawick Scots and also in Edinburgh. Just like New Zealand English, it too has a falling intonation, although it is pronounced [e] rather than [æe]. E typically occurs with be and have, for example:

‘he had a stroke, e?’

There are a number of significant overlaps between use of eh in NZE and use of e in Scots. E can be used to confirm shared background knowledge, which matches its usage in NZE, where eh acknowledges the shared understanding between speakers. For example:

‘we know him quite well by now, e?

Furthermore, both eh and e can also be used as a positive politeness feature to make a statement, opinion, or request less sharp and more polite. For example;

 ‘Put it down there, e’
 ‘I like Sambuca, e’

However Scots e is also noticeable in question and answer sentences, unlike NZE. For example:

‘he’s coming, e?’  
‘he isnae coming, e?’

We can see here that Scots e performs a number of functions, some of which have significant similarities with eh in NZE, and some which differ. So, if NZE eh possibly comes from e, how did it get into the accent?

Scottish e contributed to the rise of eh in New Zealand English through process of new dialect formation. Historical dialect formation is (often) the result of a number of different dialects being brought into close proximity with one another in unique, isolated circumstances. Through various processes these form a new dialect. These processes have been categorized into five distinct periods by Peter Trudgill. Initially there is reduction and accommodation between the different dialects; the most dialectal features are discarded and ‘half-way’ features are frequently chosen. The next two steps involve further levelling (so removing the strongest dialectal features) and modification through speaker convergence (speakers adapt their speech to make themselves more comprehensible). During this process one feature is chosen and becomes standardised; in this case it was eh rather than other tags that was chosen as the agreement marker. The final components to dialect formation are focussing and adoption by the wider community. These last steps are still ongoing today; use of eh is led by the youth in the NZE community.

One of the great things about the New Zealand dialect is that we actually have recordings from the very first British settlers setting foot on New Zealand soil, right up until present day NZE. These recordings, stored in what is known as the ONZE (Origins of New Zealand English) corpus (https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/nzilbb/research/onze/), have allowed researchers to see (or rather hear) these processes of dialect formation in action. In the corpus, we found that use of eh was significantly higher in the region of Otago, which historically saw a high concentration of Scottish settlers. Unlike the rest of New Zealand, the dialect from this local area has a number of Scottish-inspired features, including Scots vocabulary items and rhoticity. Furthermore, speakers with Scottish parents showed greater usage of eh, regardless of where they had settled in New Zealand. Small numbers of e were in fact present in the first wave of recordings (1860-1900), but this becomes gradually replaced by eh after 1900. So here we can see the stages of dialect formation taking off; initially e is present in the dialect, but with reduction, accommodation, and levelling, eh was chosen and has become widely adopted into everyday NZE during the last fifty years. However, this might not be the whole story.

Whilst it seems likely that eh came into NZE from Scots and pre-colonial varieties of English, the difference in pronunciation between the two is more difficult to account for. However, there is some precedent for minority language influence on New Zealand eh; various studies have found that Maori speakers, particularly males, were the most frequent users of eh. The particle eh is very similar both in pronunciation and function to the Maori tag particle (pronounced [næe]. It is possible that once eh was adopted by Maori speakers if would have been influenced by to produce a form similar in phonetic quality. The functions of eh also appear to have expanded, again through influence from .

This change in turn possibly influenced young Pakeha (non-Maori) speakers, who have shown increasing use of eh by from around 1940 onwards. This gives us the particular ‘ay-ye’ pronunciation that is now in wide circulation, as well as the new meanings associated with eh. We can see this change happening shortly after increasing numbers of Maori were migrating to the cities in search of work, bringing them into greater contact with Pakeha speakers. The New Zealand Government also practiced a policy of ‘pepper potting’- the scattering of individual Maori families among Pakeha neighbours, in an effort to prevent the Maori community from clustering together in the cities. This naturally brought the two speaker groups into closer contact with one another, allowing for cross-dialectal influence.

So it appears that eh came initially from Scots and influenced the New Zealand English dialect. It was chosen as the invariant tag of choice, and was in use within the post-colonial population in New Zealand. This tag was then adopted by Maori speakers acquiring English and influenced by their own particular tag particle, . The pronunciation changed, as well the particular uses of eh. This new form of the variant was then adopted by younger, Pakeha speakers, and is now spreading through the society, led by the youth.

But what about Canadian eh?

Again, there are similar possible links between the Scots e and Canadian eh. In 1851-61 there were several waves of British settlers to Canada, especially Scots and Irish immigrants as part of a concerted effort by the British government to populate Canada. In 1901-11 another wave of British migrants settled in Canada, particularly Scottish. In the unsettled areas of Ottawa Valley, the colonial lineage of Scottish and Irish accents remains to this day and can still be heard in the speech of some local speakers in the Ottawa basin.

So, it seems that eh could have spread via Scottish immigration during the colonial period. It concurrently underwent linguistic changes through new dialect formation to produce the form that has surfaced in several colonial countries over time. Both the New Zealand and Canadian dialects have developed their own version of eh, but it seems that the roots of this particle in both dialects stems from the same source; Scots. Pretty cool, eh?

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