Updated: Jun 24, 2021
A Relic of Older Canadian English in Schitt's Creek?
Adapted from an academic paper I wrote for Marisa Brook's Canadian English course. Also appears on nullastic.
Schitt’s Creek, created by Dan and Eugene Levy (2015 – 2020), is a television show about the wealthy and spoiled Rose family who lose their entire fortune and are forced to live in a motel in the rundown rural town of Schitt’s Creek, which they once purchased as a joke. The show prided itself on representing Canada on the world stage by hiring Canadian actors, filming on Canadian locations, and...potentially using a relic of Canadian English from the mid-20th Century?
Canadian actress Catherine O’Hara portrays the mother Moira Rose, a fashionable, powerful, and pretentious ex-actress. In her portrayal, O’Hara adopts a very specific accent that another motel guest refers to as “unrecognizable” in "Motel Review," the eleventh episode of season 2 (White & Fox, 2017). This accent seems sort of familiar, sounding almost British while not entirely being British. This description also fits the once-esteemed variety of Canadian English: Canadian Dainty.
Coined by Chambers (2004), Canadian Dainty refers to the appearance of certain features of British English, such as not pronouncing the 'r' at the end of syllables, in the speech of Canadians. This type of speech was enforced in schools to segregate the upper classes from the lower classes, to the extent that people would actually insult speakers who were not using Canadian Dainty. Over time, however, it began to take on a negative connotation and was eventually laughed out of existence.
Wow, that kind of sounds like the Rose family! Once esteemed, now living in the laughable Schitt’s Creek. This idea prompted me to do a little research of my own into whether or not Moira Rose's "unrecognizable" accent was actually Canadian Dainty, and why O'Hara might have chosen this particular accent to represent Moira.
I looked at three features of Canadian Dainty in Moira's speech:
Not pronouncing the 'r' at the end of syllables (called codal [r]-dropping). Some varieties of English keep the 'r' in words like "car," like Standard Canadian English, and some varieties drop it, like Standard British English, Standard Australian English, and Canadian Dainty.
Pronouncing two 'a' sounds distinctively (called the BATH/TRAP split). In Standard Canadian English, the 'a' in "bath" and "trap" are pronounced the same, but in British English (and Canadian Dainty), the 'a' in "bath" is pronounced more like 'aw'.
Pronouncing 't' between vowels (called intervocalic [t]) like an actual 't.' In Standard Canadian English, when 't' appears between two vowels, speakers pronounce it as something called a "tap," which sounds somewhere between 't' and 'd' (compare the sound 't' makes in "toddler" versus "city"). In Canadian Dainty and certain other varieties of English, intervocalic [t] does not become a tap.
All three of these features—codal [r]-dropping, the BATH/TRAP split, and intervocalic [t]—are not present in Standard Canadian English, so if Moira’s speech contained any of them, then her speech likely wouldn't be Standard Canadian English. To figure out if her speech was Canadian Dainty, though, I then compared her usage of the Canadian Dainty features to videos of Canadian writer Robertson Davies and Governor General Massey, who both used Canadian Dainty; if Moira’s speech was similar to Massey and Davies’, her accent could be considered Canadian Dainty.
I found that Moira's usage of the features varied widely within and across episodes: sometimes she used the British/Canadian Dainty version, and sometimes she used the Standard Canadian English version. The pattern seemed pretty erratic, compared to our two Canadian Dainty friends, Davies and Massey, who used the British/Canadian Dainty version practically every time. They dropped the codal [r] 78% of the time, compared to Moira's 12%. They differentiated the 'a' sounds in the BATH/TRAP split a whopping 100% of the time, while Moira did it only 16% of the time. And while Moira's intervocalic [t] rather than the tap was the Canadian Dainty feature that appeared the most, it still only happened 42% of the time, compared to Davies and Massey's 90%.
So, while the appearance of the British feature in Moira's speech indicates that she wasn't using Standard Canadian English, her inconsistency and low rates compared to Davies and Massey suggests she wasn't using Canadian Dainty, either.
So, for the time being, at least, Moira's accent remains "unrecognizable".
This isn't the be-all-end-all of Moira's accent research, though. I only looked at a select number of episodes and of Moira's lines (I was an undergrad student, and could use all the extra time I could get!). There are still the rest of her lines and episodes to look at, other features of Canadian Dainty to include, and other varieties of English to compare hers to.
Though her accent isn't quite Canadian Dainty, I believe O’Hara used British features to separate Moira from the lower-class "townies," as Stevie Budd, the motel employee, refers to them in episode 2, "The Drip" (Pozzebon & Ciccoritti, 2015). The family, and Moira most of all, makes it explicitly clear that they feel this town is beneath them. In the first episode, "Our Cup Runneth Over" (Levy & Ciccoritti, January 2015), Moira believes Schitt's Creek is "disgusting" and "gruesome" and that living there is the second worst option only to living nowhere at all. She even calls “Martha Stewart’s Hampton home [...] cute," so even other rich and famous people are beneath the Roses!
Now that they've established Schitt's Creek as being below their standards, they have to cement their own standing above it. Moira and her husband, Johnny, do this by using prestigious language to claim authority in certain situations. Moira refers to her husband not as "Johnny" but as “Mr. Rose” during a business meeting with real-estate agent Ray Butani in "The Drip." Since they are the clients, Ray would have authority in this interaction, but by referring to themselves so formally they are reclaiming his power for their own. In "The Drip" and episode 10, "Honeymoon" (Levy & Ciccoritti, March 2015), they also refer to Roland Schitt, the mayor, by his official title as “mayor” when they're trying to get something they want from him, in order to set formality and gain power in the interaction by almost kissing up to him. The Roses know that formality is power, and that language can get them there.
Since the Roses use language for power, O’Hara can use this quasi-British accent to add prestige to her character and allow her to separate herself from the townies. And it works! Right after calling her accent "unrecognizable," that motel guest in "Motel Review" calls Moira “intimidating” and her attire “scary-looking.” Under normal circumstances, an unrecognizable accent would not be a cause for concern, but this guest found her so scary that he felt her accent added to her “intimidating” air. In season 2 episode 11, "The Motel Gest" (White & Ciccoritti, 2016), Roland, while in a fight with Moira, imitates her by adopting a fake British accent similar to hers and strutting around the room like a monarch who “can’t talk to the common folk,” and he did this before he mimicked her in any other way. His adoption of Moira’s accent in his performance of probably the most prestigious member of the the highest class, the queen, and the fact that it was the first characteristic he portrayed shows that others believe her accent is a major aspect of what makes her so prestigious. So, O’Hara’s usage of this accent successfully helps to establish Moira as a member of the upper class and distinguishes her from the other townies.
In my research I noticed something else that was pretty interesting: even though there was a feature of Canadian Dainty used almost half the time in other episodes (namely intervocalic [t]), Moira's speech in the first episode contained no instances of any of the British/Canadian Dainty features at all. I figured O'Hara might have still been trying to find her footing in the character in that first episode, and that idea led me to wonder whether that was a universal occurrence in acting—when actors adopt fake accents, do they change the accent over the course of the show? And if they do, is it to fit the character's personality more? Is it on purpose or subconsciously?
From social justice to world-building, there is so much to say about accents in film. I choose to look at them from a linguistic point of view, because that is what I do, but you can dive into them wearing practically any lens you want and learn something new. That's one of the characteristics that makes art so special: it can say so much by saying so very little.
Chambers, J.K. (1992). Dialect acquisition. Language: A Journal of the Linguistic Society of America, 68(4), 673-705. New York: Linguistic Society of America. doi:10.1353/lan.1992.0060
Chambers, J.K. (2004). ‘Canadian Dainty’: The rise and decline of Briticisms in Canada. In R. Hickey (Ed.), Legacies of Colonial English: Studies in Transported Dialects, 224-241. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511486920.010
Levy, D. (Writer), & Ciccoritti, J. (Director). (2015, January 13). Our Cup Runneth Over. [Television series episode] In D. Levy & E. Levy (Creators), Schitt’s Creek. Toronto, ON: CBC Television.
Levy, D. (Writer), & Ciccoritti, J. (Director). (2015, March 3). Honeymoon. [Television series episode] In D. Levy & E. Levy (Creators), Schitt’s Creek. Toronto, ON: CBC Television.
Levy, D. & Levy, E. (Creators). (2015 – 2020). Schitt’s Creek [Television series]. Toronto, ON: CBC Television.
Pozzebon, C. (Writer), & Ciccoritti, J. (Director). (2015, January 13). The Drip. [Television series episode] In D. Levy & E. Levy (Creators), Schitt’s Creek. Toronto, ON: CBC Television.
Walker, J.A. (2015). Phonetic and Phonological Variation. Canadian English: A Sociolinguistic Perspective, 77-94. New York: Routledge.
White, K. (Writer), & Ciccoritti, J. (Director). (2016, March 15). The Motel Guest. [Television series episode] In D. Levy & E. Levy (Creators), Schitt’s Creek. Toronto, ON: CBC Television.
White, K. (Writer), & Fox, P. (Director). (2017, February 28). Motel Review. [Television series episode]. In D. Levy & E. Levy (Creators), Schitt’s Creek. Toronto, ON: CBC Television.
...and Marisa Brook, who suggested the three features and guided this research.