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Eh (// or //) is a spoken interjection in English that is similar in meaning to "Excuse me," "Please repeat that" or "huh?" It is also commonly used as a question tag, i.e., method for inciting a reply, as in "It's nice here, eh?" In North America, it is most commonly associated with Canada and Canadian English, and also Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Similar interjections exist in other languages, such as Armenian, Hokkien Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, Malay, Spanish, Persian, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish, Korean and Catalan.
The spelling of this sound in English is quite different from the common usage of these letters. The vowel is sounded in one of the continental manners, and the letter h is used to indicate that it is long, as though the origin of the spelling were German.
It is an invariant question tag, unlike the "is it?" and "have you?" tags that have, with the insertion of not, different construction in positive and negative questions.
There is some question about the origin of the term. One theory is that the "eh" sound is similar to the "ey" sound that a native French speaker will stereotypically say when pronouncing the word "Hey". Dropped H's are also common to many British dialects.
"Eh" is also used in situations to describe something bad or mediocre, in which case it is often pronounced with a short "e" sound and the "h" may even be noticeable. In addition, many Italian Americans, especially in the New York area, use the term "eh" as a general substitute for such basic greetings, such as "hey" or "hello". This behavior was prominently displayed in the TV show Happy Days, having its character "The Fonz" constantly use this phrase.
The only usage of eh? that is exclusive to Canada and some regions of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, northern Wisconsin, and northern Minnesota, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, is for "ascertaining the comprehension, continued interest, agreement, etc., of the person or persons addressed" as in, "It's four kilometres away, eh, so I have to go by bike." In that case, eh? is used to confirm the attention of the listener and to invite a supportive noise such as "Mm" or "Oh" or "Okay". This usage may be paraphrased as "I'm checking to see that you're [listening/following/in agreement] so I can continue." Grammatically, this usage constitutes an interjection; functionally, it is an implicit request for back-channel communication.
"Eh" can also be added to the end of a declarative sentence to turn it into a question. For example: "The weather is nice." becomes "The weather is nice, eh?" This same phrase could also be taken as "The weather is nice, don't you agree?". In this usage, it is virtually identical to the Dutch "hè?", the Japanese "ne?" or the Mandarin "bā". This usage differs from the French usage of "n'est-ce pas?" ("Isn't that so?") in that it does not use a (technically double or emphatic) negative.
The usage of "eh" in Canada is occasionally mocked in the United States, where some view its use - along with aboot, an approximation of a Canadian raising-affected pronunciation of about - as a stereotypical Canadianism. Such stereotypes have been reinforced in popular culture, and were famously lampooned in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Singer Don Freed in his song "Saskatchewan" declares "What is this 'Eh?' nonsense? I wouldn't speak like that if I were paid to." There are many merchandise items on the market today that use this phrase, such as t-shirts and coffee mugs.
It is often joked about by Canadians as well, and is sometimes even a part of the national identity. For example, a Canadian national team is sometimes referred to as "the Eh? team". Likewise, at one of their concerts, a member of the Canadian Brass, referring to their arrangement of the jazz standard "Take the A Train", said that they'd considered calling it "Take the train, eh?". A classic joke illuminating this: "How did they name Canada? The letters were thrown in a bag, and the first one to be picked was 'C' eh?, then 'N' eh? and finally 'D' eh?"
In the Canadian animated faux-reality show Total Drama Island, one of the twenty-two teens on the show, Ezekiel, is a stereotypical Canadian yokel who uses the term "Eh", usually at the end of a sentence.
It is often presumed, more often by Americans, that Canadians as a national people universally all use the term in great frequency. In reality many Canadians do, but many Canadians rarely or almost never use it in the traditional Canadian way. The ones that rarely use it are not heard as any less Canadian though. It's rarely or never heard in Canadian media, and by no means is it seen as a collective indicator of who's Canadian. In the Vancouver city area and many urban centers of southern Ontario, depending on upbringing, it is heard less commonly. Heavy stereotypical users will usually be assumed to be from out of town, or from rural areas. For the entire country, social, educational, and vocational conventions will play a major role on whether it's in regular use.
While not as commonly lampooned as the Canadian "eh", there are few features that are 'more eagerly recognized by New Zealanders as a marker of their identity than the tag particle, "eh."'. This commonly used and referenced feature of New Zealand English (NZE) is one of great controversy to many communication scholars as it is both a mark of cultural identity and simultaneously a means to parody those of a lower socioeconomic status. In New Zealand culture, the use of "eh" is frequently linked with two main groups of people, the first being young, working-class, suburban Pākehā women and the second being working class Māori men. The Pākehā are New Zealanders of British or European descent and Maori are indigenous Polynesians. However most New Zealander's pronounce "ay" instead of "eh". This slang is not as commonly used in New Zealand compared to other countries, for example Canada.
A 1994 study by communications scholar Miriam Meyerhoff sought to examine the function of "eh" in New Zealand culture. She hypothesized that "eh" did not function as a clarification device as frequently believed, but instead served as a means of establishing solidarity between individuals of similar ethnic descent. In her research, Meyerhoff analyzed conversations between an interviewer and an interviewee of either Pākehā or Māori descent and calculated the frequency of "eh" in the conversation. In order to yield the most natural speech, Meyerhoff instructed the interviewers to introduce themselves as a "friend of a friend", to their respective interviewees. Her results showed Maori men as the most frequent users of "eh" in their interviews. As Maori are typically of a lower socio-economic status, Meyerhoff proposed that "eh" functioned as a verbal cue that one reciprocated by another individual signified both shared identity and mutual acceptance. Therefore, in the context of Meyerhoff’s research, "eh" can be equated as a device to establish and maintain a group identity. This phenomenon sheds light on the continuous scholarly debate questioning if language determines culture or culture determines language.
The usage of the word is widespread throughout much of the UK, particularly in Wales and the north of England, Eastern Scotland, in places such as Yorkshire, Lancashire, and the English Midlands. It is normally used to mean "what?". In Scotland, mainly around the Tayside region, "eh" is also used as a shortened term for "yes". For example "Are you going to the Disco?" "eh."
"Eh?" used to solicit agreement or confirmation is also heard regularly amongst speakers in Australia and the United Kingdom (where it is sometimes spelled "ay" on the assumption that "eh" would rhyme with "heh" or "meh"). In the Caribbean island of Barbados the word "nuh" acts similar. The usage in New Zealand is similar, and is more common in the North Island. It is also heard in the United States, especially Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (although the Scandinavian-based Yooperism "ya" is more common), Oklahoma and the New England region. In New England and Oklahoma, it is also used as a general exclamation as in Scotland and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey. It is occasionally used to express indifference, in a similar way to "meh".
The equivalent in South African English is "hey".
It is also used in Guernsey English.
In Singapore, the use of medium Singlish often includes "Eh" as an interjection, but it is not as popularly used as "lah". An example of a sentence that uses "eh" in its expression is "Dis guy Singlish damn good eh", meaning "this guy's Singlish is very good".
Similar terms in other languages
- Japanese Hei? ([heː]) is a common exclamation in Japanese and is used to express surprise. It is also used when the listener did not fully understand or hear what the speaker said. It can be lengthened to show greater surprise (e.g. Heeeeee?!). Nei/ne?/naa are extremely similar to the Canadian eh, being statement ending particles which solicit or assume agreement, confirmation, or comprehension on the part of the listener.
- Né is used exclusively in Brazilian Portuguese. "né" is equivalent to "isn't it". In Portuguese, "né" is substituted by "ora pois".
- Hain is used in Mauritian Creole and it can express a variety of ideas. It is generally used in context of a conversation and is generally interpreted very quickly.
- Gell/gelle or oder, wa, wat or wahr ("true" or "correct") or nä/ne/net (from nicht, "not") are used in (very) colloquial German to express a positive interrogative at the end of a sentence, much as Eh is used in Canadian English. Statements expressed in Standard German are more commonly phrased in negative terms and outside of colloquial usage the ending interrogative is often nicht wahr, which invites a response of stimmt ("agreed", literally "that's right").
- Spanish "¿No?", literally translated to English as "no", is often put at the end of a statement to change it into a question and give emphasis. I.e. "El clima está bonito, ¿no?" (The weather is nice, isn't it?) Eh is also used as well to emphasize, as in "¡Te vas a caer de la silla, eh!" (You're going to fall, if you keep doing that!) Che also has a similar function.
- Swiss German "Oder" which means "or" in English is commonly used interrogatively as "... or what?" and "gäll/gell at the end of sentences in German-speaking Switzerland, especially in the Zurich area. It is used more as a matter of conversational convention than for its meaning. The expression "ni" is used in highest allemanic speaking parts, and is used similarly to "net" in German. The term Äh is also used, which is pronounced similarly to eh in English and has the same meaning.
- Pakistani Urdu "ہیں؟" used as "What? say it again".
- Egyptian Arabic "ايه؟" ([ˈeːh]) as "What? say it again". It could also mean "What's wrong?" either in a concerned manner or a more aggressive one, depending on the tone used to pose the question. Besides, it could refer to an exclamation.
- Italian "Neh [che]" is used in Italian, with the meaning of "isn't it?". It is typical of Northern Italy.
- Will Ferguson & Ian Ferguson, How to be a Canadian (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre) 65-68
- Meyerhoff, Miriam. (1994). Sounds Pretty Ethnic, eh?: A Pragmatic Particle in New Zealand English. Language in Society, 23 (3), 367-388. Retrieved February 26, 2009 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4168535