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April 8, 2004
 Student View

 


The spoken word

 

Katie Norman
Katie Norman

Anyone born and raised in Newfoundland has something that distinguishes him or her from other Canadians – their dialect. When a person is immersed in a society where most people share the same pronunciation, it is easy to not recognize our differences. We also tend to divide Newfoundland into two parts the Avalon Peninsula and the rest. This urban-rural divide on language may seem apparent to us but outside the province even “townies” are seen as having a speech that distinguishes them from others. However a trip across our expansive nation, or internationally, will reveal that all people from all provinces speak a little differently from each other. What stands out about this phenomenon is that people seem to think that everyone but themselves has a dialect.

Newfoundland and Labrador is distinct. As the most linguistically homogenous province, according to the Newfoundland Heritage Web site, over 98 per cent of people in this province speak English as their first language. The remainder is comprised mainly of French speakers on the Port-Aux-Port Peninsula and aboriginal languages, with immigrant languages making up the remainder. I am willing to bet that a large variety of that two per cent works at or attends Memorial University.

This university makes it mandatory for all English and Education students to study English grammar. These degree requirements are an excellent way to spread the uniqueness of our provinces and its dialect. English 2390 will not only teach students what standard written English is, but will inform students that there is no such thing as standard spoken English. Newfoundland is a definite example of this. Newfoundland with its often non-standard pronunciation, vocabulary, meanings, expressions and grammar is a linguists haven. This is mainly due to the age of our province. Founded in 1497, our history is much older than say the Canadian West. This long-standing history combined with more than 300 years of isolation has meant that there has been limited external influence on our speech. Diversity in language is a result of interaction with other dialects. A lack of interaction for much of our history has meant that for many parts of Newfoundland. The English spoken in the United Kingdom when their ancestors came to this North Atlantic island has been maintained.

The result of this isolation has been collected in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, which was first published in 1982 by scholars at Memorial University. I am pretty sure no other province has their own dictionary. There are however other dictionaries whose purpose it is to define the remarkable differences within the English language. Some key examples are Dictionary of American English, the Dictionary of Canadianisms, the Dictionary of Jamaican English.

Our history reveals that a mix of different cultural groups have inhabited parts of our island. Norse, Basque, Spanish, Portuguese, German, French, Irish Gaelic, and Scots Gaelic are some of the many groups that have come to Newfoundland to fish. While our diversity does not represent such a wide swath of international cultures today, place names represent many of these peoples. Portugal Cove, Ireland’s Eye, Bay D’Espoir and Cinq Cerf Bay are just a few examples of this.

Newfoundland is dotted with colourful community names. In fact there was a couple who traveled to Heart’s Content (or was it Little Heart’s Ease?) to be married after spotting the name on a map and concluding that there would be no other perfect place to get married than a place with that name. Romance wasn’t the only inspiration for the community names that dot signs along the Trans Canada Highway and Newfoundland maps. Where else can you find Nick’s Nose Cove, Ha Ha Ha, Famish Gut or Nameless Cove? People say Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have a humour about them … it definitely comes out in the place names.

Everyone who has ever studied Shakespeare has heard that rural Newfoundland is the closest to the language spoken by those at the Globe Theatre when Othello was first produced. Careful analyses of some of the passages in his plays reveal similar modes of sentence construction. The example of stringing insults together into what Microsoft would deem a “long sentence” comes immediately to mind. There is a tendency to assume that the ways in which Newfoundlanders and Labradorians speak is incorrect grammatically. However if it is true that our language is similar to that of Shakespeare, this is obviously wrong. Shakespeare is perhaps the most celebrated English playwright and poet and if every one of his works are classics, and we speak in a similar way, then aren’t we also classics? Or at least something to be celebrated?


 


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Next issue: April 29, 2004

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