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July 22, 2004


Group preserving Newfoundland heritage

Dr. Sandra Clarke (L) and Dr. Philip Hiscock
Photo by Alison Small
Dr. Sandra Clarke (L) and Dr. Philip Hiscock are investigating dialects of the province.

By Alison Small
Newfoundland and Labrador is known for its unique dialects. The province’s accents have contributed to its culture in a significant way. A group of researchers from the Folklore, Linguistics, and English departments have been researching the varieties of English language used on the island and in Labrador. Their research has led to the formation of two projects related to Newfoundland dialect. The group includes Dr. Sandra Clarke, Linguistics, Dr. Philip Hiscock, Folklore, and Robert Hollett of the English department.

One of these projects is a Computerized Linguistics Atlas of Newfoundland and Labrador. This atlas will allow people to choose a community and hear what someone sounds like from that area.

The idea of the atlas originally began in the 1970s when Dr. Harold Paddock, a now retired Linguistics professor, compiled a survey of archival recordings that were available. “Memorial [was] very lucky to have a huge archival body of material and audio recorded sound,” said Dr. Hiscock. In the mid ’70s, Dr. Paddock found that there gaps in the archival recordings. A student was hired and travelled throughout Newfoundland and Labrador (approximately 21 communities) recording standardized interview questionnaires as well as conversation. Dr. Paddock analysed the data and designed maps; however, only a small portion of the features of language were shown. The project was put on hold when Dr. Paddock retired.

About 20 years later, the project has been revived by the current group, who are also collaborating on this research with Dr. Alvin Simms of Geography. They hope to produce a book and a CD to help preserve and educate people on these recordings. A Web site is also in the works.

“A book plus CD-ROM (will be created) so you’ll actually be able to insert it into your computer, press on a community and find out how people talk, or how they pronounce a particular word, (or)what grammatical form they have for a particular structure,” said Dr. Clarke.

The project will be of benefit, as well, because the recordings will be maintained through digitization.

The second project the group is working on is a Newfoundland and Labrador tape sampler project.

The need for it has been evident to Dr. Hiscock for some time; during the period that he was archivist at the university’s Folklore and Language Archive, he received many requests for taped samples of Newfoundland accents. At the same time, Dr. William Kirwin was putting together a sampler tape of Newfoundland dialects, as was the Linguistics department for use in its introductory course on the language varieties of Newfoundland and Labrador. “Bill Kirwin put together a tape back in the 1960s,” explained Dr. Hiscock. “That was the beginning of the sampler of Newfoundland and Labrador English.” One of the editors of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, Dr. Kirwin is now professor emeritus in the English department, and directs the English Language Research Centre.

Years later, in the summer of 1999, Dr. Sandra Clarke was organizing the 10th International Conference on Methods in Dialectology. At the time, she was attempting to find a way to make conference participants aware of the varieties of dialects of the province. Professors Hiscock, Clarke and Hollett decided to move forward with Dr. Kirwin’s project and complete it.

Their Sampler Project consists of approximately 50 speakers on tape from Newfoundland and Labrador, including 11 from Labrador. Samples were compiled from many sources, such as the MUN Folklore and Language Archive (MUNFLA), the CBC, the Labrador Interpretation Centre and the English Department’s English Language Research Centre (ELRC), as well as personal collections.

“What we are trying to do is include traditional speakers who are representative of their particular area, so we started off initially concentrating on the Irish Avalon; we have about 20 of those ... and then we went on to other parts of the island and then Labrador," said Dr. Clarke. “[Here] we found that there were very few recorded samples of half-decent sound quality.”

Dr. Hiscock said the group is quite proud of the good representation of Labrador in this project.

The Sampler Project is funded by primarily by the Department of Tourism of the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, while the Computerized Linguistic Atlas Project has received support from Memorial’s J.R. Smallwood Foundation for Newfoundland and Labrador Studies, as well as the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER). Both projects have also benefited from student research assistants via MUCEP, SCP, SWASP and Gradswep funding programs.

The group hopes that Newfoundland and Labrador's dialects will be conserved through these projects. Dr. Hiscock said, “Making this available will be a big step. [Our taped samples] not only represent local speech, they show natural modes of speech performance.” Dr. Clarke said she hopes that the projects will help preserve Newfoundland's cultural and linguistic heritage.


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