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Vol 39  No 3
Sept. 21, 2006


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Why is our English so different from theirs?

by Leslie Vryenhoek

Ever wonder why your American cousins talk differently than your relatives in Trepassey? Or why you might hear words like tabanask and ballicatter, and phrases like “John’s after telling me he’s leaving,” in parts of this province, but not in London, England ­ or London, Ont., for that matter?

“Why is it that you can take English from the British isles and plunk it down on the northeast coast of North America, or in Australia, and after a couple of generations, something completely different emerges?” On Thursday, Sep. 28, distinguished British sociolinguist Dr. Peter Trudgill will pose and answer that question, and offer insight into why and how accents and vocabularies diverge.

His public lecture, Why My English Is Different than Yours, will happen at Memorial’s St. John’s campus as part of the Henrietta Harvey Distinguished Lecturer Series.

Until 400 years ago the English language was confined pretty much to the British Isles, according to Dr. Trudgill, who recently retired from the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, and now lives in his home community of Norwich, England. Then, he said, it experienced a remarkable geographical expansion.

“All languages change in different ways for a number of reasons ­ not all of which we understand,” he remarked. The English language was impacted, in various locations, by different topography, flora and fauna. Contact with indigenous languages had an effect, as did contact with

European languages that it had not been rubbing up against in the British Isles (such as French in Canada, and Spanish and Dutch in the United States).

“What may be particularly relevant for Newfoundland is the influence of close contact between the British and Irish,” he explained, noting that this led to Irish English features spreading into the language of those who weren’t Irish ­ hence “John’s after telling me....”

Dr. Trudgill likens Newfoundland to a kind of linguistic laboratory: “It’s one of the most interesting examples, because it’s a place where English was transported earliest.”

Aspects of the language can also tell us about the cultural and social realities they reflect, he said. “One would expect a more diverse technical vocabulary related to fishing here than in Alberta, for example.”

Other traits can be more subtle. For example, unlike in other parts of the world, Dr. Trudgill has noted that there are many more people in this province in the upper socio-economic echelons who speak with a distinct regional accent. “There’s quite a lot of regional variation in Newfoundland and Labrador, and it doesn’t seem to carry the same kind of significance that it might elsewhere.”

In addition to his public lecture, Dr. Trudgill will share his expertise, attending classes and meeting with faculty and students.

All are welcome to attend Why My English is Different than Yours at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28, in room A-1043, in the Arts and Administration Building. Admission is free; reception to follow.

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