Professor Gerard Van Herk researches Newfoundland English at Memorial University, where he holds a Canada Research Chair in Regional Language and Oral Text. I had the opportunity to ask him all about this iconic part of the English of Canada.
Newfoundland had a much less diverse settlement history than other areas of Canada, which allowed for the dialect to become more distinct. There were large groups of immigrants from the more working-class areas of the British Isles, and they brought their vocabulary, and accents along too.
Newfoundland’s long history of isolation and stability rapidly changed in the last couple decades, and this has led to dramatic economic and social shifts in a very short period of time. This allows for linguists to research changes as they occur, rather than trying to work backward to piece together what likely happened.
MI: I think people in Ontario, and certainly in the southern part of it, think of Canadian English as having two varieties: Newfoundland and everywhere else. How do you see English in Canada? Why is Newfoundland so iconic in Canadian English?
GVH: I think linguists see it that way, too. I think researchers are finding more and more diversity within Canadian English, but it’s still a pretty coherent single dialect. Newfoundland, on the other hand, had a very different settlement history, and a long period of isolation, so it’s different. I guess it’s iconic because Newfoundland joined Canada recently enough that the dialect is still different and the place is still seen as being different. I remember coming here with my band, years back, and my drummer Tony almost instantly describing it as “Canada’s other distinct society.”
MI: Why is it important to study the English of Newfoundland, and how does it differ from that of the major cities that are often studied?
GVH: Newfoundland lets us find out stuff that’s hard to find out elsewhere. It was settled from a very small input area (southwestern England, southeastern Ireland), very early, then was isolated for a long time, then changed quickly. So you can easily study all kinds of things here – historical retentions, internal diversity, post-insularity – that would be much more difficult elsewhere.
MI: What are some defining features of Newfoundland English? And what are some features of being a Newfoundlander in both linguistic and social terms?
GVH: As with most varieties dealing with the competing pulls of globalization and localization, Newfoundland English (or its speakers) seem to be picking up on a couple of features and making them into the ones that matter, the ones that mark you as from here. Putting an –s onto the end of some verbs (I likes it!) is one example; saying dese tings instead of these things is another. Our student Rachel Deal came up with the concept of the Idealized Authentic Newfoundlander, “Ian”, to summarize the image people have of the best way to be a Newfoundlander. Somebody unpretentious, friendly, welcoming, honest… and local-sounding.
MI: Identity is an interesting topic in linguistics. How would you describe identity as it relates to a language or variety?
GVH: I think identity is something we’re going to need to account for more and more, because speakers of distinct varieties have much more access to knowledge about other varieties, and about how their own variety is seen. The old model of “people talk like that because they don’t know any better” doesn’t really make sense any more. I think if we can be aware of the archetypes and stereotypes and discourses of identity that people have available to them in a particular community, we can understand how speakers are using that material to create their sense of self. But I don’t want to turn into one of those researchers who say things like “in line 43, we can see by Melanie’s use of a stop variant that she remains ambivalent about the resettlement plan of the 1960s.”
Note: In the age of social media, and with almost everyone having access in Canada to an enormous amount of input, Newfoundlanders (and indeed almost all Canadians) can easily find out what others think of their dialect. This can have an impact on how they see themselves, and how they choose to react to their knowledge of the perception of others is important. However, Gerard Van Herk is also careful to point out that one can’t read too much into people’s identities based on their dialect. Often, many parts of the way a person speaks are not decisions nor reflections, and are completely unrelated to their conscious identity.
MI: Has the English of Newfoundland changed over the decades, and if so in what way? Has it moved closer to or further from what we would consider “Standard Canadian English”.
GVH: We don’t entirely know what changes might have happened when, especially in the early days, when vernacular speakers weren’t doing much writing or recording. We can more or less assume from the data available to us that the isolation of the place between about 1830 and 1930 helped old forms to stick around. That’s why you still hear Newfoundlanders say “ye” for “you”, or use features that are elsewhere found only in marked dialects (for example, “He’s steady singing” to mean “He’s always/regularly singing,” which American sociolinguists will tell you is “an African-American thing”). Research since then (all Sandra Clarke’s work, our survey data) suggests that the strong increase in contact with other dialects between the 40s and the 60s seems to have led Newfoundlanders to move a bit toward the standard, at least in the cities. That’s been followed by a cultural renaissance and an uptick in the use of the features associated with local-ness. One cool thing is that some features originally associated almost entirely with Irish Catholic speakers are now used by almost everyone, especially the after perfect (“I’m after doing that” to mean “I’ve just done that”).
MI: What is your favourite word(s) that is uniquely Newfoundland that you’d like to share?
GVH: One word I like is mauzy, which means something like ‘damp, warm, misty, soft, gentle’, and is used to describe weather.
MI: Finally, is there any perception Newfoundland English speakers that you’d like to clarify or change?
GVH: I think the perception of Newfoundland English speakers among outsiders has changed so much, for the better, over the past generation or two that there’s very little left for me to clarify. There is still a perception among some within the community that heavy dialect speakers are somehow rough or sketchy, and that perception works in fairly unpleasant ways to maintain inequalities based on class or region. But it’s been my experience that when you point out people’s prejudices to them, they rarely respond, “Oh yeah, you’re right, I’ll change right now.”
Thank you very much to Professor Van Herk for his very interesting answers, and for helping to illuminate the part of Canada’s English that most of us are aware is different, but aren’t sure exactly why.
Take care eh,