Speaking of Pride: The LGBT community and Linguistics

By: Nico Mjones, Student in Applied Linguistics MA and Certificate in Curatorial Studies / CLM Intern

June is Pride Month in Canada. As both a student of Applied Linguistics and a member of the LGBT community, I find it important to talk about the ways in which language matters for LGBT people. In this blog I will discuss some of the ways in which language and LGBT topics intertwine. The way LGBT topics and identities are talked about, the terms used to refer to LGBT people, and even grammatical issues such as pronouns and grammatical gender are some of the ways LGBT people and language intersect. Due to Canada’s diverse linguistic make up, these matters can vary by language as well, including in official languages, non-official languages, and indigenous languages.

Terminology

Terminology is very important to LGBT people. The words used to refer to different LGBT identities and to the community collectively have evolved significantly over the last century. The term LGBT, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender” is the most common collective term, but LGBTQ+, “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, Plus” is often used in an attempt to be more inclusive. LGBT terminology in Canada is similar to that in the rest of the Anglosphere and Francophonie. A term that is more common in Canada than in other countries is the term “Two-Spirit”. Two-Spirit is a collective term for the many different pre-colonial gender and sexuality concepts in Indigenous cultures in Canada. Not all of the indigenous groups in Canada have traditional identities that fall within the Two-Spirit moniker, and not all Indigenous people identify with the term in preference to other LGBT terms. Many LGBT organizations across Canada have begun to include Two-Spirit so as to be more inclusive of Indigenous LGBT people. An example of this is the longer acronym LGBTQ2S+, adding “2S” to represent Two-Spirit in the acronym.

Fig. 1 A modified version of the Progress Flag. The Progress Flag adds black and brown stripes, representing people of color in the LGBT community, as well the colors of the Trans flag to a Chevron on the left of the Pride Flag. The purple added to the chevron in this flag created by Brock University specifically represents the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabe members of the LGBT community in the Niagara Region.

In English, there is debate over the term “queer”. Once universally considered a slur against LGBT people, today many consider the word “reclaimed” and many LGBT people use it self-referentially and to refer to the LGBT community. Some prefer the term ‘queer’ as more succinct, radical, or inclusive than LGBT. Others consider the term to be too offensive and harmful to be used.

Pronouns and Grammatical Gender

Gender in language is an especially important subject for transgender and non-binary people in the LGBT community. Grammatical gender is a system for dividing nouns into different classes and varies between languages, For example, French divides all nouns into two classes of masculine and feminine, while Algonquian languages divide all nouns into two classes of animate and inanimate. Generally, a noun’s class affects other words in the same sentence, through agreement on verbs, adjectives and pronouns. The LGBT community is particularly focused on neutrality in pronouns. Most trans people have preferences for their pronouns, and these can be different from what are assumed, Non-binary people may prefer neutral pronouns.

For English in Canada, gender neutrality is relatively easy. English does not have grammatical gender outside of gendered pronouns. Many gendered terms, such as actress or waitress, have declined in use and terms like actor and waiter have become gender neutral. There has been some debate over a neutral pronoun. Most commonly used is the singular case of “they”. Some view this as grammatically incorrect, but the usage of singular they has been documented in English since at least the writings of Shakespeare. Singular they has become very commonly used amongst non-binary people in the LGBT community, andsees some acceptance by style guides and other prescriptive sources. There have also been examples of inventive neutral pronouns, such as “xe”. These are attempts to create a new pronoun that is gender neutral, and these have seen some usage but relatively little acceptance in linguistic prescriptive guides. 

Gender neutrality in French in Canada is considerably more difficult because of its system of grammatical gender. This makes it difficult for non-binary people who may wish to have gender neutral language used for them. For pronouns, “iel” is the most commonly discussed gender neutral pronoun in French. There are many people who are actively working to develop a system of gender neutrality in French. In Canada, one significant academic is Florence Ashley, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. Florence Ashley, who themself uses gender neutral pronouns, specializes in research of transgender rights and welfare in Canada, and has also written in French about developing a system of gender neutrality in the French language.

Indigenous & Immigrant Languages

Pronouns and grammatical gender in Canada’s non-official languages vary considerably. Many indigenous languages in Canada have a single gender neutral pronoun, such as the Cree 3rd person pronoun “wiya” which is not differentiated by gender. Many indigenous languages have a system that is not defined by masculine and feminine, but instead by animacy and inanimacy. This system is found in the Algonquian, Iroquian, and Siouan language families, which include the Cree, Anishnaabe, Mohawk, and Nakoda languages, among others. Because the grammatical gender in these languages is based on animacy rather than on masculine and feminine, they have no impact on the gendering of language for LGBT usage. Other language families, such as Na-Dene or Inuit, do not have grammatical gender at all.

The many iImmigrant languages in Canada also vary greatly with respect to grammatical gender. The Chinese languages, the largest in Canada after English and French, do not have grammatical gender and have a single gender neutral pronoun in speaking. The third person pronoun in Chinese is written differently for “he” or “she” but both are pronounced the same. In Mandarin this is “Tā” and in Cantonese “Keoi”. Languages like Persian and Tagalog, both within the ten largest languages spoken in Canada, have no grammatical gender and no gendering in pronouns at all. 

Other immigrant languages share some of the difficulties that French presents. Spanish, a Romance language related to French, is the third largest non-official language in Canada. Spanish is a gendered language similar to French, but gender neutrality has been more easily developed for it. Gender neutral endings for nouns are a frequent subject of discussion amongst Spanish speakers in Canada, the US, and Latin America. Where traditionally words would end in “o” for masculine or “a” for feminine, the endings of “x” or “e” are used to create gender neutrality. An example is “Latino/Latina/Latinx/Latine”. There is considerable debate about the “x” and “e” endings, but many Spanish language organizations in Canada and abroad have come to accept or promote the usage of “x” and “e” endings for gender neutrality. 

Some languages have borrowed gender neutral pronouns from other languages. In German, the eighth largest language in Canada, the English gender neutral pronoun “they” is frequently used. The Scandinavian languages Norwegian and Swedish have attracted attention for borrowing the gender neutral third person pronoun “hen” from  Finnish.

Fig. 2  This graphic created for Wikipedia illustrates the native Swedish pronouns “han” (masculine) and “hon” (feminine) alongside the borrowed neutral Finnish pronoun “hen”.
Grammatical GenderGendered PronounsGender Neutral Pronoun (if known)
EnglishNoYesThey, Xe, Others
FrenchMasculine/FeminineYeslel
ChineseNoNoTā (Mandarin), Keoi (Cantonese), others
PunjabiMasculine/FeminineNoUha
SpanishMasculine/FeminineYesElle
TagalogNoNoSiya
ArabicMasculine/FeminineYesHuma (From Koranic, dual form)
GermanMasculine/FeminineYesThey (Borrowed from English), Xier, Es (equivalent to “it”), use of name
ItalianMasculine/FeminineYesLoro (equivalent to they)
HindustaniMasculine/FeminineNoVah
PortugueseMasculine/FeminineYesElu
PersianNoNoU
CreeAnimate/InanimateNoWiya
OjibwemowinAnimate/InanimateNoWiin
InuktitutNoNoUna
Fig. 3 Grammatical traits of the 10 largest languages and the 3 largest Indigenous languages in Canada

Gender, Sexuality, and Language

The LGBT community in Canada is not only diverse in gender and sexual identities, but also linguistically. Canada is a highly multilingual society, and so too are LGBT Canadians. There are many linguistic challenges for the LGBT community, but dedicated language activists and community members continue to help define inclusive language around for LGBT topics and people. Although the linguistic challenges for LGBT people vary from language to language, the fundamental beliefs in equality and community underlie the creative approaches to word choice in all languages.

A Language Museum Beyond Western View: Museum of World Languages at Shanghai International Studies University

By: Jingshu Helen Yao, Master of Museum Studies student / Summer Intern at the CLM

I felt lucky to be able to visit the Museum of World Languages at Shanghai International Studies University.

The exhibition covered a wide range of topics related to linguistics, including linguistic theories, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, orthography, and translation. The topics are organized under three main themes, 说 “speak”, 记 “write”, and 译 “translate”. The characters for each of these words share the same thematic particle “言”, which is used in the construction of all Chinese characters that relate to language. Not only does the museum have exhibits on spoken and written languages, topics such as sign languages, braille, and constructed languages are also included. I was amazed by artifacts such as an English language textbook written in braille and Esperanto typewriters.

Translation exhibit: “How Do We Communicate Across Language Barriers?” (Photo: Jingshu Helen Yao).

Some of the memorable moments during my visit were the interactive elements at the exhibition. The interactions were facilitated by clickable screens, audio and video recordings, and even AI. There are booths where visitors can listen to various recordings in different languages and have the opportunity to repeat language samples and have their pronunciations assessed by the system.

Interactive audio booths. (Photo: Jingshu Helen Yao)

I found the projection of an animated map that tracks the trade of tea across land and ocean very interesting. This is an interesting example of language change, since the means of transportation determined the variation in the name “cha” and “te”. Most places where tea was introduced through sea adapted the variant “te”, whereas the places that received it through land transportation used “cha”. I was approached by a droid moving on wheels in one of the rooms. It sported a clickable screen where visitors could select to learn more about the museum and its exhibits as well as some fun facts about languages around the world. Although I had a wonderful guide showing me around, I could imagine how helpful this piece of technology would be if the museum had a lot of visitors and the guides and volunteers were very busy.

Words Worlds sign outside museum. (Photo: Jingshu Helen Yao)

The museum’s theme “Words Worlds” focuses on language diversity and international communication. Being the first museum in China that focuses on the topic of language around the world, the museum is actively seeking opportunities for research, education and collaboration.

The museum opened in 2019, but shortly after that the pandemic hit and the campus was closed to visitors. I was able to get in touch with the museum staff members and apply for a visit. I was very impressed by the wide range of contents and the original designs. You can access the museum’s official video here:

This visit made me realize the limitation of online research. Before visiting the museum, I had not imagined its scope and design through the information available online. I am also aware that if I wasn’t able to read Chinese characters, or was not currently living in China, I wouldn’t have been able to visit the Museum of World Languages in person. Though the internet is supposed to make international communication and collaboration much more convenient, I know that there are many missed opportunities due to language barriers. For a language museum, this challenge is also a mission. Even though the individual languages are different, the goals of language museums are held in common. I hope more connections with language museums can be made once we are free to travel again.

Language of the hands

This week’s post is an interview on a subject I have always wanted to learn more about, and Prof. Erin Wilkinson of the University of Manitoba helped me to learn so much.

Professor Wilkinson is a linguist who studies signed languages, and who grew up speaking one of them. This subject is of such interest to me because it is so understudied and underrepresented in research, yet it responds to an essential need for humans : no matter the barriers, humans will find a way to communicate. Professor Wilkinson played the role of the Canadian Language Museum’s resident Mythbuster as she communicated clearly all the misconceptions, that so many of us –myself included, I am embarrassed to admit—can fall subject to.

Professor Erin Wilkinson (Photo: Clara Haimes Kusumoto)

Professor Erin Wilkinson (Photo: Clara Haimes Kusumoto)

Michael Iannozzi : What led you to study linguistics?

Erin Wilkinson : This is the second most common question asked after “Is sign language universal?” To which the answer is no, signed languages are not universal. I often reply: Are spoken languages universal? Imagine people’s reaction.

My fascination with languages started when I was young. I was born to a hearing family who did not know how to sign, and we all were introduced to the Deaf world as we chose to learn American Sign Language (ASL). Books introduced me to English. I constantly asked my parents how and why did English worked in specific ways. It was a sure sign that I was a bona fide linguist as I was asking all these questions about rules of English compared to ASL.

MI : I think to a lot of people sign language will be thought of as English. I think there is a perception that it is just English in a signed form. How is it different?

EW : Yes, there are two assumptions about signed languages. The first assumption is that signed languages in general are not de facto languages [not true languages]. There are many documents that debunk this assumption; however, this assumption prevails among laymen and scholars.

The second assumption is that the signed language is a visual representation of their surrounding spoken language (however it would be more appropriate to say that it’s a visual representation of their surrounding written languages, as deaf people do not have access to spoken languages) [Meaning people often think that American sign language is just English using your hands instead of your mouth/pen].

Now, if we compare signed languages with spoken languages, then we must be cautious when we go down this road. There are many aspects of signed languages that are found in spoken languages (and vice versa); however, there appear to be modality-specific properties that only can happen in signed languages (visual-gestural) or spoken languages (oral-auditory) [Meaning that even though there are many similarities between a Signed Language and a spoken one, there are certain things that only occur in languages that are visual, and others that only occur in languages that are spoken]. It is important to understand that research on signed languages is far more sparse and is (relatively) young compared to the long history of spoken language linguistics. Second, we need to consider: what makes signed language communities? Deaf people are unique in terms of linguistic–cultural minorities. There is no evidence of a signed language community that can be classified as language majority, let alone a signed language as language majority in a community that has members who speak [meaning that users of a signed language make up the majority of a given community]. Sure, deaf people cannot hear English, but the Deaf people go to school, work, shop, text and go on the Internet. They clearly use written language to function in many situations, and it is not surprising to see characteristics of language contact (e.g. code switching or language mixing). Thus deaf people are bilingual by default.

MI : I think many people assume there is one sign language for all the English-speaking countries. How do the signed languages differ in the English-speaking world, and why?

EW : Yes, that is true as this is one of some common misconceptions that many people have. We don’t find that to be true. The classic example is signed languages used in the UK and the USA. Both the UK and USA are English-speaking countries, but they do not have an identical signed language “British accent” or “American accent”, but instead signed languages used are very different. The mutual intelligibility between British and American signers is low (similar to English speakers trying to understand Russian). Furthermore, Irish Sign Language is also different from both British and American signed languages.

MI : What does the study of signed languages reveal about languages more broadly?

EW : Studying signed languages helps us (linguists and cognitive scientists) to understand more about how the mind works. Most studies revolve on examining how modality [how one conveys meaning, whether it be writing, speaking, or signing] shapes language structure, but there are other studies that examine language typology, language evolution, and much more—which helps us understand what defines language. We seek what defines language by understanding more about modality-independent and modality-dependent properties.

Signed language studies generally are more challenging to conduct compared to studies on major languages (e.g. English, Spanish, etc) for various reasons. First, there are few signed language linguists in the world. Second, recruiting signed language members for research is not that easy, and they are considered a highly vulnerable population. Third, it is extremely time-consuming to code signed language data (it is difficult to transfer visual materials into searchable codes since this would involve a lot of money, and of course time). There are so many things about signed languages we still don’t know much. Especially typological diversity in signed languages—how to discover more signed language variation.

MI : Are there “accents” in signed languages? And what does it “sound”/look like?

EW : Accents are conveyed in different ways—similar to spoken languages—with word choice (regional lexical variation) or phonological variation (e.g. some are more likely to move their hands lower whereas others would keep their hands higher in the signing space). Don’t forget this—everyone has an accent. What more is that we have a “hearing accent” – nondeaf signers have their own accent that is not seen in deaf signers because the nondeaf have learned it as a second language. Language proficiency also reflects different types of “accent”—deaf people who acquire signed language later in their life do not produce signed language similar to deaf people who acquired signed language at birth.

MI : What is the health, in terms of number of speakers, of signed languages in Canada?

EW : Maritimes SL : There are still a few descendants of Maritimes SL users in Canada, but they are not primary users of Maritimes SL.

Inuit SL : Fragile. Few language users in the North.

LSQ (Quebecois): Healthy. However it is much smaller compared to ASL population in Canada and the US.

ASL: Healthy. ASL may be considered as one of the largest signed language varieties in the world given the large population (of ASL signers, including both deaf and hearing signers. In the US, ASL is 4th most popular language taught in universities).

MI : What are some defining features of Canadian Sign Language?

EW : I will give you some ideas about what is the Canadian variety of ASL; however, this area is extremely poorly investigated. I’ll only talk about lexical variations [Choosing “supper” over “dinner”, for example].

Some lexical variation that clearly defines Canadians from Americans: government, plenty [Meaning that Canadians have a different way of signing these words]

There is also lexical variation within Canada that could identify the signer from a specific region: e.g. the words for committee (in Vancouver), or to talk-about something (in Ontario).

MI : How are new words formed in sign language? If a new concept or idea comes along, is the word “translated” from English, or is a completely different direction likely taken. For example, for a tweet?

EW : Borrowing is normal in languages. So, it’s not surprising to learn that there are English borrowings in ASL. ASL signers have different strategies when a new concept is introduced. Some may be fingerspelled or signed. A sign may be either developed in a “creative” sense of a completely new word, or a modified version of an already existing word [They may create a brand new sign, or they may instead modify an already existing sign, much as we did to repurpose the word “tweet”]. For instance, with “tweet” I have seen ASL signers modify the “bird” sign by moving from the mouth to the torso area with a specific movement.

MI : Are there any words/phrases/concepts that are unique to a sign language that you particularly like?

EW : I don’t have a specific thing in mind, but I am often amazed by how deaf signers seem to choose one sign out of the air to represent an event, a person, or a referent (where the event, person, or referent does not have a unique sign) without consulting each other. The sign they choose clearly conveys the most salient characteristic of the event or person. For instance, if we were talking about someone who we saw at a university function but we didn’t know his name, then I would choose a specific characteristic that would identify the guy out of 50 people. It just blows my mind how quickly they do that and choose one sign to represent a specific referent. (E.g. My friend and I went to a play and that play was unforgettable – for various reasons. At another time and place, my friend chose a sign “teeth-shine” (translation: gleaming teeth) to refer to that play we were at. I knew what he was referring to—the play where we saw lights bouncing from the disco ball that caused an actor’s teeth to “gleam” during the act.)

MI : Finally, is there a perception about signed languages or misunderstanding that you’d like to clarify?

EW : Is a signed language easy to learn? I find this to be a very common question from non-signers. I find this question curious, because it reflects their bias about signed languages. My reply often is asking them a question – do you find learning a new language to be easy? And I also have antecodental reports from family members, friends, students and others, who find learning a new signed language to be much harder than it seems. One of the hot areas in signed language linguistics is second-language learners who also have to learn a new modality (switching from a spoken to a signed language), which is not quite the same as those who are learning a new language in the same modality (a second spoken language).

Second, not only do speakers speak, they also harness their body to express concepts. Speakers in a way are not so different from signers, because they both use their face, hands, and bodies (defined as gestural components). What makes it harder for linguists is that signers combine both linguistic and gestural components in the same medium. The role of gesture in language is significant and merits a blog post by itself!

Finger spelling of American Sign Language Alphabet

Finger spelling of American Sign Language Alphabet

Finger spelling of British Sign Language alphabet

Finger spelling of British Sign Language alphabet

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A deep and sincere thank you to Professor Erin Wilkinson for providing such fascinating (and enlightening) answers. Signed languages are, as she said, vastly understudied, and there are so many presumptions, assumptions, and ideas that the speaking world has about signed languages that are a huge oversimplification of the reality—or in many cases just plain wrong.

Learning about signed languages can teach us a lot about languages in general. In some ways it is very different from spoken languages, because it isn’t spoken, and in other ways it can inform us about the way all languages work. Signed languages are unique in that it isn’t often the parents will be the first to teach their child a signed language because in many cases the parents don’t know how to sign one. Instead, the child learns from peers and instructors, and not in the home.

Even if you will never learn a signed language, I thank Professor Wilkinson for busting a whole bunch of myths! Hopefully this will help shed some light on this incredible language for hearing people and the Deaf community alike.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

French Elsewhere in Canada

When someone thinks of French in Canada, their first thought is usually of Quebec. If pressed to think of another French-speaking part of Canada, many will think of Acadian French (the French spoken in New Brunswick and other parts of the Maritimes). However, more than a million Francophones live outside Quebec, and half a million live in Ontario.

Professor Terry Nadasdi (University of Alberta) has done a great deal of research on French in Canada, and in particular in Ontario and the Prairies. There is a distinction made between Acadian French and what is called Laurentian French. Laurentian French is the French of Québec and the French spoken in Ontario and the Western Provinces. However, Professor Nadasdi has found that the French spoken in Canada isn’t the same everywhere. In particular, he argues that, outside Quebec, Francophones are always in the minority in at least the province, if not the community itself. This distinction makes the French in these communities different from that spoken in Quebec.

Because most French-speaking communities are in the minority, they are also rarely monolingual—they need to speak English to at least some degree in order to function in their communities. Professor Nadasdi is interested in finding how this knowledge of English impacts the French spoken by these minority communities.

He was kind enough to answer some questions I had about Laurentian French outside Quebec.

 

Flag of Franco-Albertans

Flag of Franco-Albertans

Michael Iannozzi : What first brought you to study Laurentian French outside Quebec?

Terry Nadasdi : My interest in French outside of Quebec stems from my interest in bilingualism. For the most part, minority French and bilingualism go hand-in-hand. Since my background is in sociolinguistics, the topic provides me with an interesting opportunity to study both language use patterns of bilinguals and the impact of these patterns on linguistic forms.

MI : Why is it important to study the French spoken outside Quebec, and how do you expect it to differ from that of the major Quebecois cities that are often studied?

TN : The context in which the varieties are used is different, so we can expect some linguistic differences (related to bilingualism). That said, there will always be more similarities than differences, given that they are both Laurentian. It is important to study French in minority settings for a variety of reasons. First, it gives us insight into the language of bilinguals and gives credibility to the variety. Minority varieties are often stigmatized and performing research helps legitimize them and also reveals their complexities.

MI : Why is it important to study rural varieties and Franco-Ontarian?

TN : I think it is generally important to study minority varieties for the reasons outlined above. It gives them legitimacy and provides information about the range of variation in Canadian French. Another reason would be to provide resources for second language learners who will interact with Franco-Ontarians and also to allow the Franco-Ontarian education system to determine the extent to which the local variety differs from the standard one (i.e. the one used in schools).

MI : Why is it important to study rural varieties and Franco-Ontarian, and how do you expect, or how have you found they differ from Quebecois French?

TN : I guess the most important aspect is that bilingualism is central to their identity. Many speakers don’t consider themselves entirely French or English. This is generally viewed as positive. I don’t mean they are not linguistically competent in both, but rather their identity involves both simultaneously. Identify has to do with how you represent yourself when interacting with other, how you want them to see you. For example, some speakers purposely use anglicisms when speaking French to remind the listener that they are bilingual.

MI : What is the general health of French outside Quebec, and what do you feel is the best way to promote the use of French outside of Quebec in Canada?

TN : French is fairly well supported on an institutional level. However, monolingual Francophones are rare indeed. Immersion schools are highly effective, and in some regions help maintain French. Ideally, Francophones would always have their own schools. However, there are practical (financial) factors that limit this. Immersion schools are the next best thing. Access to education and cultural events are key to promoting the use of French outside Quebec. It’s also important to have media in French that can bring community members together.

MI : You have done a lot of work on minority French communities, how does the population makeup of a city or town affect the French usage and style of speakers?

TN : Generally, the more Francophones there are at the local level, the more the kind of French spoken resembles that of monolingual Francophones in Quebec. Furthermore, speakers in such communities have a better grasp on both the formal and informal registers. When there a few Francophones, the school becomes the main place where French is used and some informal variants fall by the wayside.

MI : Finally, is there any perception of French speakers outside Quebec that you’d like to clarify or change?

TN : Some believe that minority speakers have a poor mastery of both English and French. This reveals, though, a poor understanding of bilingualism and non-standard speech varieties.

 

Regarding the study and discussion surrounding French-language education in many provinces outside Quebec, the students of French-immersion schools are expected to learn, and speak, the Quebecois variety of French—even if they are already fluent in French, but just in an Ontarian or Prairie variety of it. There has been a great deal of discussion around the importance of letting students feel validated in speaking their own variety of French. In almost all language communities, there is a perceived “correct” way of speaking, and the other dialects or accents are considered substandard. Professor Nadasdi’s work is aiming to correct this perception. By providing research and statistics to these varieties of French, there is scientific evidence that the French isn’t subpar or of lower quality.

This effort is especially important because language is a part of identity. When older Francophones are asked how they identify they will likely say “French” or “French-Canadian”. However, younger speakers, who have grown up speaking both national languages, now often self-identify as “bilingual”. They feel that their ability to speak both French and English is not just a skill, but a part of who they are.

A sincere thank you to Professor Terry Nadasdi for taking the time to answer my questions and explain Laurentian French outside Quebec. Just as in English, where there have been stereotypes around “valley-girl”, southern American, or Newfoundland English dialects as being less intelligent; there are also stereotypes surrounding French accents. It is important to remember that the way someone speaks has no bearing on the validity or intelligence of what they are saying.

 

Take care eh,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

Reading for a Mauzy Day

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.

Flag of Newfoundland-and-Labrador

Flag of Newfoundland and Labrador

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,

 

Michael Iannozzi

 

Interview with Prof. Rosen

Professor Rosen is the subject of this week’s post. She is a professor at the University of Manitoba, and a Canada Research Chair. Her work has focussed on French outside Quebec, rural Canadian English, and Michif.

I asked her about her research on rural and Prairie English.

 

Michael : How did you decide to become a linguist?rosen

Professor Nicole Rosen : I was living in France when I applied and got in to Queens, I was living as an exchange student, and I knew I wanted to do something with language, but I didn’t know exactly what. So I just read through the entire course calendar at Queens to see what the options were. Then I saw linguistics, and I thought ‘that sounds cool, you get to study all these different languages, but you don’t have to just study literature’. Because I was already really into science, but I also always liked literature. Then I took a course, and I was just hooked from the very beginning.

MI : You’ve been made a Canada Research Chair. What does that mean, and how does that affect your research?

NR : It is funded at least in part by the federal government, and they fund academics in a number of different areas, to foster research in Canada. What it does is it allows you to focus on research. It is fantastic. It has been really good; I feel like I’ve been able to study what I’ve wanted to.

MI : What brought you to study English in the Prairies?

NR : It started, well I grew up in Winnipeg, so I grew up in the Prairies. And, I grew up with a number of relatives from small towns with a Ukrainian background, who were farmers really, and I always kind of noticed the fact that they spoke differently. I was from the city and they were from the country. I always noticed that, and I especially noticed that once I started studying linguistics. I was just always interested in knowing how the different backgrounds shaped people, and I noticed that the real difference seemed to be between the country and the city, and I never saw anything written about rural Canada. So it was something I was always interested in, but I just feel like I’m finally able to get around to it now.

MI : Why is it important to study rural English, and how do you think, or have you found, that it differs from the cities?

NR : There’s been different settlement patterns, and life is just different in the Prairies. And it is important to get a view from across Canada, and not just extrapolate what we learn in Toronto to the rest of the country, because the rest of the country is not Toronto. They don’t necessarily sound like Torontonians.

MI : Do you think that in studying linguistics, cities are studied while the rural areas between them are skipped over?

NR : I think there has been, but I think it is understandable. There are two reasons, I think. Normally you do sociolinguistics where you are. The amount of fieldwork you have to do, it takes a lot of time, and it’s expensive. And the other part, is that you need people from the area you are studying. You want to try to limit the amount of impact the researcher has on the people being studied by using interviewers from the area. It is better to get locals to do the interviews for you [This is known as the observer effect referring to the impact that the researcher has on the way the people being studied speak].

And there’s so much to be done all over Canada anyway. It’s not like people are deliberately skipping over rural areas; there’s just lots to do, and it makes more sense to do that where you are. Universities tend to be in cities, and especially with those that have linguistics departments.

MI : How would you describe the word identity as it relates to language? And especially as it relates to rural identity?

NR : The rural identity is one of the things I’m currently wondering about. In the Prairies there was block settlement, which means areas were settled by one group, so you’d have a Ukrainian settlement, and then a Mennonite settlement, and a French settlement. I wonder if that has made the network of people tighter knit, and therefore less likely to change the way they speak to match the way they speak in, for example, Ontario.

MI : Because there has been traditionally less mixing, you mean?

NR : Exactly. I have one student who comes from a French town that is next to a Mennonite one in Manitoba, and she says you can tell which of the towns a student comes from by the words they use. Only someone from the Mennonite town would use that phrase or word.

I think a lot of how identity relates to our dialect is below our consciousness. I think we’re representing ourselves to other people. So if we feel like we’re part of a certain group, we get that across by the language that we use. I think sometimes it is on purpose, and sometimes it isn’t.

MI : How has the recent boom, specifically from the oil industry, changed the makeup of the Prairie populations, and how has that shaped language or those block communities that you mentioned?

NR : There are so many people coming from elsewhere in Alberta, I can’t really speak to Saskatchewan although that is happening more-and-more. I think you’re getting a lot more mixing now than before. My expectation would be that the dialects would be becoming a lot less strong in those areas where a lot of people are coming from elsewhere [known as dialect-levelling, when dialects meet and they merge to become more “standard”].

MI : Finally, are there any words that you’ve come across that you find particularly “Prairie” or “rural” that you want to share?

NR : Well there’s definitely some words that are Prairie. The one that everyone talks about in Saskatchewan is “bunnyhug”, which is a “hoody”, and that’s popular there. I’d never heard of it before. Also, apparently “dainties” isn’t common out there [meaning here in Toronto], as in the little desserts you put out at the end of the “social”.

Actually you know what my very favourite one is, from Winnipeg, is “jambuster”. It is actually my favourite word from Winnipeg. These are just regular doughnuts, but instead of the hole they’re filled with jam.

MI : Oh so they’re just a jelly-filled doughnut?

NR : Yea, and I remember growing up watching Bob and Doug, and them talking about jelly doughnuts, and not having any idea what they were talking about. I never thought it was weird until I actually went to Queens, and someone was doing some linguistic research, and there was a picture, and it said, “What do you call this thing?”, and I looked at it, and said “jambuster! Of course. It is different”.

MI : That’s actually so much better than jelly-filled doughnut.

NR: I know, right? Jelly-filled doughnut is boring, but “jambuster” is busting out with jam.

 

 

Take care eh,

–   Michael Iannozzi, and the Canadian Language Museum Team