Except Newfoundland English. Which is unique. And endangered. Or not.

Date: May 26, 2011 | Category: Guest Column
Author: Gerard Van Herk

When people talk about how Canadian English is all pretty much the same, or about how unmarked it is, they often include the caveat “except Newfoundland.” Traditional Newfoundland English (NE) doesn’t look like other Canadian Englishes, thanks largely to the province’s differing history (European settler input from a very limited area of southwestern England and southeastern Ireland, an early cessation of immigration, and political and geographical isolation). It also has a different reference point. Canadian English is described with respect to how it differs from American Englishes, while NE is described through its differences from the speech of mainlanders – basically everybody in the world who’s not a Newfoundlander. (Labrador, despite technically being on the mainland, is seen as Newfoundlandy, although not by all Labradorites.)

But not only is NE constructed differently, it’s seen differently: by the media, by outsiders, and by Newfoundlanders themselves. Stefan Dollinger’s column describes the media’s Groundhog Day Loop when it comes to Canadian English: Is it distinct? Is it not? Do people still say eh? NE has a different loop: the idea that local language is dying. This is particularly evident in media coverage, both mainland and local. I’ve been interviewed about my research quite often since arriving here five years ago, and no matter what I say, the headlines come out the same: “Is the Newfoundland accent disappearing?” (Canwest/Global) “Are Newfoundlanders losing their distinct dialect?” (Downhome) Often the writers include some nuances, but the headline writers have one particular story in mind. The take-home message is one of death and decline.

A couple of years ago, Global National’s Kevin Newman and his crew came out to Petty Harbour, an urbanizing fishing village that’s our main research site, and did a nice piece on local language. Newman and I chatted while the crew got some background shots. He’s covered stories in Newfoundland for years, and is very aware of the social and economic changes that have occurred. A year later, when he retired from that programme, he reminisced about his top ten stories, and the Petty Harbour piece was one of them. What he remembered, though, was one particular aspect of the story: the decline of traditional ways of life and language.

Now, these Groundhog Day Loops, for both Canadian and Newfoundland Englishes, aren’t a matter of the media getting it wrong, or even imposing an agenda on what they report. Journalists are, for the most part, pretty smart people. They know how to get information in a hurry (when my students drag their feet on research, I tell them that when I interned at Southam News back in the 80s, I would research a story from scratch and write a 2000-word background piece in a day). Journalists also know how to take the great mass of information they collect and find the story in it. They know (or think they know) what will interest their audience, and they know what parts of their collection of information will tell that story best. Often, to be sure, they’ve decided what the story is before they start. At the very least, they know the research question. And sometimes, they follow the herd and tell the same story that journalists have told before.

And there’s the first problem. Language is the stuff of journalism. You use it to show how good you are. As a result, media people have a blind spot when it comes to covering language as a story. For them, there are three kinds of language: right, wrong, and colourful. In media coverage, the standard is right, youth language is wrong, and non-standard varieties are wrong but colourful. Rural and traditional varieties are colourful in a nicer way (all tweedy and earth-toned) than urban varieties (whose colours are too bright). They’re attractive and authentic, like fiddle music and Jiggs dinners. (They’re also safer, spoken by salt-of-the-earth fishers and farmers rather than by young men with handguns.)  

The second problem is that mainstream media coverage naturally reflects (and shapes) the dominant Discourses of its culture. A major strand of Canadian Discourse is “Do we deserve to be a separate country?” This leads to media coverage of Canadian English being about whether it’s distinct enough to matter, as Stefan detailed in his column. In this Discourse, NE is useful and interesting, as it helps to flavour up Canadian English, acting as a sort of cultural touchstone or repository of difference, like traditional cultural practices everywhere.

Also relevant to the problem are two big local Discourses: uniqueness and nostalgia. The Discourse of Uniqueness says that Newfoundland is not just slightly different, but that it’s unique. There’s no place like here. We do things that nobody else does. And the thing that most defines our uniqueness is the way we talk. This discourse has been reinforced by the isolation of the province. Most visitors and immigrants – Come-From-Aways – have been mainlanders with mainstream or standard accents, tourists and government people and academics. For economic reasons, there hasn’t been the kind of large-scale working-class immigration that would expose Newfoundlanders to other highly non-standard language varieties. My students at Memorial are usually surprised (and, frankly, tickled pink) to discover the wealth of similarities between local language and varieties like African American English, Caribbean creoles, or the English of the American south. The Discourse of Uniqueness makes useful contributions to the local sense of identity and pride. But if you think of your dialect as unique, then you tend to see it as a kind of linguistic lemur – because it’s not found elsewhere, its existence is precarious.

The second local Discourse is one of nostalgia. This is natural, given the massive social changes that the province has undergone within living memory. Confederation with Canada. Forced relocation of many outport communities. Two waves of major changes to the educational system. The collapse of the cod fishery. The discovery and development of offshore oil, moving the province from have-not to have. A sharp move away from religious affiliation. A huge decline in the birth rate. Urbanization and out-migration. In effect, Newfoundland has done in 60 years what the mainland did in a century and a half. This means that most Newfoundlanders over 50 live in a society that is very, very different from the one they grew up in. People of that generation are the journalists, politicians, civil servants, business owners, and academics who shape local Discourses. They sometimes miss earlier times, and they talk about it. And local speech is seen from that perspective… it becomes one more thing that’s gone.

The funny thing, of course, is that NE is not “gone” at all! In rural areas, traditional features like verbal s-marking (I goes, you knows) and interdental stopping (dat ting for that thing) are still extremely healthy. In urban areas, they seem to be making a comeback among youth after a generation of decline. In both rural and urban areas, non-standard features that aren’t part of local identity discourse never declined in the first place – things like I seen it for I saw it and associative and them (Jim and them are coming). And even if there is a decline in the overall rate of use of some non-standard features, that doesn’t mean that NE as a variety is in decline. Features come and go, or grow and shrink, in every language variety. Nobody thinks African American English is disappearing because its speakers no longer have monophthongal [e] and [o].

If sociolinguists were to focus on media interests and the dominant Discourse of decline, we’d miss out on one of the most exciting things that is going on in the province: the way younger speakers are changing local language to suit their needs. Some features that were originally associated with one region or social subgroup, such as the Irish-origin after perfect (I’m after doing that for I just did that), have spread into English-origin communities. As a result, they have become markers of Newfoundland-ness, rather than Irish-ness. Other Newfoundland markers include to for at in Where are you to? and discourse b’y, now often pronounced bah by young speakers.

Even more interesting, from our perspective, is that when young people adopt (or re-adopt) s-marking, they change the linguistic constraints on its use. S-marking is traditionally associated with active (non-stative) verbs, but young people (especially women) use it mostly with statives, especially a subset of what we’re calling mental stance verbs: loves, wants, needs, thinks, hopes, forgets. What we think is happening is that they’re taking what used to be the most marked context, where you would find s-marking only among the most vernacular speakers, and choosing to use –sonly in that context. This lets them simultaneously index Newfoundland-ness and agency: their audience knows that they’re performing, and that they can switch between dialects. So young Newfoundlanders aren’t rejecting traditional speech, nor are they unthinkingly maintaining it. They’re overtly messing with it to create a new sense of identity. By doing so, they’re teaching us something about the issues at the forefront of contemporary sociolinguistic inquiry.

To me, this story is much more interesting and encouraging than a simple narrative of decline and despair. But it may take a while before it becomes the story that appeals to mainstream media or dominant Discourses.


Gerard Van Herk is Canada Research Chair in Regional Language and Oral Text at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His research interests include the Englishes of Newfoundland, Quebec, the Caribbean, and African Americans, as well as how language relates to identity and gender. You can learn more about the work he and others are doing in Newfoundland by visiting the website of the Memorial University Sociolinguistics Lab at http://musl.ling.mun.ca/about.html