Republic of Doyle and Newfoundland English

by Emily Coppella
February 16, 2022

This is the third instalment in our series: Canadian English in Canadian Television.

The uniquely Maritime mix of Scottish, Irish, English and French influences has created several interesting dialects in eastern Canada. Newfoundland and Labrador, though, is seen in the Canadian cultural imagination as being linguistically distinct. In addition to the different accents, Newfoundlanders use various words that people from outside “the Rock” have probably never heard of. There’s even a Dialect Atlas of Newfoundland and Labrador.

A Canadian-made television show that serves as a great example of the uniqueness of this East Coast community is the comedy-drama television series, Republic of Doyle, set in St. John’s, Newfoundland itself. In the show, a father-son duo team up as private investigators with several other characters, and they get into numerous complicated (and sometimes illegal) situations.

Viewers have probably noticed while watching the show that there’s an almost Irish edge to the cast’s accents. Did you know there’s actually a strong connection between Ireland and Newfoundland in particular? Between 30,000 and 35,000 Irish immigrants settled in Newfoundland and Labrador in the early 1800s. In less than 50 years, the Irish population in St. John’s increased 600%. In fact, most of these people were specifically from southeast Ireland, making their accents even more distinct.

The actor who plays Malachy Doyle, Sean McGinley, is Irish himself. In an interview in the clip below, one of the show’s writers says that the typically difficult to master Newfoundland accent was easier for McGinley to achieve because he could simply “flatten” his own accent a bit. Other examples of the Irish accent influencing Newfoundland speech can be seen in the show’s script. For example, “nothing” is written as “nudding.” Sometimes called th-stopping, this phenomenon refers to the “th” sound being replaced by “d”, and it’s a common phonological feature of Newfoundland English – and one that has its roots in Irish English.

Another script-favourite is “b’y” (pronounced “bye”). Sometimes preceded by “eh”, “b’y” is often used to express shock or happiness. Its origins are a bit unclear, although it’s thought to be a shortened form of “yes, boy”. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English states that in the 1700s it was used “in the British fishery in Newfoundland, [to refer to] an inexperienced man on his first voyage.” It can also mean a “male of any age,” a “term of address,” and “a marker of informality or intimacy”.

There are also a slew of Newfoundland-specific words and phrases that Republic of Doyle has introduced to a wider audience, such as “a lift up in the hole” which is similar to kicking someone’s butt, and the insult, “juice arse.” “Sleeveen” is often used in the show, a term that originated in Ireland and means a “sly deceitful man”. In the following clip, you can also watch Republic of Doyle’s star, Allan Hawco, explain how to speak like a Newfoundlander.

Republic of Doyle depicts more than the classic regional accent of Canada, it reveals how Canadian English has always borrowed from other linguistic communities – making for some pretty great terms you might want to start adding to your own vocabulary.