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Newfoundland's 'Very Robust Oral Culture' Confuses Rest of Canada

September 15, 1985|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland — When a Newfoundlander speaks, music is the metaphor that comes to mind. The ear becomes a concert hall of lilting tunes, soothing lullabys and fascinating rhythms.

It also hears lyrics that defy any dictionary of standard English. Especially when it does not involve an outsider--a "come from away" in the local argot--the English of Newfoundland is as much its own language as the black jive of American streets or the Australian slang of a working-class pub in Sydney.

So distinctive is it that some of the province's most respected scholars needed two decades to produce the "Dictionary of Newfoundland English," a 700-page, 10,000-entry tome that combines first-rate scholarship with the whimsy and joyous spirit that even an outsider sees as the defining nature of a granite island that is closer to London than Winnipeg.

The sound of the "townies" of St. John's, the capital, evokes Ireland. In the fishing villages that dot the 6,000-mile coast, where the people are called "outporters," the talk evokes memories of England's west country.

Whether it's an outporter or a townie, though, the full effect is Newfoundland.

When someone invites you to his house for a "time," you aren't going for an indefinite period but to a party. There, you will hear a "fiddler," who plays an accordion, not a violin.

Along the way you might run into a "yes-ma'am," making you a "jinker in an Irish sulk"--that is, you hit a bump in the road that marks you as an unlucky person put in a bad mood.

But if you got there, a "johnny miller" might be held for you, and then everyone would sit down for "fish and Brewis" with "john casey" for dessert. The evening might end with a round of "screech." Translated, you would see a ring dance followed by a stew of cod, hard tack and bits of fried pork rind. Dessert would be a blueberry pudding and the nightcap a particularly foul-tasting dark rum that can make your cheekbones feel as though they are dissolving from the inside.

Eavesdropping can be a puzzling affair. Fishermen talk of putting "yeses" on their hooks. Someone will speak sympathetically about a "hypocrite" and fearfully about a "clumper." In another locale, the fisherman is using earthworms for bait, the "hypocrite" is a cripple and a "clumper" one of the many small icebergs that float past every summer.

Much of the unique terminology comes from the weather and the seagoing man's concern for ice. "My face were frore, my collars were frore an' everything was ballicattered," one man told G.M. Story, the Memorial University professor who headed the Newfoundland dictionary project.

What he said was: "My face was frozen solid, my anchor, chain and rope were frozen solid and everything was covered with a coating of ice."

"Sir" comes out "zur" and D is often substituted for the TH sound--"den" instead of "then."

The accents, sounds and vocabulary of Newfoundland are as much of a surprise to other Canadians as to Americans.

After all, Newfoundland was the first English colony in North America, 97% of its people come from an English-speaking background and it has had almost no immigrants who speak other tongues. How, then, did it end up with something unique in a region of the world where nearly everybody else speaks English?

Actually, Story says, it is a combination of that homogeneity and the isolation of Newfoundland from outside influences.

"It is full of dialect relics," he said, "that is what makes it very different from, say, Ontario or the rest of Canada."

This has led language experts, historians and anthropologists to descend on Newfoundland to study the speech and to discover the meanings of words that have fallen into obscurity in the rest of the English-speaking world.

It should be noted that Newfoundlanders can speak standard English, and do, especially when an outsider is involved.

"There is a dual speech," Story said, "even among adults in business there is a difference from their speech in the family."

Even then, though, the accents, intonations and sentence structure have a life of their own. And it gives Newfoundlanders a reputation for oratorical skills that have largely disappeared elsewhere.

"This reflects a great sophistication and vocabulary that shows up in ballads and storytelling," Story said. "It is sort of a preliterate society, but it is a very robust oral culture. It shows up in the lexicon as very colorful, very vivid."

Not everyone is as fond of Newfoundland's English as Story and some outsiders. The Gander Beacon recently editorialized against the local dialect.

"Probably nothing has done more to make Newfoundlanders downgrading collector items than their dialect," the newspaper said. "It is misspelled, illiterate and sloppy."

There are concerns that an inability to easily speak standard English handicaps Newfoundlanders from succeeding in the rest of Canada, that it marks them as second-class citizens and makes them the butt of jokes.

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