September 19, 2007

A study of language

Since arriving in Alberta, I've heard the word “eh” or the phrases such as “you betcha”, “gong show” and “bunny hug” (I don't understand what bunnies have to do with a hoodie) being uttered often. I've often wondered about their origins. I have a speech impediment, and casual study of speaking styles is interesting to me.

“Whatta ya at, b'y?”

If you're an Albertan or from elsewhere in mainland Canada, you probably notice a Newfoundlander's distinct dialect and quick rate of speech upon first meeting one. I'm an exception - my irksome speech impediment forces me to sometimes slow down my rate to speak clearly - which despite getting some therapy is easier said than done, pardon the bad pun. Where does our particular style of speaking come from? How did your speech evolve into what it is today? Here's what I know of Newfoundland's background.

As you probably know, Newfoundland is an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The Dominion of Newfoundland's original settlers were from England, Scotland and Ireland. Over the generations, isolated from the rest of the world, a unique dialect was formed from a mixture of English, Scottish and Irish accents. Furthermore, every Newfoundland community has its own unique sub-dialect. Communities long ago were also isolated, which caused them to develop their own micro dialect. For instance, I'm from Carbonear, and my speech patterns are different from someone, say, in Red Head Cove - which is about an hour's distance.

English spoken in Newfoundland contains many non-standard linguistic features - mainly including pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, meanings and expressions. For the most part these features are preserved speaking styles from areas of the British Isles. Other features are variations that were once standard in earlier stages of the English language. The island-nation of Australia went through a similar development.

We even have our own dictionary compiled - The Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Go online and point your Internet Explorer or Firefox browsers to this address:

By the time Newfoundland was made a part of Canada in 1949, roughly three hundred years of isolated development which deviated from Standard English had taken place. There are three distinct pronunciations of “l”, dropping and adding of the initial “h”, pronunciation of “th” as “t” or “d” and loss of “r”. As I mentioned earlier, we seem to have the throttle kicked up in our speaking speed - according to my research, this may be actually a combination of the pronunciation differences and unusual sayings.

I admit that observing a non-Newfoundlander's reaction to our speaking style is interesting. I remember once having a conversation with two friends from Newfoundland one day during lunch at my previous place of work. I remember hearing someone next to us remark (and this is possibly paraphrased): “I can't understand what they're saying - they talk so fast.” The speech sounds perfectly ordinary to me.