Oil industry, other changes not killing Newfoundland language

Barb Sweet
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Gerard Van Herk in the linguistics lab at Memorial University. His research team is wrapping up a project on Petty Harbour. — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram

You could sensationalize a story about a linguistics project begun three years ago in Petty Harbour by declaring that our unique way of speaking is dying out, fuelled by an oil-driven economy that’s squeezing out outport ways.

But that isn’t the truth.

“If anything, there is the social will to keep it,” said Gerard Van Herk, who holds the Canada research chair for linguistics at Memorial University.

“That’s not the story people want to hear. People want to hear it’s in trouble.”

Some features of Newfoundland English are disappearing, however, and Van Herk cautions that the language is not going to sound the same in 100 years.

“But it’s not going to sound like Toronto either,” he said.

Languages always change, unless they are dead, like Latin.

“I think people worry about the local language disappearing and I think some features will disappear, will die,” Van Herk said.

Researchers interviewed Petty Harbour residents, nearly 50 of them, in the first year or so of the project, seeking to explore how major social changes like urbanization, declining birth rates, education advances, growth of the oil industry and the collapse of the fishery have affected traditional language. Petty Harbour is fishing community close to St. John’s.

The project also used surveys and research on audio archival material.

One finding, Van Herk said, uncovered revelations about the “S” factor. Older people don’t tend to use the S on verbs like “love” and want,” which have become well-known phrases in Newfoundland speech, for instance “I loves it” or “I wants that.”

Instead, the more traditional way of speaking is to put an S on active verbs like “I runs” or “I goes.”

Researchers found that young Newfoundland women tend to add the S to “love,” “want” and other like verbs.

“What we think is going on is that young people are saying, ‘I want to have some S on verbs because I want to sound Newfoundlandy,’ ” Van Herk said.

“So if you are 19 and female, you are taking the places where traditionally it wouldn’t be and using it to show you are doing it to be super-Newfoundlandy, to show you are making a choice and you know better.”

Young people always put their own spin on language, just like music.

Van Herk also said more people are using the word “after” in phrases such as “I am after going on holiday.” It was once an Irish Catholic thing, but is now an iconic Newfoundland word.

Newfoundland is also following a worldwide trend, where regions are resisting being homogenized because of globalization.

“What is going on here is amazingly similar to what’s going in in coastal North Carolina, or in Cajun country in Louisiana, is the same sort of identity, local pride, local renaissance,” Van Herk said.

The researchers are discussing their work on the international linguistics conference circuit and in scholarly journals.

Newfoundland is considered a good place to research language because just as medical research draws on the province’s unique genetics, the province has a distinct linguistic profile.

The MUN linguistics lab is making audio available — with identifying information removed — to outside researchers and already it’s being used and drawing visitors to MUN. A transcript will also be made available.

“The big cool thing to me about this is my hope was when we set this up we wouldn’t just be documenting Newfoundland language, we would be showing the (international research) community how you can use Newfoundland language to study all the big questions that are hard to address in other places,” Van Herk said.

“And that is starting to happen.”

The interest in Newfoundland linguistics matches the growing interest people around the world have in Newfoundland culturally.

Just as Australian and Irish  accents and speech have become cool, Newfoundland’s dialect is becoming a favourite.

“And I think Newfoundland is one step behind them in that respect,” Van Herk said.

“The example I use is they are accents that will make you popular in a bar. They will help you get lucky. Newfoundland is getting there.”

There is other research going on in the province, including Corner Brook, and Van Herk hopes to next tackle the “townies” — researching language patterns in St. John’s.

Van Herk would like to see the study of Newfoundland linguistics made part of the school system, and feels there is a place for cultural language along with regular English grammar studies.



Geographic location: Newfoundland, Petty Harbour, Canada Toronto MUN North Carolina Cajun Louisiana Corner Brook

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Recent comments

  • Susan Kettle
    March 14, 2013 - 03:29

    There's a difference between using sayings and an accent and using bad grammar. While it may sound "cool" on the East Coast or in Newfoundland, it just makes someone appear dumb and uneducated. By the way, I've been to Newfoundland many many times, lived "down east" for 8 years and am, in fact, married to a Newfoundlander. What would you think of a politician or newscaster that used such poor English?

    • Mel
      April 17, 2014 - 23:38

      I totally agree with you!

  • Steve
    November 30, 2011 - 10:45

    Get over it, it already has happened. WWII killed Newfoundland's language, music and culture, ever since the deluge of American soldiers it has been ever steadily diminishing. "Historic" St. John's burnt down a little over a 100 years ago, all that remains are a few old fossil in St. John's Council and a few misguided 'Artsy-fartsy' type who think that Ron Hynes is traditional (I won't even go there). As more Newfoundlanders return home the changes get more personified exponentially, as does the increasing crime rate and the severity of these crimes. Innocence is byes innocence is gone.

  • California pete from NFLD
    November 21, 2011 - 12:14

    Yes English is the lannguage of NL but with a distinct dialect that were preserved by being an island and I am proud of it.

  • Michael
    November 19, 2011 - 18:26

    Mary: consider who decides what counts as "proper" English. It's merely the variety of English that the rich and powerful have spoken. There is nothing inherently "proper" about it, and every time it pushes out a dialect or non-standard variant, then the powers of colonialism gain a victory. A thriving, distinct Newfoundland dialect makes me happy and relieved. May we always speak "improperly!"

  • Gerry Connors
    November 19, 2011 - 16:30

    Mary, define then your idea of what 'proper english' is for me...is it American english? Is it Austrailian english? Is it 'merry old england' english? Is it 'the Queen's english' wot? Wot? I left my home in 82 to join the military for employment & a career...and people from 'up here' still say I sound & talk with a Newfoundland accent...and I'm happy & proud of that after almost 30 yearsof being 'away on da mainland'.... -gerry connors (sgt ret)

  • Ian Lambert
    November 19, 2011 - 16:09

    Apparently, Mary didn't learn her history. If she did, she would realize that much of Newfoundland English isn't borne out of bad grammar, but out of the English spoken in the West Country and Ireland. The Irish, for example, didn't have "have" as an auxiliary verb for the past tense, thus the use of "I am after going..." instead of "I have gone..." Terrible that she has such a poor view.

  • mary
    November 19, 2011 - 14:22

    What is the Newfoundland language? I was taught the English language and I am pretty certain this is still being taught, along with French. Improper use of the English language is not cool.

    • Gerard
      November 19, 2011 - 15:44

      Mary, you have obviously missed the point of this article, and do not seem to understand or appreciate the concept of 'dialect.' Snide comments targeting interesting articles like the above are "not cool." Come on.

    • Edmund
      November 20, 2011 - 11:36

      Hey Mary, what kind of aristocratic family did you grow up in? Obviously it must have been somewhere in the city or on the mainland and you probablly never got past the overpass (good thing) to see our beautiful province and experience the wonderful dialects in various bays and communities. Wake up and support our culture and language while we still have it and for that we can be very proud. I, personally take more pleasure learning about our Newfoundland language than having some mainland politician telling me that I must study French (some other person's language) which is absolutely useless unless you work for one of those federalists in the federal government. At least our own language got us somewhere over the years towards a better life not like having french as a second language of the country that has only cost us more in taxes and added a hefty price to anything else that has french attached to it. These people are preserving our culture and all of us should be supportive. Like mom used to say "if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all".

  • Jeremiah
    November 19, 2011 - 11:32

    Accent is one thing, poor grammar is something else. I cringe when I hear the english language crucified by some of our people (some of them teachers). The Newfoundland accent is pleasant to listen to and hopefully never disappears but, for God's sake, let us get back to teaching and using proper grammar.

    • Mel
      April 17, 2014 - 23:35

      I agree, I cringe every time I hear "I loves" " I should have did it"' " I should have went"' I does" aaarrggghhh . To me it makes me wonder if the person ever went to school at all. NL accent is nice but putting s on verbs is not an accent it's pure bad grammar. English is not my first language and many times during the day I feel like I speak better English than the locals here.

  • Edmund
    November 19, 2011 - 08:16

    Great article. It is so reassuring to know that there are people keeping an eye on our fabulous culture, especially our NL language, and that, as we always knew, it is a cool way to speak and express yourself. These projects together with the continuation of the development of our NL Dictionary will certainly help to preseve the unique history in word and dialect we have in our province and homes. We are blessed with so many dialects all over the province that it is possible to know which community or at least what bay someone is from by the way they speak or their name. That is something that has always been part of our heritage and we must do whatever we can to to hang on to and preseve it. Keep up the good work by's and God bless your cotton socks. See ya da once!!!