Oil industry, other changes not killing Newfoundland language

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on November 19, 2011
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.