Nfld. & Labrador

An Atlantic Canadian speech pattern, explained

A retired professor at Memorial University has done the research and found out why Atlantic Canadians sometimes use a rare, inhaling speech pattern.

'Ingressive pulmonic speech' used only in a few parts of the world

Open up, breathe in and say 'yeeeeeah': that's all you need to practice ingressive pulmonic speech. (Shutterstock)

Say it on your inhale: "yeeeeeeeah."

If that felt like second nature, chances are you're from Atlantic Canada, where this peculiar speech pattern prevails. And this habit of inhaling a 'yes', 'no,' or 'hmmm' even, has a name: ingressive pulmonic speech.

"It's really interesting. It's a phenomenon you don't find in too many of the world's languages, but [in] a big geographical zone," said retired Memorial University professor Sandra Clarke, an expert on the special inhale.

Ingressive pulmonic speech is widespread throughout Atlantic Canada, down into Maine, and then stretches across the North Atlantic to encompass Scotland, Ireland, Iceland and Scandinavia, and as far east as Estonia.

Who began this unique form of talking? Probably those notorious sea navigators, the Vikings (real Viking not pictured.) (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

That spread is probably due to a people known for their wide-ranging, seafaring ways.

"Where it seems to have come from originally, is probably what we now call Scandinavia. The Vikings were the ones who probably brought it to Scotland and Ireland," she said, adding the large influx of Scottish and Irish likely transported it to Canada's East Coast.

Not quite 'a simple yes or no'

When do you use — or not use — this idiosyncrasy?

"It doesn't mean the same as a simple yes or no," said Clarke.

"It's an agreement marker with what's already been said."

Under that logic, you can inhale 'yes'  when someone points out you are wearing snazzy black shoes...but you would want to use a regular 'yes' when someone asks to marry you, since they are probably waiting on a definitive answer.

And while it seems to be widespread in Atlantic Canada, favouring no particular region, "women tend to use it more than men, and older speakers tend to use it more than younger speakers," said Clarke.

A brilliant disguise

Besides messing up a marriage proposal, there's another use for inversive pulmonary speech that can come in handy.

"In ingressive speech, you don't hear the actual voice tone, so it can be used to disguise speech," Clarke told CBC's St. John's Morning Show.

Just who is in this mummer brigade? The way they inhale when they speak is helping keep their identities a secret. (Submitted by Derrick Mercer)

Clarke said this is well-used in the Newfoundland tradition of mummering, and in similar dressing-up-and-disguising-oneself practices in other parts of the world, such as the Faroe Islands.

With files from the St. John's Morning Show