Nfld. & Labrador

Preserving changing dialects of Newfoundland and Labrador

Nothing else sounds like the language found across Newfoundland and Labrador, and researchers at Memorial University in St. John's are working hard to preserve the unique dialects found in different areas of the province.

Online database records regional language patterns

The online dialect atlas from Memorial University has samplings of speech from different areas of the province. (CBC)

Nothing else sounds like the language found across Newfoundland and Labrador, and researchers at Memorial University in St. John's are working hard to preserve the unique dialects found in different areas of the province.

A new online dialect atlas launched by Memorial features audio clips decades old, as well as more recent samplings of speech from different regions.

Linguist Sandra Clarke, one of the architects of the dialect atlas, said it's hard to qualify Newfoundland and Labrador's language in just one way.

"People always ask how many dialects do we have in Newfoundland and Labrador, and that is really difficult to pinpoint," Clarke said.

The online catalogue features various audio recordings, along with field notes, all pinned to sections on Google Maps.

Painstaking detail about regional variations of grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary can be found in the database, such as one of the unique words for icicle.

"Out in Port de Grave, which is one of the communities sampled in the vocabulary section of the atlas, people say conkerbell and that comes straight from Devon," Clarke said.

Revolution of information

Harold Paddock, retired linguistics professor at Memorial and founder of the project, said this new online atlas is a culmination of decades of work.

"In Newfoundland [and Labrador], there's a great deal of interest in things that unite us and divide us, and we've discovered there's a tremendous interest in language variation in the province," he said.

Harold Paddock, the founder of the dialect atlas, says this new system of cataloguing varying language patterns in the province will help preserve traditional speech. (CBC)

Paddock, who used to teach a Newfoundland and Labrador language course at Memorial before retiring, said there are a wide variety of uses for researching speech patterns in different regions.

"The general public, I think, will be interested for a long time in this material now that it's available online, but also other people, specialists such as social historians, people who are interested in geographical history, dialectologists and linguists from all around the world, and even criminologists," he said.

"We now know that some dialect features are incredibly localized to one community or half of a town or half of a city ... and if criminals write messages or leave messages recorded, police can listen to them and a dialectologist can be used to detect where this person came from."

He said rapid speech is a big reason why people from other parts of Canada have difficulty understanding Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

"One of the most striking things about Newfoundland English is the ability we have to speak rapidly if we need to, or even if we don't need to," Paddock said.

"This is one of the reasons, of course, that foreigners and CFAs [come from aways] have such trouble following us sometimes when we're speaking."

Paddock said it isn't uncommon for people who are from different parts of the province to have this same problem.

Patterns isolated by geography

According to Clarke, the different variations of language can be traced back to specific areas of England and Ireland, and the province's geography has helped preserve the old language.

"Isolation has a lot to do with it because people bring their dialects here and they don't have the same degree of mixing that they might in larger urban centres where you get a more standardized and homogenized variety developing," she said.

Jerome Canning, one of the few traditional boat builders left in the province, said he's already looked at the online database.

"You know, when I saw that thing, I said that's marvellous. Fantastic," Canning said.

Canning is from Placentia Bay, where varying speech patterns can be found as you travel from community to community.

He said the speech patterns of that region were clear when he listened to a sampling of audio clips.

"Out the shore, they're very Irish. They have a sing-songy way [of talking] and loads of expressions and stuff like that, so I could tell that," he said.

Canning said with the more modern lifestyle taking over the province, he hopes the traditional way of speaking will be able to live on through the online atlas.


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