Newfoundland English

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Newfoundland English is a dialect of English specific to the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, distinct from Canadian English. It is very similar to the accent heard in the southeast of Ireland, due to mass immigration from Ireland.

This separate dialect developed because of Newfoundland's history as well as its geography. Newfoundland, which was settled in the early 1600s, was one of the first areas settled by English speakers in North America, mostly Irish and English. This has given the dialect time to develop. Newfoundland English was recognized as a separate dialect by the late 1700s when George Cartwright published a glossary of Newfoundland words. Newfoundland remained separate from Canada as a British colony (apart from a period of self-government from 1855 to 1934) until 1949. So, in comparison to the other provinces and territories, Newfoundland is a newcomer to the country. Geographically, the province is very isolated from the rest of Canada. It consists of Newfoundland, an island in the Atlantic Ocean separated by the Strait of Belle Isle from the mainland portion of Labrador, a large region of sparsely populated sub-arctic land.

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Dictionary of Newfoundland English

Newfoundland English differs from Canadian English in vowel pronunciation (for example: in Newfoundland the words "fear" and "fair" are homophones); in morphology and syntax (for example: in Newfoundland the word "be's" is used in place of the normally conjugated forms of "to be" to describe continual actions or states of being: "that rock usually be's under water" instead of "that rock usually is under water", but normal conjugation of "to be" is used in all other cases); in preservation of archaic adverbal-intensifiers (for example: in Newfoundland "that play was right boring" and "that play was some boring" both mean "that play was very boring"). Dialect can also vary markedly from community to community, as well as from region to region, reflecting a past in which there were few roads and communities were very isolated.

Other marked characteristics of Newfoundland English include the loss of dental fricatives (voiced and unvoiced 'th' sounds) in many varieties of the dialect (as in many other varieties of non-standard English, they are replaced with the closest voiced or unvoiced alveolar stop ('t/d')), as well as non-standard or innovative features in verb conjugation. For example, in many varieties, the third person singular inflection is generalised to a present tense marker (so the verb "to like" is conjugated "I likes, you (or 'dee' in one or two communities on the north shore) likes, he/she/it likes, we likes, you (or ye in some areas) likes, they (dey) likes"). Another interesting verb form is almost certain to have been taken from Hiberno-English, which, influenced by the Irish language avoids using the verb "to have" (Irish doesn't have a verb "to have" per se). Many Newfoundlanders from all areas will form past participles using "after" instead of "have" so for example "I'm after telling him to stop," instead of "I told him to stop," or "I have told him to stop." Another interesting feature is the pronounciaton of the letter "o" before "i" in words or names, the name "Mike" for example, sounds like "moike".

There is also a dialect of French centred mainly on the Port au Port Peninsula on the west coast which has had an impact on the syntax of English in the area. One example of these constructs unique to Newfoundland is "Throw grandpa down the stairs, his hat", in which the hat makes the trip, not the grandfather. Another is the use of French reflexive constructions in sentences such as the reply to a question like "Where are you going?", reply: "Me I'm goin' downtown."

Newfoundland French was deliberately stamped out by the Newfoundland government through the public schools during the mid-20th-century, along with all other languages except for English, and only a small handful of elderly people are still fluent in the dialect. In the last couple of decades, many parents in the region have demanded and obtained French education for their children, but this would be Standard French education and does not represent a continuation of the old dialect per se. The people living in the Codroy Valley on the south-east tip of the island are also ancestrally Francophone, but represent Acadian settlers from the Maritime Provinces of Canada who arrived during the 19th century. This population has also lost the French language.

The greatest distinction between Newfoundland English and Canadian English is its vocabulary. It includes many Inuit and First Nations words (for example: "tabanask" - a kind of sled), preserved archaic English words no longer found in other English dialects (for example: "pook" - a mound of hay), compound words created from English words to describe things unique to Newfoundland (for example: "stun breeze" - a wind of at least 20 knots), English words which have undergone a semantic shift (for example: "rind" - the bark of a tree), and unique words whose origins are unknown (for example: "diddies" - a nightmare).

The Newfoundland English dialect is steadily losing its distinctiveness through the action of the mass media and public education, which steadily became more and more available after Confederation in 1949. In general, each generation speaks a dialect of English closer to standard Canadian English. Pride in Newfoundland language and culture has encouraged a conscious retention of some obvious Newfoundlandisms, however, and some educated speakers can be observed switching between Canadian English for formal settings and language closer to Newfoundland English for personal communication.

The most predominantly used Newfoundland English expression would arguably be Whadd'ya at? (What are you at?), loosely translated to How's it going?. Coming in a close second would be How's she cuttin'? to which one often responds Like a knife.

Other colourful local expressions include:

  • Where you to?: Where are you?
  • Stay where you're to.: Don't leave.
  • Stay where you're to 'til I comes where you're at.: Wait there for me.
  • Flat on the back with that!: An expression of approval, male speaker
  • Flat on the back for that!: An expression of approval, female speaker

(Some examples taken from A Biography of the English Language by C.M. Millward)


Another popular expression (adopted from Waterford hiberno-english), arguably the most famous outside of Newfoundland due to the folk song "I'se the B'y", involves the word b'y, pronounced 'bye' and meaning 'boy'. Although it is most commonly heard in the expression Yis b'y (Yes boy), meaning good job, it is also used in standard sentences: What're the b'ys at?

An alternative interpretation, somewhat whimsical, entirely without evidence and probably historically incorrect, links the word with the traditional economy of the island, the fishery. Newfoundland's fishery has gone through multiple stages distinguished by the status of the owners of fishing equipment and the residential status of the fisher.

The residential fishery solidified as the dominant form of fishery by 1815. It was immediately preceded by the byeboat fishery, an arrangement where a year long resident fished using equipment owned by a resident of Britain. Simultaneously, migrant fishers (those who returned to England after the close of the season) were present.

The early byeboat fishermen were likely referred to as "b'ys" by the migrant fisherman. Example: "Who is that man?" - "He's one the b'ys."

This interpretation fails to account for the parallel term of common address amongst women: Maid. Until Confederation, many Newfoundland women from the outports worked for a time as domestic servants in a larger population centre. Being sent to work as a domestic servant while young was referred to as being "shipped out". It is unlikely the term "maid" reflects this coincidental usage.

B'y and maid are both terms used to indicate familiarity of social position and status. They are linguistic representations of the unusually powerful sense of organic connection latent in Newfoundland society.

Neither the term maid nor the term b'y has fallen into disuse demonstrating the continuing significance of the communal elements of Newfoundland society.

The term "b'y" is also commonly used in the same fashion in the vernacular of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada

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