Top of Page Home Search Heritage Web Site


THE DICTIONARY AND ENGLISH LANGUAGE VARIATION IN NEWFOUNDLAND

Many words in the Newfoundland vocabulary have had a long history, and others have evolved as a resident population became established and spread around the coast of the island and to the north.5 The earliest fishermen to live year-round, establish families and plant varieties of English permanently in Newfoundland settled along the east coast in the vicinity of St John's, the Southern Shore of the Avalon Peninsula as far as Trepassey, and in the coves and harbours of Conception Bay. English thus began its development here in the very early seventeenth century at about the time of the planting of the language in Virginia and New England in the American colonies. These early settlers were brought out by chartered companies administered from Bristol and London, and the evidence points to most of them coming, like the great numbers of transient fishermen, from the coastal ports and inland villages and hamlets of the English West Country: Devon, Dorset, Somerset, Hampshire and Wiltshire.6 While the official plantations collapsed around the middle of the century, some of the settlers remained, and their variety of speech was reinforced annually by the thousands of West Country migratory fishermen whose seasonal voyages to the Island had long preceded the era of permanent settlement and continued down to the early nineteenth century. The English speech planted here, therefore, was the town and rural speech of the western counties of England, and varieties of cultivated speech current in England in the seventeenth century.

The second important linguistic strain in Newfoundland speech began in the late seventeenth century with the male English- and Irish-speaking helpers or 'servants' annually carried from southeastern Ireland, mainly through the port of Waterford, at the same time as the English adventurers obtained staple foods there for the fishing season in Newfoundland. Merchants from Ireland also sent trading ships to Newfoundland.7 The numbers of Irish servants and later of immigrants increased enormously in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries so that in some years the proportions of English to Irish in Newfoundland were about even. The mixed population at the end of the eighteenth century is well depicted by Aaron Thomas:8

As this Island has been inhabit'd for such a number of years and was peopled by British and Irish, you frequently meet with Familys whose Grandfathers were born in Newfoundland. These are what I call the Natives. They speak English but they have a manner perculiar to themselves---the common people Lisp... for [in] every Out-harbour I viseted on conversing with the people, they would on answering my enquirys say---Yes, dat is the way' or 'O No, we tant do it so; but den we do it the other way, tafter we bring it home because it is taffer.'

There are occasional documentary references to monolingual and bilingual Irishspeaking fishermen working and settling in the island in the early years, but Irish seems never to have been established in Newfoundland and has had little influence on Newfoundland English independent of the development of Anglo-Irish in parts of Ireland itself.9

Less significant numbers from other overseas speech areas have settled in Newfoundland and Labrador, but with little effect on the two dominant systems of grammar and pronunciation. Channel Islanders came especially to the South Coast and Labrador. French-speaking settlers since the eighteenth century have come to western Newfoundland in small numbers from districts in France, from Acadian sources in the Maritime Provinces and from St Pierre and Miquelon south of Newfoundland. And the Scotch have come from two directions---as commercial and professional men from Scotland, especially to St John's and other eastern ports, and both Gaelic and English speakers from earlier settlements in Nova Scotia, to settle in western Newfoundland. Scots Gaelic is now moribund. Numerically these French and Scotch enclaves are very small.

Although it is more important for dialect geography than for the designing of a Newfoundland dictionary, it should be emphasized that until recent decades the greatest numbers of people employing folk and common speech in Newfoundland---the 'livyers' in the 'outports'---have lived in the string of settlements around the circumference of the island, along the coasts of the economically all-important bays. For most of their history, the islanders have inhabited primarily the narrow and long coastal perimeter of some 6,000 miles of deeply indented bays and inlets, and the inhabitants of Labrador a similar coast-line of well over another 1000 miles. The areas inland, beyond a few miles from the coast, are uninhabited wilderness and almost virgin territory (see Figure 2). With the advances of twentieth-century transportation and industry, it is true, a small number of routes, with accompanying dwellings and towns, have been laid out across parts of the interior. High roads such as the one from Conception Bay to Placentia were constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. The Reid Newfoundland railway, completed in 1897, was built in a wide arc through the north-central area of the island, with mining and paper-mill towns subsequently established along its route. The province's international airport has since 1940 given rise to the modern town of Gander. Roughly parallel to the railway, the Trans-Canada Highway (1965) has made possible the modernization and growth of other inland settlements, while in the interior of Labrador several mining towns have grown up in recent years. Despite this, however, the bulk of the traditional speakers in Newfoundland still live and rear their families in the hundreds of harbours and coves of the island and Labrador.

[Figure 2 unavailable]

This settlement pattern, with the populace mainly located along the coast-line, raises basic problems not simply logistical for the conduct of dialectal research in Newfoundland, and many readers who consult the Dictionary for certain kinds of dialectological data will be disappointed. Other dictionaries designed to treat dialect vocabulary have in fact listed areas, counties or other political divisions from which their quotations or glosses had been submitted; for many words the English Dialect Dictionary and the American Dialect Dictionary, for example, permit the making of rough distributional maps. But the sources on which this Dictionary has drawn have not in general allowed either the designation of areas in the region for individual words or senses or the determination of dialect areas in the manner of the word geographers elsewhere.10 The lexical data, rich and varied though it is, is not, in our view, sufficient in quantity or dense enough in its coverage of representative settlements to enable us to describe precise patterns of geographical distribution.

For some terms, statements about areas of incidence may be cautiously made, but the designations are usually matters of geography, climate, flora and fauna, and not strictly correlated with either the ethnic origins of the speakers or with evolved dialect areas. For example, a number of words and senses can be localized on or pertain to the coast of Labrador (floater, roomer, stationer); sea ice, the seal hunt and associated terminology are not customary along the south coast; fishing terms of the Grand Banks differ from those of the inshore fishery; and city terms of St John's are often hardly known elsewhere (chute, corner boy, teeveen).

More crucially, however, close attention to all the assembled cards in our files11—lexical, semantic, phonological and morphological—in the process of drafting and revising the entries of the Dictionary has forced upon us a number of fresh views about the language of Newfoundland.

One of these suggests the modification of an older view that Newfoundland speech is characterized by marked differentiation of the kind generally noted by such visitors as Archdeacon Edward Wix in 1836:12

The difference of extraction has occasioned, as may be supposed, a marked dissimilarity between the descendants of Jersey-men, Frenchmen, Irish, Scotch, and English people. The people, too, with whom the first settlers and their immediate descendants may have had contact, or intercourse, have attributed much to the formation of the dialect, character, and habits of the present settlers. The inhabitants of Conception Bay, although a neck of land of only a few miles extent separates them from Trinity Bay, differ from the inhabitants of the latter, as much as if they were of a distant nation; the same may be said of the difference between those who live in Placentia and those who live in Fortune Bay.

The context makes it clear, however, that Wix is here thinking primarily of variation in morals and manners; but another contemporary observer noted of the North Shore men of Conception Bay that 13

Their dialect was peculiar. It sounded particularly strange in the ears of the [neighbouring] Irish, although it was equally diverse from that of any English peasantry. One of its traits was an inability to pronounce the th, which became t or d. Most of them were Wesleyans, and it was amusing to hear them fervently singing in their old language: 'De ting my God dut hate / Dat I no more may do.'

A hundred years later, G. A. England remarked:14

It must be understood that there is no one fixed dialect for the whole island. Newfoundland was very long ago settled by at least four races—English, Irish, Scotch and French—and these races have to a large extent maintained their own peculiarities of speech, as well as of folklore and religion... As in ancient Greece, the deep bays and the difficulty of land-communication have tended to preserve the characteristics of the various settlements. Many of the people still consider themselves—say—Conception Bay men, or White Bay men, rather than Newfoundlanders as a whole. This has tended in some degree to preserve the various local differences of speech. Again, the lack of free public schools ... and the resulting high degree of illiteracy, has further hindered the approach of the dialects to standard English.

The question which arises is whether such speech differentiation is a reflection of the existence of marked localized dialects within the historical speech groups who settled the region, or whether, as our own data suggests, the variation impressionistically noted by these early visitors reflects simply the two principal varieties of English which are overwhelmingly dominant, Anglo-Irish and West Country speech, the massive predominance of which will be apparent to even the casual reader of the Dictionary who observes the recurrence in the headnotes of 'Ir(e)' [ = Ireland], 's w cties' [ = south-west counties of England], or the specific localities of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire, Isle of Wight, and Somerset. For what we have begun to see more distinctly is the striking homogeneity of traditional Newfoundland culture in the twentieth century, amply demonstrated, for example, in a well-studied cultural index such as the widespread Christmas mumming activities;15 and the linguistic counterpart of that evidence suggests that in the twentieth century, at least, too much can be made of the 'isolated communities' along the coastline as a determinant of language variation and that, rather, numerous economic and social contacts within Newfoundland 'have exerted the most generalizing influence on the dialects, insuring that certain terms are widely known and employed, and diffusing stories, sayings, ordinary idioms, grammatical forms, specific pronunciations of words, and, possibly, phonetic qualities.'16 It is within this general framework that such evidence as there is for language variation in Newfoundland needs to be viewed.

Along with the uneven evidence of geographical variation of terms, our files include considerable amounts of information on other sorts of variation. However, unlike Wright's English Dialect Dictionary and Wentworth's American Dialect Dictionary, the Dictionary of Newfoundland English does not attempt to report all the collected evidence available on variant pronunciations and recorded spellings, grammatical forms and variations in idioms. The purpose of the Dictionary is, within the general aims described in the preceding section of the Introduction, to present particularly the distinctive indigenous vernacular, with accompanying definitions that will make clear to people who have a knowledge of English the senses of these words as they are used locally. Thus the Dictionary has entries for after, be, either and its negative, he and she, ye, and other grammatical words which would invite misunderstanding by those unfamiliar with regional usage. At the same time, other grammatical items with non-standard forms are excluded if their senses are similar to those used elsewhere and they can easily be interpreted by a reader, e.g. to be bet out; past of lie: lid; past of set: sot.

Certain pronunciation variants are often recorded in the illustrative quotations, however, especially those from taped sources, but since these are widespread dialectal alternates and usually predictable, explicit detail is not usually provided in either the headnotes or in the system of cross-references. The most common variations involve [h] inserted before initial vowels of stressed syllables (or [h] omitted where educated speakers usually pronounce it); intervocalic -t- flapped or replaced by -d-; final consonant clusters ending in -t or -d often simplified (loft is lof , sound is soun', field is fiel'); constricted r (i.e. []) vocalized or omitted between vowel and consonant or in word-final position (sca'ce, ta'n back 'thorn back'); th often pronounced t or d, depending on whether [] or [ð] occurs in standard pronunciation; short i and e frequently interchangeable, as before -l or -n (kellick, ven 'fin'); short e frequently lowered to a, i.e. [æ] (lag, zad); or- plus consonant lowered to some form of ar- (farty, starm); and -l vocalized to a mid- or high-back vowel (squid squall: squid squaw; tole pin: toe pin).

A brief résumé follows of the principal grammatical features of various folk-speech types17 to be found in Newfoundland and Labrador.

  1. Nouns after numerals above one have no plural -s: 'Now a cod-trap is about sixty fathom on the round.'
  2. Finite verbs in the present tense take -(e)s for all persons and numbers: 'I thinks this is unlawful, and as others informs me is onproper and onpossible, and this the liviers here, all could tell ye.'
  3. Only one form is employed for both the past tense and past participle of strong verbs: 'She was gangboarded, fore-cuddy an' after-cuddy on her, and freeze come on, they got drove off.'
  4. Am, is, and are are employed for an assertion about an event at the present moment, while be's, for all persons, indicates continuous or repeated activity: 'There's a sunken rock. You know when the water's high, that it be's under water.'
  5. To have (already) done (something) is not a normal usage, the notion being expressed by to be after doing (something): 'How many times am I after tellin' you?'
  6. The unstressed object form for he is un: 'We'd see the sun steady for three months, never lose un.'
  7. The stressed forms for the personal pronouns after verbs (including forms of be) and prepositions are I, he, she, we, they:

    '[Fairies] was only little small people, they used to tell we.'
    'He thought to hisself he'd a-killed the two of 'em [but] 'twasn't they now.'
    'Never mind they—let 'em bite.'

    (The unstressed forms, except for example 6 above, are the same as in standard colloquial English.)

  8. Stressed he and she are often used as substitutes for count nouns, but it for mass and abstract nouns like crookedness, fog, weather: 'But the first hour we hauled in the log, and he registered three miles. So the next hour we hauled 'im in again, and she's got another three miles.'
  9. Adjectives derived from names of materials end in -en: 'tinnen cup, glassen pole.'
  10. For many speakers the plural demonstrative determiners are those with objects and events that are current, and them with objects and events that are past: 'Years ago, not so much those days, you'd always have a gun line.'

The distinctive inflectional and syntactic features to be heard in present-day Newfoundland, and sometimes represented in printed sketches, fiction and drama, reveal productive patterns that differ from those of educated speakers in the British Isles, continental North America and other English-speaking nations. Unfortunately, they cannot, within the framework of the Dictionary, be correlated in any direct or simple fashion with the numerous local and areal speech-types that are being described in current scholarly investigation.18

Styles and accents of cultivated Newfoundland and Labrador speech have so far been little studied. They clearly tend to be like those of the principal Midland and Northern speech types of the United States and educated native speakers of the rest of anglophone Canada. A retroflex or constricted r is pronounced as it occurs in conventional spelling; -ar- tends to be more fronted toward [æ] than the vowel sound of most Canadian and American educated speech; -oor, and -ore, and the parallel -eer and -are (cp poor, pour, pore, pier, pear, pare, pair and similar groups), tend to coalesce in the lower type of vowel for many speakers; and finally usage is divided according to both birthplace and educational level in the use of one or two lowback vowels (cp caught/cot) and the use of the raised and shortened diphthong in words like house, mouth and spout of such high frequency in the rest of Canada. And of course educated Newfoundlanders can employ with ease and accuracy the extensive local and regional technical lexicon as it pertains to the environment, the fisheries and related industries, and local traditional customs. They can casually slip into their conversation well-known regional idioms (some good, leff un bide, last going off, you're not easy). When such terms and phrases are uttered by a cosmopolitan Newfoundlander, they easily bewilder the unin-itiated listener.

It is easier to specify linguistically the phonemic systems and phonetic varieties of Newfoundland speech than it is to suggest in a general way distinctive qualities of stressing, intonation patterns, pitch range and, most elusively, tone of voice. Regional stress patterns of high frequency are duly indicated in the phonetic transcriptions of the Dictionary whenever, as in stage head, Labrador and Newfoundland itself, it is easy to misinterpret the placement of stress in a printed word or word-group. The most that can be said impressionistically about intonation is that many speakers tend to use high pitch levels in much of their speech and rising intonations very frequently at ends of phrases.


  1. See G.M. Story, 'Newfoundland: Fishermen, Hunters, Planters and Merchants,' in Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), 7-33; C. Grant Head, Eighteenth Century Newfoundland (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976); and The Peopling of Newfoundland; Essays in Historical Geography, ed John J. Mannion (St John's: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1977).
  2. See The Peopling of Newfoundland: W. Gordon Handcock, 'English Migration to Newfoundland,' 15-48, especially the map on p. 38.
  3. See Head, 86-7.
  4. The Newfoundland Journal of Aaron Thomas, ed Jean M. Murray (London: Longmans, 1968), 137.
  5. A recently available study of contemporary vocabulary in Kilkenny firmly supports the view that Anglo-Irish speech in Newfoundland is actually a little changed branch of the Anglo-Irish employed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in southeastern Ireland. Séamus Ó Máoláin's 'An Anglo-Irish Lexicon of County Kilkenny' (Diss. National University of Ireland, 1973) in entry after entry shows usages that are parallel or closely similar to those collected in the areas of Irish settlement in Newfoundland—in pronunciation, stress, morphology, sense or traditional customs.
  6. Hans Kurath, A Word Geography of the Eastern United States (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1949); Harold Orton and Nathalia Wright, A Word Geography of England (London: Seminar Press, 1974).
  7. See below, SOURCES FOR THE DICTIONARY.
  8. Six Months of a Newfoundland Missionary's Journal, 2nd ed (London: Smith, Elder and Co.), 143.
  9. Philip Henry Gosse, c1830, in Edmund Gosse, Life of Philip Henry Gosse (London: Kegan Paul, 1890), 50.
  10. Dialect Notes v, 322.
  11. Christmas Mumming in Newfoundland, ed Herbert Halpert and G.M. Story (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), especially 5-6, 216-17, 222-9; G. M. Story, 'Notes from a Berry Patch,' Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, Series IV, x (1972), 173.
  12. W.J. Kirwin, 'The Dialects,' in The Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland; An Ethno-Linguistic Study (Ottawa: The National Museum of Canada, Bulletin 219, 1968), 57.
  13. The use of folk, common and cultivated speech in this discussion closely parallels distinctions among informants described in Kurath (1949), 7-9. See also the sketch of regional dialects by W.J. Kirwin in The Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, [54]-73.
  14. See Harold Paddock, 'Preliminary Dialect Mapping of Newfoundland: A Progress Report,' in Languages in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prelim.Version, stencilled (St. John's: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1977), 90-106.