Efforts to preserve the language of Newfoundland are underway, from the “b’ys” (read: dudes) on George Street in St. John’s outdoing one another with local slang to the academics who collect and study this kind of talk like capturing a specimen in a jar.
The best-known and most prolific collection of the province’s words is the Dictionary of Newfoundland English (DNE). Produced by a trio of scholars and based out of Memorial University, it was published in the early 1980s after more than two decades of research.
The aim of the 770-page book was to create a storehouse from which scholars and, perhaps more importantly, Newfoundlanders from all backgrounds could draw. The creators have largely achieved their goals; the DNE can be found on living-room coffee tables from Muddy Hole to Joe Batt’s Arm. It has been reprinted 17 times since it was first published.
The dictionary defines each word and includes spelling variants, but also offers insight into the culture, culling from both oral and written sources and including snippets of these texts to illustrate how the language of Newfoundland might be used in a casual conversation.
This is helpful for the layperson, as many of the words in the DNE are no longer in popular use and others are regional. Along the southern coast of Labrador, for example, a “floater” is a migratory fisherman. He could also be called a “roomer,” as he sets up a seasonal fishing room to work from. But a room might also be referred to as a “station,” and so the roomer or floater might also be a “stationer,” depending on which community you’re from.
Words like roomer, floater and stationer have largely disappeared from the vocabulary as technology has progressed and the economy has changed. When the fishery moved from an inshore, family-based industry to commercial fleets, there were no longer “beachmasters” (the person responsible for curing and drying fish) or “dressers” (the person who removes the backbone, head and guts).
Meanwhile, climate change may increase the occurrence of ice storms, so words like silver thaw and glitter could enjoy a resurgence.
When the DNE editors began compiling the tome in the 1950s, they saw joining Confederation as one of the main threats to the language of Newfoundland. Then-premier Joey Smallwood famously said he would drag Newfoundland kicking and screaming into the 20th century, suggesting that the region was heavily rooted in the past. A secondary menace: people who felt regional words were outdated, marking Newfoundlanders as inferior, and not worthy of preservation. The distasteful “Newfie” jokes, which mimicked the island’s dialect and cast inhabitants as hapless goofs are, thankfully, dying out in the rest of Canada, where they were once popular.
Across the province, speakers are repurposing the language as a way of asserting their roots. Along with his uniform, a tour guide might slip on an Irish-sounding brogue and sprinkle his speech with Newfoundlandese while performing for tourists, or it might be a routine adopted among peers, proving your insider status by using words like “touton” (a traditional food of deep-fried bread with syrup) or calling mosquitos “nippers.” Terms like these function as a linguistic secret handshake.
Still, the language revival is small-scale. Some words will persist and others will remain a historical mark, an entry in the DNE.
“You can’t really save a language, but you can renovate it,” Hiscock says. “It’s a little like tearing down an old building and saving the wood and the windows so that other people can put it to use in their places.”
As the fishery continues to decline and some of the language goes with it, words are being used in new ways. They appear in visual art, music and literature; in the names of businesses, restaurants and cultural ventures across the province; and, of course, in the daily weather forecast.
There’s one word Snoddon admires above all others and hopes to incorporate into his newscasts: screecher. It’s used to describe a howling wind or storm. “I’ve been thinking, Could I pull it off?” Snoddon asks. Then he dons his newscaster voice and tries it out: “There’s a real screecher of a wind out there today.” He’s silent for a beat. “I wonder, how many people would really know what I was talking about?”
When storm season approaches, Snoddon will have plenty of occasions to try it out. Maybe he’ll be responsible for bringing screecher back into the local lexicon, putting his own twist on the word, claiming it, and in doing so, setting it free.
© 2015, by Emily Urquhart. From “The Unique Language of Newfoundland,” hakaimagazine.com (December 2, 2015).