Register Monday | July 15 | 2024

Mouth to Hand

Can Newfoundland English survive on print alone?

There are plenty in town who aren’t church-payers, but as soon as something happens—when a baby needs christening or when someone dies—then they’re on the phone to the manse. Or, as an indignant congregation-member tells me, “Then they’re after knowing where the minister is to.” But as soon as I write that down, it feels wrong—takes on a forced folksiness that, coming out of the speaker’s mouth, it didn’t have.

Since arriving in Newfoundland last September, I’ve become increasingly aware of this disconnect between voice and page. Living in St. John’s, one hears such colloquial turns of phrase less frequently than one used to.

But they’re still around. In the pages of the Newfoundland and Labrador Independent, for example,journalists tackle dialect, undaunted. Pam Pardy Ghent begins in her best reporter’s English: “Rendell Clarke…has been a fisherman all his life, first with his father and brothers, and since 1989 on his own. He says he has a love-hate relationship with the way he ‘barely’ earns his living.” She then defers to Clarke’s vernacular: ‘“I’m starting to hate the fishery,” he says. “It’s only putting me in the hole now that I thinks about it.”’

Ghent’s dialect-attentive quotations establish a voice distinct from her own—distinct, also, from other voices quoted in the paper: “Hobo Bill,” erstwhile of Edmonton (“Would you believe that people come to see me, just to leave me a little Do Re Me?”); Victoria Wells-Smith, a nineteen-year-old dancer from St. John’s (“It’s not a nine-to-five … It’s wake-up to sleep.”); Daniel Ryder, a Calgary-Flames draftee from Bonavista (“All the coaches are here and the management so this is a good time to show what you got.”)

But the extent to which even the most carefully transcribed quotation can render the nuances of speech is up for debate. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English—first published in 1982 after more than two decades of research—is unusual among dictionaries in that its editors relied heavily on oral sources. Seeking to document a word-store that evolved and thrived in the oral cultures of the fishery, the lumber woods and the seal hunt, the dictionary’s editors were often better served by tape-recordings of native speakers than by dialogue transcribed from memory by early chroniclers of the region—clergymen, diarists, surgeons or seamen—who were often outsiders to the dialect they wrote down.

In conveying speech, a newspaper reporter like Ghent has an advantage over those early “men of letters”: she may work from audio recordings, flash-frozen speech, which act as intermediaries between voice and page. Yet Ghent must still resort to literary conventions for the presentation of dialogue—the quotation mark, the apostrophe—which are, at best, impressionistic. A literary writer faces further challenges if she wishes to represent dialect in invented speech. William J. Kirwin, one of the editors of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English, has catalogued the dangers: a writer may forget the “rules” of his dialect-grammar and slip into “his educated spellings and forms”; or, in his desire to capture local colour, he may introduce errors; or he may abandon his ear entirely, adopting stereotypes from books he’s read.

But literary writers in Newfoundland today, like their journalist colleagues, seem undaunted. Their strategies for representing dialect vary widely. Some take a minimalist tack, relying on grammar and word-choice to carry the sense of speech: “Sir I knows where you wants to be going…You be wanting the Bartletts I reckon…Kent, she’s all stove in” (from Michael Winter’s The Big Why). Others go in for apostrophes and invented spellings: “It be da fish tryin’ ta fly, me love” (from Kenneth J. Harvey’s The Town That Forgot How to Breathe). Poet Mary Dalton, whose collection Merrybegot revels in the Newfoundland vernacular, eschews such “phonetic twisting”—but the Newfoundlandisms in her collection run so thick the poems sometimes read like particularly lucid supplements to the dictionary:


Gadabouts, those young ladyios—

The house in slings and

The whole works of them

Are gone in back, in on the Runs —

All the way in to Skibbereen....


Gadabouts, ladyios, the house in slings: these expressions have been introduced to me not by my St. John’s neighbours but by Dalton’s poem. When the editors updated the dictionary in 1990, they proclaimed they’d found “little evidence of the retreat of the traditional vocabulary which is so often predicted.” But they located this linguistic vitality less in the mouths of speakers than in the works of “regional writers” who were “actively extending the metaphoric uses of the Newfoundland vocabulary.” And today linguists seem to agree that, however popular among writers, the traditional vocabulary is becoming less and less familiar to young people. Dialect-grammar and phonology are changing, moving in the direction of “standard” Canadian English.

Such phonological change also represents homogenization: a loss of the linguistic diversity that once characterized Newfoundland—the Irishized speech of the Avalon Peninsula, for instance, or the West-Country English of Conception Bay and the southeast coast. For Dr. Sandra Clarke, professor of linguistics at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, such change has less to do with the oft-condemned influence of mass media than it does with resettlement (official and unofficial) and lifestyle change.

Communities are being lost, she says, “as the younger people move to Fort McMurray and God knows where else.” And just as a dialect may perish with a community, a word may perish with the object that it named. Every time Clarke teaches her second-year linguistics course, she is amazed by how little her students know of the traditional word-store. She gives the example of a “flake”—a fish flake. “Dry fish, salting fish on land, all that stuff is gone. ‘Flake,’ they say—oh that’s a flaky person. That’s the only meaning they have.”

Where does this leave writers like Winter, Harvey and Dalton? Can print keep alive a language that speech is abandoning? Kirwin is skeptical. “The artistic community, largely in St. John’s, is somewhat self-admiring,” he says. “Instead of attempting to deal with people and problems, they have attempted to be successful with the raw materials that they have here. Because the raw materials are so available, and so special, the writers can discover something and say, ‘This is unique. This is not in Ireland, this is not in England, this is not in Saskatchewan; I can put it in my work and I will be successful, and I will be known, and I will win prizes.”

Kirwin does see exceptions to this trend: the comedian Andy Jones poking fun at the Confederation debate; or Dalton, whose poems he finds “nostalgic” but seems to admire; or Wayne Johnston, who “respects the dialect he uses.” But he feels that some other writers’ infatuations with dialect distract them from the “real” issues at hand: “The continuing antagonism in married life, the examination of these families which break up, and then the relationship between parents, divorced, and children. Those are real human problems. Can you really deal with these issues if you’re so anxious to use the dictionary?”

Dalton acknowledges the dangers of dialect-representation: “There are some dreadful failures and grotesqueries in Newfoundland literature in that regard.” When you use apostrophes and invented spellings, “you’re distancing yourself from the character, and you’re saying that their language is somehow ‘other’ on the level of the letters,” she says. But there are successes, too. Dalton praises the work of other Newfoundland writers, many of them poets, who see the vernacular as simply part of their potential word-store. For such writers—as for Dalton herself—vernacular need not be opposed to “standard” speech, nor to “literary” writing. The poems in Merrybegot are not transcriptions, she reminds me, in spite of their colloquial diction: “Of course this is heightened speech. Of course these are literary constructs. These are works produced by a thoroughly literary person as well as someone who grew up in this culture.”

For Kirwin, such fusion is rare. “It is very hard for Newfoundland writers to rise from folk backgrounds and become creative literary artists. What do they do? They go to high school, they’re successful, they go to university, they’re successful, they get into the St. John’s artistic community, and they become very successful. And where are the—I don’t like the overused word—but where are their roots? Can they talk to their aunt or their uncle or their grandfather and actually use any of these expressions?” If you want to hear the language of the past in St. John’s, he tells me, “you have to go to the working classes and the unemployed, the dropouts from school. You aren’t going to hear it at the university.”

Indeed, charges of antiquarianism have been made against Dalton’s poems. But for her and her readers, she maintains, these poems resonate with lived experience: “The Newfoundland dialects are changing, but people who think they’re becoming homogeneous may be focusing on particular words. Less apparent are the idioms and cadences. There are so many plain little expressions that are particular to this language. You see them in the Telegram every day, whenever there’s a reporter who tries to represent vernacular speech. This is not to me a sign of a vernacular that’s dying.”

Dalton has praised the dictionary, calling it “a book to break spells”—the spells that keep a writer bound by standard English. It has helped to lead her back, she says, to the “word-hoard” of Newfoundland speech. Speaking with her, I have a sense of the dictionary as the midpoint of an hourglass: a wealth of sources, largely oral, funnelling into the dictionary; and now, in the wake of its publication, the dictionary’s word-store flowing back out into print. This is not to say that the translation from voice to print has ever been perfect. “There’s no transparency” in the written word, says Dalton. It is, she feels, an illusion to think that certain combinations of letters are more likely than others to bring us closer to speech.

Dalton and Kirwin—their differences of opinion notwithstanding—both leave me with the impression that when dialect goes down on paper it experiences a sea change: an impression reinforced by my own experience, as I struggle to get their voices onto the page. But perhaps this “sea change” is something a poet, rather than lamenting, can make use of? I suspect this is, in part, what Dalton’s title, “Merrybegot,” is meant to imply. Like a child born out of wedlock, her book is the love child of voice and text, of land and sea. “Books have been my life, all my life,” she says, “and this delight in speech has been with me too. They feed each other.”

When I asked Kirwin about the vitality of Newfound-land dialects, he advised me to look beyond printed accounts and pay attention to what I heard around me. I remember, now, from my first visit to St. John’s, an early morning walk I took up Signal Hill. Bracing myself against the gale at the top, I made small talk with an elderly man, a fellow walker. Jerking his head to windward, he said, “She blows hard on times.” “Yes,” I replied, hearing his expression resonate through voice and print, in time and space, “she does.”