Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 15, 2006. Talking like a Newfie

Newfoundlanders – it’s a bit insulting to all them Newfies, actually – have an array of speech patterns that are unlike any in the rest of Canada. I suppose to discuss this properly, I’d have to be very high-tech, and have hyperlinks that you could click on to hear recordings of different kind of Newfoundland speech. Sorry, folks, I don’t know how to do that. And I don’t have any recordings anyway. So you’ll just have to make do with my descriptions.

Take the name of their island, for starters. In the US, we call it NEW fn land. Accent on the first syllable, vowel in the second syllable totally swallowed. That marks us as Americans right away, to anyone from Canada.

In other parts of Canada, they call it New FOUND lnd. Accent on the second syllable, vowel in the third syllable totally swallowed. People who have traveled a bit in Canada will get purist about this, telling us first-syllablers that that we’ve got it all wrong, and it’s a second syllable word.

But on the island it’s New fn LAND. Emphasis on the third syllable, vowel of the second syllable swallowed. And the mainland up to the north of them is La br DOR. And while we’re at it, the town of Corner Brook, in western Newfoundland, is pronounced CornrBROOK. Emphasis on the last syllable. Not always, though. The Avalon Peninsula is AValon, not AvaLON. But it’s definitely New fn LAND and La br DOR.

I tried hard to get the pronunciation right. While I was there, it was easy, because I was influenced by everyone around me. As soon as I left, though, other Canadians would unthinkingly correct me with NewFOUNDlnd And back in the USA, if I say NewfnLAND folks don’t understand me. I have to say NEWfnland, like an American, if I want them to know where I’ve been. Which seems disloyal to the NewfnLANDers I met while I was there!

But then, I do say “France” when I’m speaking English, too, not “la frohnce,” and “Paris”, not “Paree.” It would be insufferably pretentious to pronounce France and Paris as if I just couldn’t get away from my true Parisian accent when speaking English. On the other hand, there’s no pretension involved in pronouncing “NewfnLAND” as the Newfies do. Few Americans have any knowledge of, interest in, or desire to visit eastern Canada. Whereas lots of Americans might like to go to France, so demonstrating one’s familiarity with the place could be seen as showing off. A bit like a fellow I used to know who spoke with an English accent. He had, in fact, spent a year studying in the UK some years earlier. But when I asked why had an English accent he said “pure affectation.” English accents have cachet, and might be adopted out of affectation. Newfie accents sure don’t!

But the pronunciation of the island’s name isn’t the best of the language differences. In one town where I stopped, on the Avalon Peninsula, people spoke with a thick Irish brogue, and I had trouble understanding anything they said. In Burin, Jared and his friends pronounced the name of their town Björn, not Burin. And on the Great Northern Pen, the peninsula that runs north up to St. Anthony’s, I met a young woman giving guided tours at Anse aux Meadows National Park, the Viking site at the end of the peninsula. Her English was much

more fun than what she told us about the excavations, the number of people who once lived there, or what the different structures were for. So each time she paused to allow questions, I’d ask about her pronunciation, not about the Vikings. She had grown up a few miles down the road, and knew she had a local accent. She laughed, and said yes, if she wanted to warm something for lunch, she’d say “I eats my soup on the stove and then I heats it with a spoon.”

Dropping h’s where they should be and adding them in front vowels of is a well-known part of Newfie speech on the Great Northern Pen. But she didn’t even realize that mixing up verb tenses is part of it as well. Well, mixing them up by my standards. In Newfoundland English using the third person verb form for all persons is standard, so saying “I eats” instead of “I eat” wouldn’t get a start out of a local. Apparently this is also a characteristic of some African-American English. Which has led to speculation that both forms of English are directly traceable to 17th century English. I have no idea if there’s any validity to that notion – but

one can go further and further afield with google!

In the case of the verb “to be,” “I is” gets contracted to “I’se” in place of “I am.” Which leads to the well-known (in Newfoundland, that is) folk song “I’se the B’y,” a title that translates as “I’m the Boy.” Another feature of Newfoundland English being the pronunciation of “oy” as “I” – so “by” for “boy.” I don’t know why the apostrophe in “b’y,” though.

With a few more vocabulary words, courtesy of The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, you can probably even make sense of the song's lyrics:

I'se the b'y that builds the boat,
And I'se the b'y that sails her.
I'se the b'y that catches the fish.
And brings them home to Liza.

“Liza” becomes “Lizer” in some versions – I guess that rhymes better.


Hip your partner Sally Thibeault,
Hip your partner Sally Brown.
Fogo, Twillingate, Morton's Harbour.
All around the circle.

To hip is to bump someone on the hip when dancing. Now, is this an instruction to the Sallys to hip their partners? Or to someone else to hip the Sallys?

The inclusion of Sally Thibeault (sometimes spelled Tibbo) and Sally Brown suggests (to me, at least) that there were both French and English settlers in the area where the song originated. Fogo, Twillingate, and Morton’s (or Moreton’s) Harbour are villages on islands off Newfoundland’s north shore – so “all around the circle” might mean the circle of the dance, or the circle of outports where the fishing boat could stop en route.

Sods and rinds to cover your flake.
Cake and tea for supper.
Codfish in the spring of the year
Fried in maggoty butter.

A flake is a wooden platform on which codfish are spread to dry. No longer in use, for the most part, but I actually did see a few, and got to talking to an old man in Labrador who was drying fish for himself. He told me how he would cook it up to make a nice dish of fish and brewis – salt cod boiled with bread or biscuit.

Rinds are, according to the dictionary (of Newfoundland English, of course!), strips of birch bark placed on top of the fish to protect them from the sun so they don’t burn, and to keep blow-flies off so they don’t get maggoty (though apparently the rinds don’t protect the butter). On the other hand, another music website says this actually refers to birch branches placed under the fish on the flake, not to bark placed on top of the fish. Sods are chunks of sod – strips of soil with grass and roots growing in them. They are used to construct roofs, though not used in drying fish. The various websites about this song seem to conclude that this bit of the lyrics doesn’t make sense. “Cake” refers to hardtack, or dried biscuits carried by sailors in lieu of bread because they keep well.

Now interestingly, another source of lyrics for this song, which also has a score and a link to an audio version (if you can handle MIDI files), has a quite different version of that verse:

Flour and crumbs to cover the fish,
Cake and tea for supper,
Cod fish in the spring o' the year
Fried in rancid butter.

This version was translated into standard English for the benefit of CFAs – come from aways, that is, or non-Newfoundlanders. But the meaning has changed as well – this sounds like it’s about the ingredients for cooking the fish, not the tools for drying it.

I don't want your maggoty fish.
They're no good for winter.
I can buy as good as that
Down in Bonavista.

If the fish are maggoty, the rinds must not have helped much to keep blowflies off of them. Modern technology beats indigenous knowledge, once again! Bonavista is a village on Newfoundland’s north shore which must have been a market town.

I took Liza to a dance,
Faith but she could travel.
And every step that she did take
Was up to her knees in gravel.

“Gravel,” according to the dictionary, is a “pebble-strewn isthmus.” Now at the start it sounded like Liza was a woman to whom the singer is bringing back fish. But here it sounds like she’s the boat, speeding around the outports, and getting stuck from time to time on the pebbly isthmus. I dunno. No remarks about this on the websites I found.

Susan White, she's outta sight
Her petticoat wants a border.
Well old Sam Oliver in the dark
He kissed her in the corner.

Your guess is as good as mine as to what this might be about, aside from what it actually says.

Continue to the next entry. Return home.

Drawings from the website of The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, and slightly modifiied. All other text and photos on this page © Joy E. Hecht.