'Dis, dat' and dying dialects: Linguist tracks changing accents of Newfoundlanders

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Dec 23 17:34:46 UTC 2008

'Dis, dat' and dying dialects
Linguist tracks changing accents of Newfoundlanders

Ken Meaney, Canwest News Service
Published: Monday, December 22, 2008

It is as much a part of the Canadian mosaic as the Maple Leaf, the
moose or the Mounties, but is Newfoundland in danger of losing its
signature accents? Memorial University linguist Gerard Van Herk is
tracking how people speak in one Newfoundland fishing village, Petty
Harbour, and what that has to say about identity and status in
Canada's youngest province. Compared with 60 years ago, fewer people
there now say such things as "do be," as in I do be going instead of
I'm going, Mr. Van Herk says.

Newfoundlanders, Memorial University linguist Gerard Van Herk points
out, speak the most linguistically diverse English on the planet.
It is the same with "bees," like he bees sick -- he is regularly sick.
Other pronunciations such as "dis and dat" for this and that, are also
disappearing, he says on the phone from his linguistics lab in St.
John's. And it's the women of the village who are leading the way.

"Women tend to lead change, period. But the younger women are becoming
much more sort of standard. Whereas with the younger men, half are
becoming almost standard and the other half are turning back to the
traditional features. They're choosing to identify locally," Mr. Van
Herk said. Mr. Van Herk says what's happening in Petty Harbour since
the province joined Canada is mirrored in every nook and cranny of
Newfoundland, describing it as a perfect laboratory for studying
language change.

"If you're a biologist, you want to be in the Amazon. If you're a
student of English, you want to be in somewhere like Newfoundland
where you see all this change happening rapidly," Mr. Van Herk said. A
number of factors has influenced language change in Newfoundland --
integration into the Canadian political and cultural mainstream, rapid
urbanization, educational advances, the growth of the oil and mining
industries, and the collapse of the traditional fishery have all
contributed to a situation of rapid language change, according to Mr.
Van Herk.

Newfoundlanders, Mr. Van Herk points out, speak the most
linguistically diverse English on the planet. "There's more different
ways of saying things, or pronouncing things, in Newfoundland English
than in any of the other varieties," he said. Mr. Van Herk says the
changing dialect gives rise to questions about identity. "What happens
when the rural language changes, when a rural community undergoes
really rapid social change?" he said.

"Language is so central to people's sense of identity [in both
provinces] that people are much more aware of how they all speak and
how the other guy speaks than they are in other places." Over the next
three years, Mr. Van Herk and his students will gather language
samples from people in Petty Harbour -- the oldest speaker being 102
years old -- and compare them with Memorial University's extensive
archive of audio files to trace the language change.

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