This is a final paper for "Language Variation in Canada," Fall 2003 at the University of New Hampshire.

An Introduction to Newfoundland Vernacular English:
History, Phonological Innovations, and Ethnolinguistic Vitality
Stay where you're to ‘till I comes where you're at

Heron Greenesmith



                        The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, after roughly 400 years of political and social isolation.   Newfoundland had been settled by immigrants from two distinct areas of the British Isles, Southeast Ireland, around Waterford, and Southwest england, around Devon and Dorset.  The Irish populated an area in the south east of NL called the Avalon peninsula, while the English settled much of the rest of the coast line.  Both groups lived by the sea, fishing for their livelihood. 

One interesting note about the province, and especially the island of Newfoundland, is that even now it is almost completely linguistically homogenous.  98% of the population claims English as their mother tongue.  The Newfoundland brand of English, however, is very different from that which we, or even most Canadians are used to, as we will soon find out. 

                        Reasons for Linguistic Innovation:

                        There are three distinct reasons for the linguistic innovation and variation of NVE, as compared to Canadian English (CE).

                        1)  Much of CE was influenced in the late 1700s when loyalists to the crown of England fled America to escape the Revolutionary War.   They emigrated to mainland Canada only, however, and thus preserved the linguistic integrity of Newfoundland.

                        2) Although most of the settlers from England and Ireland came to Newfoundland in the early 1800s, there were already a few fishing communities from the British Isles on the island that had established a linguistic presence.  These varieties now reflect earlier stages in English development than American or Canadian varieties do. 

                        3)  Newfoundland is an island, which prevented the immigration and emigration that most other Canadian provinces have experienced throughout their history.


                        Because there is a lack of continuity between descriptions of English based phonological features and Irish based phonological features, I will for simplicity’s sake use Sandra Clarke’s abbreviation NVE to refer to English features, and Alex D’Arcy’s Saint John’s English (SJE) to refer to Irish features.

                        The following phonological features are specific to NVE as examined by Sandra Clarke in her article Language in Newfoundland and Labrador: Past, Present, and Future.  

                        -Deletion of word initial /h/

                                                /hom/ home ----->  /om/ 

                        -Pronunciation of interdental fricatives /θ/  & /ð/  as alveolar stops [t] & [d]

                                                / θIŋ /  thing ---->  [tIŋ] 

                        -Pronunciation of /   oi  /  as /ai/

                                                /  oi    /  boy ---->  /bai/ 

                        -Non standard distribution of front vowels / / & /  /

                                                /      / bed ----> /      /  

                        -Simplification of syllable final consonant clusters

                                                /   rk      /  work ----->  /   k         / 


                        The next set of phonological variations is present in speakers in the Avalon peninsula, those who are the descendants of the Irish settlers.  These are catalogued by Alex D’Arcy in her article Situating the locus of change: Phonological innovations in St. John’s English.

                        -Rounded and retracted /   /

                        -Centralized vowel in cot & caught as /a/

                        -Low, front, retracted /   /  preceding tautosyllablic (same syllable) /   /

                        -Slit fricative realization of post vocalic word final /t/



Lexical variations:

                        Vocabulary particular to NVE and SJE comes from several sources, but the three that stood out to me were fishing terms, words from Irish-gaelic, and words from more archaic dialects of English.

Fishing Terms

Flake                                                    A platform for drying fish

Flirrup                                                 A large lamp used on a fishing stage

Longer                                                A pole used to construct a flake

Put                                                            A boatload of fish

Yaffle                                                   Originally an armful of dried fish, now more generally used.


Irish Gaelic words

Angishore                                    A weak miserable person

Galum(v)                                       To snatch suddenly


English words

Drung                                                   A narrow lane

Suant(adj)                                   Smooth, pliant


Assorted other vocabulary

Bush Born                                   A resident of Newfoundland born and raised on the island

Establishment                      A place of business

Fish Dog                                        An experienced fisherman

Handy(adj)                                 Nearby, almost

Laddio                        Young boy, or young harp seal

Lunch                                                   A light meal or snack taken between main meals

Other Innovations of note:

                        Sandra Clarke mentions in her article other innovations that separate NVE from CE, yet are very similar to innovations in African American Vernacular English (AAVE).   One example is the use of the verbal -s marker used for the generalized present tense marker.  This means that the -s form of the verb may be seen in other persons than in CE. 

                        example                  They wants you to leave soon.


                                                                        They want you to leave soon.                                       

                        Another innovation is the habitual ‘do be’ to indicate a repeated or on-going action.

                        example                  They do be sick. 


                                                                        They get sick a lot.

                        Other similarities between NVE and AAVE are:

                        -Use of the preposition ‘to’ instead of at.

                                                Can we stay to the table?

                                                Stay where you’re to till I comes where you’re at.

                        -Use of ‘he’ as a singular inanimate pronoun

                                                He’s an old fork.

                        There are a few theories about why NVE and AAVE have such striking similarities.  One is that both reflect the English that was spoken around the time Newfoundland was being settled and when slave trade was flourishing.  Another theory is that dialects of English can only have a finite number of variations, and it wouldn’t be so odd for some of them to have features in common.  It is very interesting to examine these theories, especially in conjunction with other non-standard dialects of English.


Ethnolinguistic Vitality:

                        The enthonolinguistic vitality model is a projection of the healthiness and lifespan of a dialect or language based on three criteria: demography, status within and without the community, and support from within and without.  By comparing these three, one can predict how well a language is surviving.

                        1) Demography- 98% of the population of Newfoundland listed English as their mother tongue, and most of these are speaking NVE.  D’Arcy’s article indicates that younger generations are beginning to level their speech towards that of the ‘rest’ of Canada, but this does not necessarily indicate that no one is learning to speak NVE.  It could just mean that younger people tend to level their speech, but as they grown up, they may well slip back into NVE.

                        2) Status- According to Clarke, most speakers of NVE are almost proud to speak a non-standard variety of English, and are certainly tolerant of other’s that do.  She did point out, and I also determined this from interviews I listened to, that if an NVE speaker wishes to work on mainland Canada, or with speakers of SCE, he or she must know SCE.  This indicates that most Newfoundlanders believe that the rest of Canada thinks poorly of their speech.

                        3) Support- Support for NVE is given unconsciously by local radio and TV stations that employ speakers of NVE.  There are no schools to teach this non-standard dialect, as there are French schools in Quebec, and Inuktitut schools in Nunavut.  And since SCE and NVE are mutually intelligible, no effort is made to have signs in both dialects, or legal documents, or governmental proceedings. 

                        Overall, I would place the ethnolinguistic vitality of NVE at medium to high. Despite a lack of organized institutional support and a low outside status of the dialect, it is still spoken everyday by a majority of the population, and is in no danger of losing any communicative effectiveness. 



                        Newfoundland Vernacular English, along with all other non-standard varieties of English has its own phonological and lexical innovations that make it deserving of a closer linguistic look.  Though NVE may not receive the same governmental support that other non-standard dialects do, like Acadian French, or the same international attention that other minority languages do, like Innuktitut, its linguistic interest merits it examination by linguists and non-linguists alike.  Sandra Clarke has shown than by examining NVE, one may make connections to other non-standard dialects of English and perhaps pave the path towards discovering how the English of our ancestors sounded.  And as Alex D’Arcy showed, research into a minority dialect can give insight into how these dialects are lost into the Standard English of the area. 

                        I found surprising things about NVE that I never could have expected, such as the fact that most of the immigrants in the 1800s came from two area in Great Britain not thirty miles in area.  Every language and dialect in the world has a story to tell, a little research is all that is needed to draw it out.









Annotated Bibliography: 

Clarke, S. (1986).  Sociolinguistics Patterning in a New-World Dialect of Hiberno-

                        English: The Speech of St. John’s, Newfoundland.  In J. Harris, D. Little, &

                        D. Singleton (Eds.), Perspectives on the English Language in Ireland:

                        Proceedings of the First Symposium on Hiberno-English Held at Trinity

                        College Dublin 16-17 September 1985  (67-81).  Dublin:  Centre for

                        Language and Communication Studies.

This older article of Clarke’s gives a difficult to read overview of the speakers of NVE in St. John’s, the capitol of Newfoundland.  The text is short, but the tiny graphs  show that age and sex are factors in who is speaking NVE, which is similar to what Alex D’Arcy discusses in her more recent article. 


_______.  (1997).  English Verbal -S Revisited: The Evidence of Newfoundland.

                        American Speech, 72, 227-259.

The habitual -s discussed in the phonological innovations section above is looked into in depth in this article.  Clarke compares data from Newfoundland to that from other studies of non-standard dialects of English.  There is a ton of data and information, but I found this article incredibly difficult to read through.


________. (1998). Language in Newfoundland and Labrador: Past Present and                                            Future.  Journal of the Canadian Association of Applied Linguistics, 19, 11-34.

This article was an excellent overview of all languages spoken in NLD.   The section on English was much more understandable than some of Clarke’s other articles, which are very phonetically focused.  As well as phonological innovations and similarities to AAVE, Clarke also discusses attitudes towards NVE both in and outside the province.  Overall, an excellent  base resource.


Cox, K.  (1992, February 18).  Newfoundlanders have own way of talking.  Globe and


From Canada’s newspaper, the Globe and Mail, this surprisingly thorough overview of Newfoundland English touches a little bit on everything in this article.  The history of immigration is mentioned along with phonological differences, vocabulary differences, and even Sandra Clarke and G. Story.  A nice little map not only shows the locations of English speakers, but of French, Heritage, and First Nations languages too.


D’Arcy, A.  (2003).  Situating the locus of change: Phonological innovations in St.                                 John’s English. 

In this article, D’Arcy examines the trends of SJE in level towards CE.  She focuses on the speech of preadolescent and adolescent speakers in St. John, the capitol of Newfoundland, and definitively places the locus of leveling in this age group.  I found the paper more beneficial in describing the phonological variations in SJE. 


Memorial University of Newfoundland. (2003).  Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage.

                        Retrieved November, 2003 from .

This site is amazing! It has so much information on everything you could ever want to know about Newfoundland that I went here every time I couldn’t find something anywhere else.  There is a great short article by Sandra Clarke on all languages spoken in the province, and links to anything else you may be interested in.  This is a fabulous resource. 


Mueller, S.  (1998)  International Dialects of English Archive.  Retrieved November,

                        2003 from .                              

This site has a huge collection of dialects from all over the world, and three samples of Newfoundland English.  The speakers each read a passage that was the same for all three, then talked extemporaneously for a while about how they felt about speaking NVE.  This was invaluable for learning about the status of NVE within the Newfoundland community.


Story, G.M.  (1967).  The Dialects of Newfoundland English.  In J.R. Smallwood (Ed.),

                        The Book of Newfoundland.  St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The author of this article edited the The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, so was very knowledgeable about vocabulary differences, and provided some very rich, interesting examples. 


_______, W.J. Kirwin, & J. D. A. Widdowson.  (1999).  Dictionary of Newfoundland

                        English Online.  Retrieved November, 2003 from                                                                                                                                        .

This site was really fun for trying to find weird words for examples in my Lexical Innovations section, but didn’t really offer any linguistic information.

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