Newfoundland and Labrador’s Unique Language

Tourists in Newfoundland and Labrador are always amazed at the friendliness of the locals.

It is unusual to have a short conversation when asking for directions or explanations of local traditions. Chatty Newfoundlanders or Labradorians are known to “talk the handle off an iron pot”. Often, however, tourists are flummoxed by the conversations. They frequently find that they aren’t quite sure exactly what is being said to them.

This is, in part, often due to the accent. Some Newfoundlanders and Labradorians speak like residents of the West Country of England and others sound like they have just arrived from Cork in Ireland. These accents stretch back to the era of the colonization of Newfoundland and persist today thanks to the former isolation of Newfoundland from the rest of North America. One peculiarity is the habit of dropping the “h” from the beginning of words. This is common in some areas and not in others giving rise to the expression “E drops ‘is h in ‘Olyrood and picks en up in H’Avondale”.

If the accented English — more often than not spoken at a greater speed than in the rest of Canada — isn’t a sufficient barrier to understanding, the actual dialects can be confusing. Newfoundland has its own version of English. Proof of the significance of this is The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, which has in excess of 5500 entries.

First you should not be put off by being addressed as “b’y” meaning boy. It is used as a friendly greeting for both men and women. While “ducky” or “me ducky” are used mostly when the subject is a woman, it is not unusual for both men and women to be addressed as “my dear” or, as I often hear it, from store clerks “moi dear”.

Things can become considerably more complicated as completely foreign words pepper the conversation with locals. So if a “bayman” says to you, “me and buddywhatisname” are goin’ down to the “tickle” to see the “oice” and slide on the “ballicaters” and check out the “growler”, what is he talking about? First as a “bayman” he’s not from St. John’s. He and his pal are going to the narrow body of water between an island and the mainland to check the ice, slide on the chunks of ice on the beach formed by the spray of the sea and check out the small iceberg.

If you are out hiking you might come across a “tilt” (cabin) and be invited to join a “boil-up” (meal in the woods) and be asked if you passed the kids grassing (petting or necking in a grassy area) and whether you are enjoying the “nippers” (mosquitoes). As a mainlander you will be forgiven if you ask the meaning of the words that are strange to you.

For the longer colourful Newfoundland expressions guessing at the meaning is likely to produce fairly accurate results. Here are a few beauties that you might hear in a conversation with a local.

Done up like a stick of gum. You can’t tell the mind of a squid. He’s got the stomach of a gull. It blows so hard there that even the cats have short legs. It’s snowing by the reeves.

To fully enjoy the language of Newfoundland and Labrador you should consider reading the delightful paperback compendium of language and lore The Dictionary of Newfoundland and Labrador by Ron Young. If you don’t come armed with this book do buy a copy at the The Downnhome Shoppe on Water Street in St. John’s or at its branch in Twillingate. The Downhome Shoppe is a one stop source for everything to do with Newfoundland and Labrador and is a good place to try any new local expressions you have picked up.

Truly one of the great experiences of visiting Newfoundland and Labrador is the incredibly colourful language.

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