Stephen has been exploring the history, legends, and folklore of his home province of Newfoundland Labrador for the better part of 40 years.
They speak English in Newfoundland, right?
Though the predominant language spoken in Newfoundland and Labrador is English, many visitors to the Province believe it has a language all its own. This is especially true for Newfoundland, the island portion of the province. This is due largely to the fact that many of the small communities around the Island have existed in relative isolation for two or three centuries (or more), resulting in the preservation of many of the original dialects and the new dialects that emerged when people from different regions settled in the same small area. A traveler making his or her way through Newfoundland's many coastal communities may find that the English spoken in one community sounds very different from that spoken in a community only a few kilometers away.
Much of this has changed since the latter part of the last century and the early part of the current century (due to things such as young people going to the larger centres for post-secondary education, travel, cable TV, improved telephone service, better road systems, and province-wide internet,) with a great deal of the old dialects falling out of popular use. However, many of the old words, sayings, and expressions have survived and can still be heard in many communities, being more prevalent as one moves away from the major centres, such as St. John's, Corner Brook, and Gander.
One of the most widely used greetings on the island, and perhaps the best known since the Great Big Sea song so titled, is "whatta ya at?" (often said so fast that it actually sounds like just two words, "whattaya at?"). Though this literally means "what are you doing?", in common usage, it is just a greeting, like saying "hi".
The response that you would most likely hear given to this greeting would be "this is it", referring to whatever it is the respondent is doing at that moment. You might also hear "nuttin" or "nuttin b'y" ("nuttin" meaning nothing, but not necessarily meaning that the person is doing nothing), which will most likely precede being told what that person is actually doing. For example: "nuttin b'y, just headin down to da shop".
Other greetings you will most likely hear are "how's she goin?" and "how's she cuttin?", both of which are similar to saying "Hi, how are you?".
Newfinese Terms of Endearment
Quite often a greeting, or any conversation, will include a term, or terms, of endearment. One should therefore not be surprised to find oneself being referred to as "me ol trout" or "me ol cock" or simply "cocky", or, by the local retail clerk favorite, "ducky". For example; one may be met with something along the line of "whatta ya at me ol trout?", or "how's she cuttin me ol cock?", or "how's she goin cocky?". Though a visitor may be a little unsettled by hearing himself or herself referred to in such a way for the first time, he or she need not worry; these are friendly greetings that mean the person speaking is happy to see you.
The term ducky is more of a ladies word and may be used as a greeting from one woman to another but more often from a woman to a man, such as "How is ya me ducky?". It is also used quite often by female bartenders, waitresses, retail clerks, and cashiers, especially "around da bay". A restaurant patron may be referred to as "me ducky" several times during a single meal, or a retail customer several times during a single transaction, occasionally interchanged with the terms, "m' love" or "m' darlin". For example, the conversation on entering a restaurant could go something like this:
Person 1: "How is ya me ducky? For two?" (Which can be roughly translated as "Good afternoon, table for two?")
Person 2: "Yes please".
Person 1: "Follow me m' love". The customers are led to a table, where they may be asked, "How's dis me ducky? Good?"
Person 2: "Fine, thank you".
And so it goes. Though it may seem very familiar to speak with strangers in such a way, there is no disrespect intended; it is just an expression of friendliness and hospitality that is found in the smaller communities and all over the province.
Allan Hawco on How to Speak Like a Newfoundlander
Compliments, Insults, and Observations
The Newfoundland vernacular also includes quite a number of unique compliments and insults, and, for someone unfamiliar with these terms, it might be difficult to know whether you are being complimented, insulted or just the recipient of a casual observation. For example: if you were to hear someone say "I dies at you", and you, being unfamiliar with the nuances of Newfoundland English, would be unlikely to know this as the compliment it was surely meant to be. It means that the person speaking finds you charming and amusing.
If you were to say or do something that another may think was, to put it politely, less than brilliant, you may hear something along the line of "your as stund as me arse!". This would definitely be an insult. If, however, doing and saying stupid things were a pattern of behaviour with you then you may hear the same person say to another, "He's as stund as me arse, dat one!", in which case it is no longer an insult but an observation.
If you were to hear someone say, "I don't know what's ailin dat one, goin round all day wit a face on her like a boiled boot", it would mean that the person being referred to is looking sad or troubled today. If someone were to say to you, "Ya got me drove!", you may want to leave this person's company as they are telling you that you are getting on their nerves, driving them crazy.
Below is a chart of common compliments, insults, and observations, the category in which each belongs, and the translation. It is, of course, just a very small sample from a very large list.
|Newfinese Word or Phrase||Category||Translation|
I know's you're not some stund.
She's some piece a gear.
She is very attractive
E's awfully tangly when e as a swally.
He is difficult to deal with when he is drinking.
She's all mops and brooms today.
Her hair is messy today.
You're not easy.
You did something awesome or extraordinary.
A Lazy Person
If you were to arrive in Newfoundland at one of the major airports in St. John's or Gander it is quite likely that you would experience little difficulty communicating with the local people with whom you might interact. It is as you move away from these areas to the smaller communities and outports around the island that the "language barrier" becomes increasingly difficult. That is not to say that you will have no communications issues in the city (you may be walking through the airport to get your luggage when someone will give you a nod and say "how's she goin?") but there will certainly be fewer of them.
For example, you may be asked by someone upon hearing your accent, "Whas you from up along, is ya? Meaning, are you from the mainland? The mainland technically meaning anywhere else in Canada, but may be broadened to include the U.S., depending on who you are talking to. Regardless of if you are from Canada, the United States, Europe, or anywhere else on the planet you are still a C.F.A. (come from away).
Below are but a few of the more common words and phrases that you may hear in the province, along with translations (for a more exhaustive study of "Newfoundland English" check out the Dictionary of Newfoundland English). The visitor should bear in mind, however, that understanding the words and phrases is only half the battle as Newfoundlanders tend to speak quite rapidly, thus adding to the "fun".
|Newfinese Word or Phrase||Translation|
Where does ya longs to?
Where are you from?
You must be joking.
Mind now I does dat.
Sarcastic way of saying that you are not going to do something, like saying, "That's not going to happen".
To toot your car horn
Porch, or front or back steps
Dusk, between sunset and dark
Who Knit ya?
Who are your parents?
Long may your big Jib draw.
A blessing, a good wish for the future. In reference to the Jib sail (the large triangular sail at the fore) and it's drawing of wind to carry you forward.
Different meanings depending on context. Could just mean "look at that." It could be Sarcastic: where someone else may say "Look at that person over there making a fool of himself", a Newfoundlander would likely just point at the person and say, "Just luh". Or it could mean, "I told you so".
Don't bother with it, forget about it.
B'y da lard dien tunderen jeez!
This is a swear, translation not required.
God bless your cotton socks.
Thank you or God bless you.
The shortest conversation in the english language. First fisherman: "Arn?" Meaning "any fish today." Second fisherman: "Narn". Meaning, "No, none".
A scuff and a scoff
A dance and a meal
Add an H, Drop an H
In addition to the difficulties associated with trying to understand many of the unique words, or make sense of the many unusual turns of fraise, or deal with the tendency of Newfoundlanders to talk very fast, is the confusion created by the adding of the letter H where it does not belong, and the dropping of it where it does. For example, the town of Holyrood is often pronounced "olyrood", whereas the Town of Avondale, just a few kilometers west of Holyrood, is pronounced by many as "Havendale". "Would you like to come to my house for a cup of tea?", would, in many areas of the province sound like "Why doesn't ya drop b'y da ouse for a cup a tea?".
Many of the Newfoundland dialects also change the "th" sound, and it can end up being pronounced as either a "t" sound, as in "three" being pronounced as "tree", or as a "d", as in "that" being pronounced as "dat". Ask a Newfoundlander who the lady on his arm is and you may get the reply, "da's da wife b'y", and if he has children present he may follow with, "and dose tree dere are da youngsters".
It's been called Newfoundland English, Newfinese, Newfie, and a number of other things by people attempting to put a name on what many believe to be a language all it's own. But no matter what people want to call it, it is still English, just a different dialect. Actually, many different dialects. So, don't worry if you are visiting the island and are having a difficult time understanding what is being said to you; chances are it's friendly, and there is always an "'English" to English translator somewhere nearby to help you out. Also important to remember—if someone asks you if you would like to go for a "Scuff an' a scoff", the answer (if you enjoy having a really great time) is "yes".
Questions & Answers
Question: What does "mind I don't" mean?
Answer: This means that someone has just asked you to do something that you have absolutely no intention of doing, or that is ridiculous. Say my son asked me to give him $100 so he could go drinking with his friends I may respond: "ya right, mind now I don't do dat".
Question: What does 'keep clear of yourself' mean?
Answer: The only form of this expression I am familiar with is when someone is referring to him/herself and something that others would want to stay away from him/her for, that is so bad that he/she would want to stay away from him/herself. Example: "After five days in da woods I smelled dat bad I had to keep clear a meself".
Question: What does "now the once" mean?
Answer: "Now the once", means "I will do that in a minute", or "just a minute", as in "I will do that now the once". Or it could be used sarcastically in response to a request, as in, "Ya right, I'm sure ta do dat now da once", which means "I am not going to do that".
© 2016 Stephen Barnes
Stephen Barnes (author) from St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on August 16, 2016:
You're welcome, and hopefully you will be visiting us up here. I believe you will find it worth the trip.
Deborah Reno from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on August 15, 2016:
Thanks for writing this article. Now I'll understand what I'm hearing, when I visit Newfoundland. Hopefully.