Let me tell you about The Accent. The Accent is a tricky piece of identity politics with conflicting implications both inside its circle and beyond.
Newfoundland, by virtue of a couple of centuries of relative isolation, is a hotbed of linguistic diversity totally unrelated to the rest of Canada. English (and French, occasionally) evolved on its own in some kind of wacky ways.
If you’re familiar with the existence of The Accent at all, you probably know about b’ys, a short form of boys, used as a catch-all pronoun, much like other people (called Mainlanders, for reference) would use guys, or Texans would use y’all.
But The Accent is not a single weird word or phrase, like how Saskachewaners call hooded sweaters “bunny-hugs”. In its purest form, it’s an entirely different dialect, with cadences, words, construction, and phrases so foreign to most North Americans that television shows often use subtitles to explain it to mystified viewers. I have been known to compare it to Brad Pitt’s “piker’ character in Snatch. I understood him without a lot of difficulty.
The “purest form” however, is where the trick comes in. Although Canadians tend to think that all Newfoundlanders are completely incomprehensible (and often think that The Accent is either hilarious or adorable), generally only people from outports (small fishing villages) are first-language Newfs*. Most of us are a bit of a mix, and the degree of mix is a social and economic signifier.
Broadly speaking, Newfoundlanders often see a divide between Townies (from St. John’s), and Baymen (from “beyond the overpass”). Historically, the former were merchant class, the latter mostly fisherfolk, although this is of course an oversimplification.
To a Newf, hearing a strong accent is a cue that the speaker is either from an outport or not far removed from it. That has economic and social class implications. Most Townies have a less noticeable accent, although it still varies. Like any other cue, The Accent means something to the people who understand the context. It’s not definitive, of course, but it forms part of a first impression. In either direction, there are positives and negatives. Urban politicians often play up their slight accents to connect more with voters in the rural areas that hold a disproportionate number of seats.
So that’s all fine and good. Newfoundlanders communicate pretty effectively through The Accent, and although we may make some judgments about each other based on its strength, we all kind of get how that works.
It does result in some class policing. For example, I come from an old St. John’s family. The line on both sides has been in town for generations and is largely merchant class. It says something that both my grandmothers hold graduate degrees (including having studied “abroad” in Canada before Confederation in 1949) in an age where that was definitely not the norm. Both of my own parents are lawyers. Neither has a noticeable accent – you can hear it if you know what to listen for, but it certainly would not be evident to the average Mainlander. I was accordingly raised in an environment where The Accent was generally minimal. When I came home from Grade 1 spelling words with “haych” instead of “aitch”, I remember being told that “we do not speak that way in this house”.
Take a Newf off the island, however, and it’s a whole new situation.
As I noted before, Mainlanders have very definite ideas about what Newfoundlanders sound like. Often those ideas are very wrong – Jim Carrey attempted to do a Newfie accent in A Series of Unfortunate Events and it bears no resemblance to The Accent whatsoever. But crucially, those ideas are pretty monolithic. Similarly monolithic ideas abound about Newfoundlanders being fishermen, stupid or uneducated, poor and on welfare, and extremely friendly.+
As a Newfoundlander with very little accent, I don’t fit. When I tell people that I’m from Newfoundland, I’m often asked what happened to my accent. Or “where” my accent is. Other people tell me I don’t sound like a “real Newfie”. As far as the asker is concerned, this is a natural question, maybe a little joke about how long I’ve lived away. The intent is either neutral or complimentary, although occasionally people are disappointed that I don’t sound “interesting”.
For me, however, this kind of question is an identity minefield. I am proud of being a Newfoundlander, and bristle a little at any suggestion that I’m not a “real” one. At the same time, I recognize the back-handed compliment about my diction and vocabulary. I have to imagine that the internal war on this is somewhat similar to what Black individuals feel when told that they don’t “sound Black”. I’m pleased to “pass” as a mainlander, but wonder whether I’ve betrayed my roots, while at the same time recognizing that this is a bit foolish – my thoroughly Newfoundland roots don’t really include The Accent at all.
This internal tug-of-way is only exacerbated by the occasional request to “do” The Accent. Because it’s not my natural way of speaking, I’m extremely uncomfortable with putting it on – it’s inevitably a caricature of the way that some people speak, and feels both disrespectful of those people and like I’m indulging the asker in a gleeful exercise of exoticizing Newfoundlanders. In short, it’s icky. I think this is why I am similarly sensitive about other accents – when cast in a musical that had me singing a parody of “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, my first reaction was to refuse to put on any mock Caribbean accent. It felt similarly icky.
None of this is to suggest that I do not have my own spin on The Accent. Even after nine years away, I still occasionally confuse people in Calgary by using a word or phrase that I haven’t realized isn’t “normal”. Additionally, although I can’t “lapse” into The Accent because it’s not my normal way of speaking, but I do slip into it in some situations. Lawrence Hill’s comments in Black Berry, Sweet Juice, about how his father, a Black American, changed his speaking style when socializing with other Black people resonated for me.
When drunk or angry, my vowels broaden (which my Mainlander husband thinks is hilarious, winning him few points if he is the object of my ire when it happens). I also use The Accent casually, almost as an endearment, with other insiders. My brothers and I, in particular, communicate this way, and I constantly catch myself calling my boys “some sweet” and “right handsome”.
The Accent is only part of a rich and often misunderstood cultural heritage, and I think many Newfoundlanders who live away struggle with reconciling their relationship with it.
* I use “Newf” as an insider signifier. “Newfie” tends to be an outsider term and, like The Accent itself, is loaded with all sorts of significance. Probably worthy of its own post.
+ In case you were wondering why my mother was so keen to make sure I didn’t pick up The Accent, she explained when I was an adult that it was largely so that I could control the application of the latter stereotypes. “There will be situations,” she noted, “where revealing that you are a Newfoundlander will not be to your advantage. I want you to be able to choose whether to tell people where you are from, rather than have it be obvious the moment you open your mouth.”