A little Newfie talk

New dictionary explores the complex etymology of Newfoundland English

Published on May 25, 2013

Russell Bragg of Lawrencetown has published a book that is dedicated to his first second-language, Newfoundland English. - Heather Killen photo

By Heather Killen




A good douse upside the head probably cured an Annapolis County author of a lifetime of pissarse pronunciations.

Russell Bragg was born in Nova Scotia and never thought about how he was turning a phrase until he moved to Newfoundland and was told, by a cousin on his mother’s side, that he talked funny.

The ‘tarment’ he received at the hands of his cousin ‘moight ave’ something to do with his lifelong interest in linguistics. Bragg went on to pick up three other languages – French, Russian and German – and earn degrees in education and linguistics, eventually becoming a high school teacher in Newfoundland.

Now retired and living in Lawrencetown, Bragg has published a book that is dedicated to his first second-language, Newfoundland English.

Traditional Newfy Talk: The First English Language of North America, is a 1,200-word dictionary compiled to dispel the ideas that Newfie-speak is the result of an accent, slang or a dialect.  

Not meant as another amusing collection of Newfinisms, Bragg says his 116-page book examines the grammar and etymology of Newfoundland English.

“It is a language in its own merit, with its own words and vocabulary,” he said.

“Traditional Newfoundland English is as valid a member of the greater English world language family as Australian, American, or British Received English of Whitehall.”

Bragg traces the Newfoundland language back to Elizabethan era settlers from counties, such as Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset; lowland Scots; and southeastern Ireland.

Over the centuries, waves of fishermen settled in isolated parts of Newfoundland and Labrador, creating regional variations between communities.  Because these communities have remained mostly isolated, the language remained stable over time.

Newfoundland was one of the earliest English colonies in North America and remained under British rule until 1949, when it officially joined Canada. Since then, Bragg says the language is slowly being replaced by a more ‘standard English dialect.’

Bragg says there are five main language variations across the rock: Central (from White Bay to Trinity Bay), Irish (St. John’s to Argentia), the South Coast (Burin Peninsula to Port Aux Basques), the West Coast south of Corner Brook (where French is also spoken and Mi’kmaw is seeing a revival) and the West Coast north of Corner Brook, the Northern Peninsula and southern Labrador.

These differences are reflective of the cultural history of each region and are evident in the various pronunciations and popular expressions.

When he compares the language with four determining criteria – vocabulary, grammar, usage and pronunciation – Bragg says it best matches lowland Scots in its linguistic identity.

Bragg says that one of the reasons he wanted to compile this dictionary is to preserve Newfoundland English. Language, he says, has evolved in layers over time.

Each generation influences the language to some extent, just as the language will influence the world-view of the speaker.

Out-migration, television and the Internet are all slowly shaping the language in new directions, he says. Common expressions can be lost in two generations, along with the world-view that goes with it.

These world-views shape how people interact with each other and the world around them, according to Bragg.  For example, if one compares Mi’kmaw to English, a radically different world-view emerges, he says.

English relies heavily on pronouns and verbs, implying a deterministic view that actions follow actions. Bragg added that English is a “controlling” type of language, whereas native Mik’maw speakers have a view that sees the world in harmony and in partnership.

One of the reasons the treaties were so devastating to the Mik’maw was the inherent misinterpretation of wording, he explained.

Bragg added that language preservation is important in maintaining the cultural identity of people. Whenever a language is lost, the world view contained within it, is lost along with it.

For more information on Traditional Newfy Talk: The First English Language of North America, or to join a discussion, visit Bragg on Facebook (TNT Traditional Newfy Talk).

The dictionary is available at Blue Griffin Books in Middleton, visit www.bluegriffinbooks.com for more information.