Say it in Newfoundland. New dictionary deciphers a unique Canadian dialect
St. John's, Newfoundland — `MY face was frore, my collars was frore, an' everything was ballicatered. ... I couldn't hear her now, way I was muffled up, 'cause I was ballicatered up - I was frore up.'' That is Newfoundland English, at least what you might hear from an outport fisherman. It's quoted in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English in a reference to the verb ``ballicater'' - to cover with a layer of ice. The speaker also uses a word from West Country England, ``frore'' or ``vrore,'' meaning frozen solid. Presumably he's talking about being out on a windy, cold day with the sea water splashing, and freezing on his boat, his face and neck cold, but his head wrapped up in enough clothing so that he can hardly hear.
First published in 1982, the 625-page dictionary records one of the oldest and most distinctive dialects in North America. It is being revised by its compilers, George M. Story, a native of St. John's, and William Kirwin, a Rhode Islander. Both teach English at Memorial University here. It will be another year before the enlarged dictionary is ready for the printer.
The Newfoundland dialect draws heavily from the archaic English spoken by the seafarers who began fishing from and settling along the inlets of this rocky island in the early 1600s. They came from such British counties as Devonshire, Dorset, Hampshire, and Cornwall, and from southeastern Ireland.
Newfoundland English, as might be guessed, includes many words related to fishing. It has been enriched by Cree Indian, Eskimo, and French words and by new names created for indigenous plants, flowers, sea birds, and other local wildlife. There are words for different kinds of ice - quarr, clumper, sish, and slob. Seals, depending on their variety, are nog-heads, ragged jackets, hoods, dotards, and bedlamers.
The dialect's uniqueness has been preserved by the relative insularity of this most eastern portion of North America. Moreover, few immigrants came to this island, which is nearly as large as New York State, after 1850. Many of the outports - the small fishing villages along the coast - were not connected by road until two decades ago.
The remarkable thing, says Professor Story, is that despite the onslaught of television and modern education, there is no retreat in traditional usage of the dialect by the 580,000 Newfoundlanders. ``The grammar and pronunciation, if you stretch your net wide enough, remain as they were 25 years ago when we started working on it.''
Irish accents are so well preserved that some researchers swear they can detect the Irish village from which a speaker's forebears came.
Here's another reference from one of hundreds of taped conversations that, along with the written word, form the basis of the dictionary: ``I went over and pulled my trap, and he was right full of herring - they were meshed in the vees, meshed in the skirts. I never witnessed the like; that's herring, not fish.''
``Fish,'' in Newfoundland usage, means cod, not just any fish. (Indeed the word has been so defined in a Supreme Court of Newfoundland decision.) Vees and skirts are parts of the trap.
Considering its price of $47 (Canadian) and its scholarly nature, the dictionary has sold well - about 20,000 copies. Many Newfoundlanders give it as a Christmas or birthday gift to friends and relatives. It has also proved popular among Newfoundland expatriates scattered about the continent.
Story is pleased that his dictionary will be included in an all-embracing, computerized dictionary of the English language now being put together. The base for this new dictionary is the 12 large volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), plus four large supplementary volumes, the last to be published next year.
This electronic dictionary is a project of the Oxford University Press, with IBM United Kingdom Ltd. providing computer equipment and software. The OED will be enhanced with national and dialect dictionaries. These include the Dictionary of American Regional English, the English Dialect Dictionary, and national dictionaries of South Africa, Australia (to be published this month), New Zealand (not out yet), Jamaica, and the Bahamas; it won't appear until the 1990s.
``That is the ultimate dictionary,'' says Dr. Story, a scholar of English renaissance literature and history. His own dictionary will add considerable color to this electronic monster. For example, Newfoundlanders sometimes still use the plural ``ye'' that was dropped for ``you'' in Britain after Chaucer. They will say, ``Their mouth was pure waterin' to get at th' oranges.'' ``Pure'' is used to intensify the following word, somewhat like ``very.''
When a Newfoundlander speaks of a ``machine,'' it may not be a machine. He uses it when referring to something the name of which temporarily escapes him, much as others might use ``device, contrivance, contraption, thingamajig.'' If a Newfoundlander speaks of a ``friend girl,'' don't presume romantic notions. This is just a friend who happens to be a girl, not a ``girlfriend.''
But if someone calls you a sleveen, shimmick, mawk, and nunny-fudger, you may well be tissy and grum. He's described you as a mean fellow, a dissembler, a fool, and idler, so you could be angry and gloomy.