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Are N.L. accents dying? No, b'y — but they are changing

Paul De Decker, a linguistics professor at MUN, agrees that Merby's is the rightful winner because it is culturally significant. (Jonny Hodder/CBC - image credit)
Paul De Decker, a linguistics professor at MUN, agrees that Merby's is the rightful winner because it is culturally significant. (Jonny Hodder/CBC - image credit)
Paul De Decker, a linguistics professor at MUN, agrees that Merby's is the rightful winner because it is culturally significant.
Paul De Decker, a linguistics professor at MUN, agrees that Merby's is the rightful winner because it is culturally significant.

Paul De Decker, a Memorial University linguistics professor, says Newfoundland accents aren't dying — just changing. (Jonny Hodder/CBC)

Get a Newfoundlander and Labradorian to tell you a story about their nan or pop, and I bet they'll put on a stereotypically thick and delightfully charming accent while imitating them: dropping h's and adding affectionate phrases like "me ducky" or "me love."

Paul De Decker, an associate professor in Memorial University's department of linguistics, says this mimicking isn't just for comedic value — it's actually an act of keeping regional accents and dialects alive.

"These Newfoundland English features, they may be going through periods of decline, but through quoted voices and through narrative storytelling, speakers are actually holding on to them," said De Decker.

"They're not being lost. They're being used in very creative ways."

In a recent study, De Decker examined young adults in Newfoundland and Labrador, and found that when telling stories of older individuals, the young people used exaggerated Newfoundland and Labrador English features to intimate them.

"In our data, customers and customer service encounters and grandparents were highly voiced," said De Decker.

The most common linguistic feature used when mimicking others was the classic H-dropping — as in pronouncing "harbour" as "arbour."

Other distinctive features used included pronouncing the "th" is words as "t," as in "one, two, tree," and adding an "s" to verbs — like, "ya knows I loves ya."

In their authentic speaking voice, participants didn't commonly use Newfoundland and Labrador English, but De Decker says he's seeing a "resurgence" of the language used in this way.

"Words tend to be picked up and dropped more quickly and easily than the sounds of the language, the consonants and the vowels. But I'm still finding the consonants and vowels being pronounced in more traditional ways in these stories that the individuals tell."

Newfoundland and Labrador's ocean of accents 

Flavoured by Irish and English settlers, strengthened by isolation and the fact that Newfoundland and Labrador only joined Canada in 1949, the varieties of English in N.L. are as endless as the sea around it, and the way an individual speaks can say a lot about them.

If someone uses "ye" to refer to a group of people — think, "what are ye going at after work?" — they may be from Conche, on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland.

If someone emphasizes the "l" in words, as used in Irish English — "milk" as "meelk" — they are likely from the Avalon Peninsula.

LISTEN | Hear a full Atlantic Voice documentary from Caroline Hillier: 

And if someone calls you "my ducky," "my darlin'," or "my love," they could be from anywhere, and no, they're not hitting on you.

When language is important to a culture — as it is in Newfoundland and Labrador — people find ways to keep it alive.

Even if younger generations don't speak with the features influenced by Irish and British English, they use it in storytelling, humour, T-shirts and perhaps its best form, memes.

"They're breathing new life into it."

Mark Critch as Mike Critch and his 'townie twang'

From playing an Uber driver in This Hour Has 22 Minutes to playing his father Mike Critch on Son of a Critch, Mark Critch has made a career of mimicking N.L. dialects.

"I was doing it all my life, and one of the first impressions I ever did was of my father on the radio and his townie twang."

Inspired by the Wonderful Grand Band and Codco, Mark Critch had always wanted to be doing exactly what he's doing.

"I didn't want to be, you know, on Three's Company, playing the neighbour or anything like that."

He wanted to be using his identity and culture to make comedy, and now, not only is he doing it, but he's helping others do it too. The cast on Son of A Critch has an accent coach to help with accent-mimicking.

"Our accent is actually quite beautiful, and you should never be embarrassed or ashamed of it. And it makes us unique. And other people wish they sounded like us."

"But every generation, I think, it's sadly, the accents soften a bit."

Reclaiming the accent

There have been negative connotations tied to the accent, and Paul De Decker says teachers were taught to speak more "correctly" and encouraged students to suppress their regional dialect.

"Teachers would be actively involved in the erasure of the Newfoundland English, the Newfoundland dialect, and so that's completely different than what we have now."

The use of the language —  from TikTok to T-shirts — Paul De Decker sees a revitalization and is optimistic the accents will be around for many more decades.

"We can still point to something and say that's Newfoundland and Labrador English, and as long as that's possible then it means the language is still alive."

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