Backwards Talk

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Jan 14, 2022 11:08 AM

“Knows we never had a good time!” You’ve heard this said, or said it yourself, knowing exactly what it means - even if the words mean the opposite. There’s no doubt that we Newfoundlanders have a particular way of speaking.

You’ll hear colourful pronunciations and clever turns of phrases everywhere from St. George’s to St. John’s. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English, first published in 1982, gives the meanings for hundreds of words and idioms in what the editors G.M Story, W.J Kirwin and J. D. A Widdowson dubbed “Newfoundland English.” Most of these “non-standard linguistic features” are the result of migrants arriving from southwestern Britain and southeastern Ireland in the 17th century, bringing their local dialects with them and remaining outside the influence of the rest of North America throughout most of our history. Even today, you can hear traces of Gaelic and French, or the accents of the West Country and Channel Islands.

Dialect and vocabulary aside, Newfoundlanders also have a way of playing with speech patterns. One we’ve noticed is the odd way Newfoundlanders have of saying the opposite of what they mean. For example, say you’ve got your eye on that handsome fella from Fortune. “Knows he’s not gorgeous,” you’d say to your sister. Sun splitting the rocks?  “Some bad day out there.” Buddy on the Yammie flying across the frozen pond? “Knows he can’t go!” Why do we say this? We turned to some language and culture experts to see if they could offer any insight.

Dr. Philip Hiscock, retired associate professor of folklore at Memorial University, says these kinds of backwards expressions are part of our unique sense of humour.

“That sort of irony caught on here perhaps 60 years ago and became an object of popular remark around then,” he says. “In other words, it became a kind of viral style of humour in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s become a matter of comment and jokes for comedians in the past 25 years or so. I expect the routines by Buddy Wasisname added to its celebrity and its spread; and before then, writers like Ray Guy and Ted Russell did the same. Speech play like this (when it is playful rather than a person’s actual dialect) is common in all languages and all forms of English - but there is no doubt that here in Newfoundland people enjoy it more than some other groups and use it with pretty high frequency. Speech play generally is often said to be part of what attracts visitors to here - we’re thought of as having a stronger sense of humour.”

True, we’re a funny bunch who don’t take things too seriously. Can this particular kind of backwards wordplay be traced back to the old countries of our ancestors?

“Most of our unique speech patterns have, in fact, been inherited from either southwest England or southeast Ireland, where most of our ancestors originated,” explains Dr. Sandra Clarke, professor emerita in linguistics at MUN. And while this particular construction is not one that she has specifically traced back to a particular source, she says, “I wouldn’t doubt, however, that this is also an inherited pattern.”

Lyrical ancestors in isolated communities with a particular gift of the gab and sense of humour seem to be the explanation. But is this a pattern of speaking that is unique to Newfoundland? Dr. Gerard Van Herk, honorary research professor in the department of linguistics at Memorial University suggests maybe not. 

“It’s a Newfoundland thing,” he explains, “but it’s also really closely associated with the English of the islands in Chesapeake Bay. What makes that interesting is that (a) those places were settled really early and then followed by a long period of limited new in-migration, just like Newfoundland; and (b) the original settlers of those islands were from the same parts of southwestern England as many Newfoundland settlers.” 

In fact, one of the special peculiarities of the speech of the residents of Tangier Island - a tiny place 12 miles, or an hour by boat, off the east coast of Virginia in Chesapeake Bay - is a similar humorous use of opposite meanings and double negatives. For example, if a Tangier Islander says, “You ain’t pretty, none,” they’re giving you a compliment. And while you might be scratching your head, all the locals would know exactly what that meant.

So, basically, most of the peculiarities of the way Newfoundlanders speak today can be credited to the earliest settlers who arrived on our shores. Even if there’s no definitive answer to exactly why we like to turn things upside down and play with words and meanings in our variety of spoken English, that’s part of its special charm. And in today’s modern world of internet connectedness, outmigration and travel, unique local dialects and zany patterns of speech can quickly disappear. Let’s celebrate our backwards expressions. Say it loud and proud - knows we don’t love it!

To learn more about Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay and its residents who sound so much like Newfoundlanders, go to  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaP6U56eWMc