Dictionary of drift

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English shows how languages can evolve

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Dictionary of Newfoundland English

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English explores how languages can evolve and a relationship between Norwegian and English.

Contact early in the histories of languages spoken on the shores of the North Sea led to similarities in their vocabularies. Many pairs of modern Norwegian and English words—like those described in the “Words about words” articles in this newspaper, illustrate that. They are similar because they developed from the same root word in Old Norse. But there also are pairs of modern words that differ because they came from differing root words or developed differently.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English is a collection of words that together comprise an example of how geographical separation of peoples leads to such linguistic differences. Starting in the 17th century and peaking in the early 19th century, Newfoundland was settled by English-speaking peoples from around the North Sea, such as fishermen from the West Country of England.

Newfoundland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of sparsely populated Labrador. So the settlers of it were geographically isolated, not only from their old countries around the North Sea but also from other regions of North America. Their vocabularies were first documented in 1792, when English officer and trader George Cartwright (1739-1819) published a glossary of Newfoundland dialects. Nearly two centuries later, linguists at the University of Toronto compiled the results of their research on Newfoundland dialects in the first historical Dictionary of Newfoundland English, published in 1982. The second edition was published in 1990.

The dictionary is a remarkable lexicon of one of the oldest overseas communities of the English-speaking world. It’s also a record of the wanderings of the people who left the North Sea to settle Newfoundland. Some of their words were adopted in mainstream English, such as fish flake, the West Country English fisherman’s word for the structure known as a fiskehjell in modern Norwegian (The Norwegian American, Nov. 2, 2017: www.norwegianamerican.com/norsk/fish-flake).

The book: Dictionary of Newfoundland English, Edited by G.M. Story, W.J. Krwin, and J.D.A. Widdowson, University of Toronto Press, Second edition. 1990; searchable online edition at: www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary, with alphabetical index at: www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/a-z-index.php.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784.4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.