Going digital with traditional language

By Janet Harron | June 23, 2010

There is no doubt that Memorial has some amazing research projects on the go. Some are large and some are small(ish). Definitely one of the more massive in scope is happening on the third floor of the Arts building at the English Language Research Centre. Though housed in the Department of English, the centre brings together researchers from English, linguistics and folklore.

Here, where the Dictionary of Newfoundland English was conceived and completed, researchers and students are working diligently to digitize many thousands of typed index cards.

The cards, compiled by researchers more than 50 years ago and derived mostly from printed sources, represent “real uses by real people in real conversations” said folklorist Dr. Philip Hiscock, one of the members of the committee that directs the centre.

Slightly yellowed and fading, each card outlines the origin, use and pronunciation of an individual word. Every word that the editors of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English included in the first 1982 edition was initially recorded on these index cards. And there are many cards whose contents didn’t make it into the dictionary because of what lexicographers and linguists call “matters of variable uniqueness” meaning that the words are in use in other areas and are not unique to Newfoundland and Labrador.

The digitizing project aims to save all the unknown words hiding in the files and bring them into the 21st century by giving them a prominent online presence.

“There is a great interest among the general public in Newfoundland English,” said Dr. Hiscock, who cited a recent appearance by himself and linguist Dr. Sandra Clarke, another ELRC committee member, on CBC Radio’s Crosstalk program, along with the capacity crowd that attended Dr. Clarke's talk on the regional diversity of local English in late April.

“The public is always set on fire by discussions of words,” he said, distinguishing between the interest in an oral vocabulary from the vocabulary we read about.

“[As Newfoundlanders] we swim in a popular culture sea along with the rest of North America. But our own culture is closer to the surface and spread more widely.” 

Dr. Hiscock believes that this prominence of a vernacular culture explains the sheer enjoyment that people take in discussions of Newfoundland words.

This enjoyment takes many forms. There’s the Facebook site set up by Rattling Books devoted to words from the dictionary. Twenty-somethings and teens have appropriated phrases like “best kind” or “BK” for short form texting.

Memorial University’s (re)search engine is named Yaffle -- “a bunch of sticks or fish,” according to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Local filmmaker Sherry White called her acclaimed first feature-length film Crackie (small dog of mixed breed).

Other digital projects from the English Language Research Centre include the online dialect atlas of Newfoundland and Labrador English, directed by Dr. Clarke, using data originally assembled between 1960-82 by linguist Dr. Harold Paddock.

Scheduled to be available online by the end of the summer, this interactive atlas will depict the regional spread of features of local pronunciation and grammar, and will show the complexities of word use in Newfoundland. As an example, Dr. Clarke pointed out the 30-plus terms used throughout the province for fried bread dough or "touton" and said that “this is by no means unusual.”

The ELRC also originated the Reminiscences of J.P. Howley, an e-publication consisting of more than 2,000 pages of text, drawings and photographs, launched in March 2010 as the first original e-publication of the QE II’s Digital Archives Initiative.

One of the editors of that monumental work, octogenarian Dr. William Kirwin (also a key member of the original team that created the Dictionary of Newfoundland English) is currently working with Prof. Robert Hollett (another member of the English Language Research Centre) on a volume of Placentia Bay place names which they plan to place online.

This wealth of words can be explained by the majority of settlers originating from either southwest England or southeast Ireland, and, as Dr. Hiscock points out, by the simple fact that Newfoundland is the oldest settled place in Canada. 

“English has been spoken here for 400 years. Compare that to British Columbia, for instance, which has a maximum of 150 years,” he said.

In addition, the relative isolation and lack of population diversity in the province has led to the preservation of unique words and phrases. Newfoundlanders’ love of language runs across the board.

“We still respect people who have a good way of saying things,” said Dr. Hiscock.

The uses for the various digital projects are myriad and users will run the gamut from school and university students, actors, writers, tourism operators, and even, according to Dr. Hiscock, to “people having arguments after dinner.” Of course, within academia, the projects will be invaluable to linguists, historians, folklorists, anthropologists and bibliographers.

Meanwhile, the work goes on in the English Language Research Centre where student researchers can sometimes spend days cataloguing a single word.

“I’m just starting to settle into ‘bark’,” laughed Jenny Higgins, part-time research assistant and the centre’s manager. “I can do about 10 cards per hour on average. I just feel that this is incredibly worthwhile work and that to some degree it encourages the continued evolution of Newfoundland English.”

Sure, that’s BK b’y.


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