23 May 2017

The Newfie Thing #nlpoli

Facebook has become hugely popular in Newfoundland and Labrador and, not surprisingly, some creative and enterprising fellow came up with a running joke - these days called a meme - featuring a fellow in a sou'wester.

You will find it called "newfie word of the day". The text that goes with the picture involves a joke based on some mispronunciation of a standard English word or phrase and out of that comes some sort of joke.

The one above is an example.  There are dozens more.  The thing is quite popular as you can tell by searching the Internet for "newfie word of the day".

Memorial University's political scientist slash sociologist Jamie Baker has discovered that the guy in the picture isn't a Newfoundlander.  He's actually Czech.  The picture came from a post on a Northern Peninsula blog by cabinet minister Christopher Mitchelmore.  It's about a Screech-in ceremony in the Czech republic that Mitchelmore ran during a visit there on one of his numerous globe-trotting ventures.

Baker posted the link on Facebook and asked folks to give them their thoughts. Feel free to do so by sending him an email:  jbaker at mun dot ca.  Baker's also written about about nationalism and racism, if this interests you. He got some notoriety last week not for this "newfie" meme story but for one on a paper he wrote about young people's attitudes to the word "newfie." He interviewed 30 university students and found that among the young people, the word is either an insult or no big thing.  You can find a CBC story about it, one from Radio Canada, and one from NTV.

The first Baker story fits with the made-up nature of this "tradition." That's why it is both fitting and funny to see some Czech guy is actually the poster-child for "newfies".  More importantly, this meme makes fun of the way people from Newfoundland speak English. You just cannot escape the fact that even those who think "newfie" is harmless or fun capture within it some aspects that are deliberately insulting or degrading.

To see this plainly, you really have to contrast the "word of the day" meme with the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. The dictionary was an important part of the research conducted by Memorial University academics into local society, language, and history, an endeavour assessed most recently by Jeff Webb in his acclaimed study Observing the outports.  The project itself established that Newfoundland English was something worthy of study and that it had a value far beyond its mere quirkiness.

Such a view was not universal.  Indeed,  for many, including many Newfoundlanders,  the way people spoke English was a matter for either ridicule or eradication because it implied stupidity and backwardness. Baker's second "newfie" story fits into this love/hate or good/bad pattern.  People either love the word newfie or hate it.  They either find it demeaning and insulting or that it is nothing at all to worry about.

Bake's second piece, the one that got the media attention, is also important because it is a reminder that the love/hate dichotomy isn't based on generations. It merely shows that the pattern repeats in a young generation.  These attitudes about the way people here speak English or about "newfies" generally isn't  some sideshow.  As the reaction in some quarters to the 2015 election showed, the perceived connection of culture, language, and intelligence are very much a part of modern society. "Fabian Manning,  Loyola Hearn, and Loyola Sullivan have never been the victims of the sorts of personal attacks levelled at John Efford,  Dwight Ball, and Yvonne Jones for the way they speak English. ...  certain accents and dialects are [supposedly] indications of low intelligence, low social status, and an unfitness for [public] office."

Good on Jamie Baker for getting some public attention for his worthwhile research.  More importantly, though, good on him for drawing public attention once again to these topics because of the deeper and far more important ideas they reveal.


Related:  SRBP posts on "newfie"