THE ACCENT EFFECT | N.L. accent the outlier among English speakers across Canada

January 28, 2018

By Lakshine Sathiyanathan, Lisa Xing, CBC News |

Canada is known for its vast land mass and a variety of landscapes. But whether you can see mountains or grasslands in your backyard, almost all Canadian English speakers sound the same, a Toronto linguist says.

Jack Chambers says urban, middle-class English-speaking Canadians sound alike across the country, and no other large nation — the United States, for example — is comparably “homogeneous.” There are slight variations by region, but the big exception is the Newfoundland accent.

“There was a strong impulse to settle the west from Ontario. And then a strong impulse to broadcast the central Canadian English accent to all parts of the country,” he said, explaining why most Canadians have a similar accent.

“It’s one of the great phenomena about Canadian English,” he said. “We’re a country that’s rich in accents, in spite of the fact there’s homogeneous Canadian English accent from sea to sea.” By rich in accents, he means the varied accents among Canada’s large immigrant population.

Following CBC Toronto’s The Accent Effect series on attitudes about accent, we were inundated with anecdotes about speaking with an accent, including the Newfoundland and Labrador accent.

Readers originally from the province but now residing in Ontario said the N.L. accent is greeted with “bemusement,” but it can also be the butt of “stupid Newfie” jokes.

‘Distinctiveness’ still detectable
Part of why the Newfoundland accent endures is because the province joined Confederation last, in 1949, and its isolation from the rest of the country, according to Chambers.

“It was the first English-speaking colony of Britain. So it had a 300-year history before it became part of Canada,” he said.

“It was settled by west country Englishmen and Irish people, especially in the St. John’s region. Those are two groups of people who didn’t have much input into the settlement of the rest of Canada. And so you start from a different point and you end up at a different point.”

While the “distinctiveness” of Newfoundland English is still detectable, people who live in the city and particularly, young people, are sounding more like “speakers of mainland Canadian English,” Chambers said.

Sounding ‘too bay’ frowned upon
Janelle, who declined to use her last name, moved to Ontario in the summer and says she uses an “Ontario accent” at work.

“I just kind of use it because I feel it’s easier for people to understand me,” she said. “But sometimes, a word or a phrase will slip out that doesn’t sound normal or natural to people who are used to Ontario English,” like the term b’y.

She recalls as a student in Newfoundland being advised “when you’re talking to the public or you’re trying to represent yourself to talk ‘proper.'”

“Even within Newfoundland, people try not to sound ‘too bay.’ St. John’s is town and kind of everywhere else is considered the bay,” she said. “If you’re from a particularly small community, your accent is going to be thicker than if you’re from Corner Brook or if you’re from St. John’s. People have that assumption that if you’re from the bay, you’re not familiar with technology, you don’t know current trends.”

Typically, her accent gets a positive response, the 25-year-old said. People will ask about Newfoundland or reminisce about a visit there.

“But sometimes, you’ll get, ‘Oh, a stupid Newfie’ or somebody will tell me a Newfie joke.”

“They think that I don’t know things that I do because of the way I talk. I’ll get accused of, ‘Oh, you said that wrong,'” she said. “Well, that’s how I talk. It’s just as valid as the way you talk. As long we understand each other, I don’t really see the problem in it.”

‘Stereotype is changing in people’s minds’
As an eight-year-old new to Ontario, Darryl Byrne was teased about his Newfoundland accent in the schoolyard, but his accent now is untraceable, except when he visits Newfoundland, he says.

“You wanted to figure out how other people were talking. And as quickly as possible, acclimatize yourself to that. And then of course, someone would hear your accent and they would tell one of those awful stupid Newfie jokes.”

But nowadays, Byrne said he notices the “older stereotype [of] rural, not very intelligent, ignorant” is dwindling.

“I think the generalized stereotype is changing in people’s minds. It’s one of bemusement, I think,” he said. But “I’m happy to have this part of my identity.”

The Accent Effect is a CBC Toronto series looking at accents and how they might shape the way we are viewed by others and the way we view ourselves.

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