Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where’s yer ‘ead to, bye?


And other quirks of Newfoundlandese. Barbara Fradkin here, ducking the shells firing overhead between Vicki and Rick. This week I am up to my eyeballs, or perhaps earlobes, in Newfoundland dialect as I try to write the opening chapters of my new project. It’s the creative non-fiction biography of my father, who was born in an outport at the turn of the twentieth century and spent much of his first twenty-five years in various coves and harbours of the rocky island.

My father could turn his accent on and off at will, as can most educated Newfoundlanders, but I want to capture just the right feel of those remote villages more than a hundred years ago. To that end, I listened to endless hours of “The Republic of Doyle” (no hardship!), read books and stories by Newfoundland writers, including The Outport People, by Claire Mowat (wife of Farley), and Memories of an Outport Son by Art Lovelace. I listened to Great Big Sea, and watched the Newfoundland newscasts on my satellite TV to hear the interviews with Newfoundlanders. Some had lost much of their accent, others needed subtitles.

A hundred years ago, the outports on the remote rocky coastline were cut off from the outside world. No roads, telephone or railway to blur the uniqueness of their speech. When they needed a word, say for a bird or part of a boat, they made it up. Bits of Dorset, Devonshire and Ireland, where most had originated, still clung to their speech, especially their vowels. Bye for boy, lard for lord. H’s and th’s disappeared altogether.

But when it came time to put these unique sounds down on paper, I faced a challenge. Too much dialect, as in the title of this blog, stops the reader in his tracks, no longer hearing the musical lilt of the accent in his head, but instead struggling with indecipherable phonics. Some accents, such as German or French, are so familiar to readers that the writer can conjure up the sounds with almost no phonetic cues (You vill give me ze money!). Others, like Newfoundlandese, are more difficult to capture with a mere word or two. I am still working on it, trying for moderation where some of the th’s are t’s and the you’s are ye’s, but it will take many re-readings to smooth out the roughness. And in the end I will have to find an aging outport Newfoundlander willing to read it, to make sure I got it right.

All part of the joy of writing. 'Dat roight, me son?

8 comments:

Vicki Delany said...

Quite the project, Barbara. It sounds just fascinating. When we went to Newfoundland ten years ago we visited Faro Island where they supposedly speak in the accent of Shakespeare. My daughter wanted to stop someone on the road and ask them to say something. The thing I remember most about Faro Island was the long line up to get back on the ferry and the man who sold me his place in line for $10.

Barbara Fradkin said...

Ah, free enterprise is alive and well in Newfoundland, despite what our Tories think!

Hannah Dennison said...

I love this! But what a challenge. I'm not familiar with Newfoundlandese. I hadn't considered my Devonshire characters speaking Devonian - but I do use colloquial terms such as "catchy weather today."
Your post is very timely. Two days ago, a young writer asked my opinion on writing parts of her dialogue in Russian. I was completely stumped. Any suggestions?

Rick Blechta said...

Hannah, you have a Devonshire accent? How cool. Do you sound like a pirate? After Robert Newton, every actor seems to think that pirates talk like they're from Tavistock or something.

To get an idea what Newfoundlanders (accent on "land") sound like, check this out:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8rIbitJAbQ

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LOlg_rsRRzw&feature=related

Hannah Dennison said...

Ha ha -- good grief - very intriguing accent ...

ACTUALLY, I was born in Hampshire so I have a "southern" England accent which is several notches below our glorious Queen. Alas it is dying out thanks to an increase in regional accents from "oop norrrth."

Barbara Fradkin said...

Hannah, regional accents are dying out over here too, thanks to television, radio and just migration. I imagine this is true in the US as well. It's always tricky to try to capture an accent on paper, and I think the key is moderation. Put a couple of key accent quirks (like dropped h's). It's even trickier to put another language like Russian into the dialogue. Most people know a few key words of Western European languages, but their Russian is probably limited to Da, Nyet, and tovarich. Anything more and the reader's eyes glaze over. (on top of that russian is in another alphabet!) In my books, I sometimes put a whole saying in French (Canadian), and then the other character has to "think" the whole saying in English, or reply in words that clearly show what the saying meant. It works in tiny tiny doses.

Hannah Dennison said...

Barbara - I agree! Moderation - not sure about everyone else but I don't have a Russian keyboard anyway....

Donis Casey said...

The proper handling of dialect in a book is the bane of my existence. I want the flavor without being comic or causing the reader to stop and say, "what?" Often my characters speak a much more grammatical English than is realistic for their place and time.