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New-Found Language
by Richard Greene

Ihave spent much of my adult life away from Newfoundland, but my poetry draws constantly on memories of its landscapes, the cadences of its speech, and the strangeness of its history. My struggle to define a poetic voice has been, in part, to apprehend out of memory the voice of a remote people and in their speech to hear something of myself. That this struggle is even possible, I owe largely to The Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

The editors-the late George Story, William Kirwin, and J. D. A. Widdowson-began their work at Memorial University in the mid-1960s, a particularly dismal time in the cultural history of Newfoundland. Joseph Smallwood was then creating his utopia of welfare cheques, and dismantling traditional ways of life through resettlement policies that snuffed out some of the oldest villages on the continent.

Born in 1961, I grew up under the shadow of Smallwood's folly, and by the time I reached Memorial University in 1978 I was fully aware that Newfoundland was in the midst of great changes. I was immersed in an intellectual environment that encouraged me, as a young writer, to see the poetic possibilities of Newfoundland's suspended nationhood. While political separation was hardly a workable option, there was nonetheless a national consciousness that asserted itself in other ways, perhaps with no less power.

The dictionary had no overt political purpose. But it was the most remarkable product of a cultural awakening in Newfoundland through the late 1960s and 1970s. Almost in direct reaction to the destruction of the traditional culture, there was a flowering of artistic, theatrical, literary, and scholarly work explicitly concerned with the history and experience of Newfoundlanders. It seems that, in these forms, the country that Smallwood had dismantled rediscovered its integrity.

The dictionary describes the emergence of Newfoundland's form of English. The editors combed manuscripts and printed sources going back almost four hundred years for distinctive words and senses of words that were part of an evolving Newfoundland dialect. In addition, they assembled an enormous body of oral evidence: contemporary speech in the most isolated bays and islands was recorded and transcribed.

The book stands as one of the most important contributions made by anyone to the field of lexicography in a generation. After it came out in 1981, the TLS called it "majestic". It is a specialist's delight, 625 pages of painstaking etymology, discrimination of senses, ante-datings and post-datings of words found in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the very large number of words unique to the dialect. In particular, this dictionary advanced the method of historical lexicography by researching both written and oral forms of language.

The scholarship would in itself establish The Dictionary of Newfoundland English as a work of permanent interest. However for Newfoundlanders, and ultimately for Canadians, there is a greater importance. This work embodies the memories of a durable culture in its most significant artifact-its words. As such, it provides monumental affirmation of the worth of a supposedly marginal culture. Canada is a country with few memories. In The Engineer of Human Souls, Josef Skvorecky speaks of "this country of cities with no past". The Dictionary of Newfoundland English is the superb record of one of this country's strongest voices, and should therefore be recognized as an essential document of Canadian nationhood. Indeed, if nationhood is the convergence of memories and the communion of strong voices, this dictionary is without question one of Canada's great books.

For me, as a poet, the dictionary represents a great part of my own cultural identity and sharpens the sense of community underlying my work. Contemporary Canadian poets working in English are, I find, nervous of writing poems of a "public" character, and even more nervous of assuming intellectual or moral authority in any explicit manner. While such a stance preserves their work from pomposity or, worse, flatulence, I think it derives less from technical vigilance than from an uncertain connection with a larger community, whose shared values poets might affirm or challenge. For my own part, belonging to a community whose uniqueness is expressed in a special form of language, my poems, even those that speak of exile or disaffection, or those that make no reference at all to Newfoundland, seem to occur in a defined cultural dialogue, within which the poet has a right to speak.

At the very roots of poetry is the ability to remember human voices and to draw out of those memories some new sound of language. It is almost impossible to define poetic "voice", but in writing a poem, I find it is necessary not only to assemble ideas, images, and metaphors, but more fundamentally to trace some sound or texture of words like a stream out of memory. Somewhere, underpinning metaphor and the learned aspects of craft, is the primal sense of language, which though transformed by a lifetime's conversation and reading, continues to echo with something of the speech heard in childhood.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English has the ability to strike chords in my memory and to allow me to hear in some word the voice of a person who is perhaps dead or to recapture some moment of childhood contained in a single phrase: a grandmother looks at me in ragged clothes and calls me "screedless", or she dismisses some scoundrel as a "sleveen", or she brews "hurt" wine in season; an old man gathers berries by a "mish"; a great-uncle does not want his bread to rise, so eats it "stunned"; my father's favourite term of contempt: "twillick"; and of condemnation: "maneen"; my mother speaks of teaching among the "Jackatars" of the west coast; a cousin complains that he has caught no salmon but a "slink"; the "slob-ice" hangs to the shoreline and summer never comes.

Each word has its power of evocation, but also its place in the rising and falling of speech, a measure of notes that goes with its utterance. So even where the dialect words themselves do not appear, the cadences pour out of memory shaping and reshaping a poem, revealing the poet's mind in the elusive intimacy of music. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English is a classic work of scholarship by any objective standard. I choose it as a personal classic, because it has the power to challenge my memory and to refine my sense of language. This book speaks with the authority of nationhood and its voice on the barrens is airsome.

Richard Greene is the author of Republic of Solitude: Poems 1984-1994 (St. John's: Breakwater, 1994). At present, he is teaching at Erindale College in the University of Toronto.


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