Learning How to Speak

When I moved to St. John’s I got work at a call center. Sometimes, on the other end of the line I’d hear “I’m not talking to a Newfie,” and then a dialtone.

The fog rolled back in after a few hours of clear, blue sky. My sister, Jenna, and I had been sitting on the rocks near the edge of the cliff by the marine center. We had spent our childhood looking out to the water from our windows but now this is where we go to see it. Even though I can stand there, right at the edge, I feel so far away.

As we walked back to the car I looked for a spruce tree.

“I’ll show you the frankum,” I said. Our Pop had just told me about it a few weeks ago. He described it to me and I went into the woods near his house and returned with the pinkish hardened sap that oozes from the black spruce tree. He used this as chewing gum. “It’s not the same as the other stuff…”

I don’t remember if I hesitated or she cut me off. I wasn’t sure what to call it anymore.

Tur-kum-time,” she said.

“Turpentine,” I said.

“No, say it the other way, the right way.”

Tur-kum-time,” I said and we both laughed.

I told her that in art school I learned that turpentine was actually distilled from tree sap and it was used as a solvent and not for gluing your small wounds shut like we had learned growing up.

They made me say it the right way there, but with Jenna we had a different right.

College gave me new words for a lot of things. What I called leads were really coloured pencils, and my bookbag was a back pack. No one said b’y. Then again, neither did I.

I had dropped that particular regional marker after an instance of mortification when a high school teacher complained of students suggesting she was bisexual (though I am still sure she knew the difference).

It wasn’t the only thing I dropped.

When I moved to St. John’s I got work at a call center. In St. John’s, you didn’t ‘put your name in’ you had to ‘submit a resume’. After a while I learned that I spoke too fast, not clearly enough, and used some words that others didn’t understand. Sometimes, on the other end of the line I’d hear “I’m not talking to a Newfie,” and then a dialtone.

Up until then, I thought that I had for a long time been very careful when speaking.

When I was in grade five we learned about Paul Bunyan and were given an assignment.

Write about Paul Bunyan as you’d speak.

So, I did.

In my story, Paul Bunyan was winning at checkers. I said each word out loud and wrote it as I’d say it, just as the teacher asked.

When she handed our work back, my story was struggling to float above a sea of red. Deep red lines crossed out every dat and dis and dem.

“You have to write in proper English. This is wrong.”

This is the first time I remember learning how to speak.

I kept learning this way for 20 years.

When I got to university I learned again. But this time I learned I was never wrong. I learned about prescriptive linguistics, and non-standard English varieties. I learned that th-dropping, as it’s called, it’s a prominent feature of Newfoundland Standard English. In fact, there was an entire lexicon of words to use to describe just what my tongue, teeth, and lips were doing in comparison to what the tongue, teeth, and lips of others were doing. When it comes to speaking, there is no such thing as wrong.

Jenna and I got into the car and started to buckle up. “Now,” she said, “Where do we live? On the Avalon….”

Pen-nin-chula” we both said. I made sure to put extra emphasis on the misplaced H.

Photo by the author. She would like to thank Lisa Moore for her guidance in writing this piece.

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