Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fish 'n Brewis 'n Vereniki

It’s the 30th Anniversary of the Dictionary of Newfoundland English

“What’s that,” you ask? “Are you sure that’s English ə-tall?” 

Wha’ dat y’ say? Yer some crooked t’day, me by! Bin spiken yer fish ‘n brewis again, me by?

I’ve been “ta Newfland,” and can attest to the colourful nature of the dialect, but can’t half understand some of it, so the Dictionary of Newfoundland English is going into my suitcase the next time I visit.

I grew up in a place with similar characteristics. Where Newfoundland patter draws heavily on origins in the British Isles, mine is more a mixture of a Low German that was the day to day language of my people before and after immigration in the late 19th Century, the Ukrainian and Jewish neighbourhoods adjacent to them for a hundred years in Russia and the gradual incorporation of English words borrowed to cover cases unfamiliar to my people’s history. 

Take Vereniki. We pronounced it Vren’-ə-tje and grew up thinking it was ours. Turns out it’s a mispronounced варе́ники, the Ukrainian word for a stuffed dumpling. But we made it ours by varying the contents of the dumplings, smothering them in cream gravy and plums and eating them with “Mennonite Farmer Sausage.” (I was recently asked how many Mennonite farmers had to be ground up to make a tonne of sausages!)

Borscht, similarly, became our word although traceable to the Ukrainian борщ.

There was a time when Low German and English were freely mixed in speech, a practice still persisting in more conservative Mennonite villages in Canada. Not every word is easily translatable, like Daugnikjs, for instance. Made up of Dauge—to amount to something—and nikjs (nix), it had no handy English equivalent, so mothers were apt to improvise with “You little Daugnikjs!” 

But it worked the other way ‘round as well, particularly where no German equivalent of an English word was to hand: “Dau mutt here somewheres jewesz ən loophole senne!” (There’s certainly got to be a loophole here somewhere.”) 

I confess I’m often torn between the “correctness” guaranteed by preserving the language as it was and the linguist’s understanding that all aspects of language--including grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.-- are fluid, and that the way to find out how to say a thing is to listen to how people commonly say it. I still balk, however, when I hear the pronoun “I” used in the objective case, as in “John went out with Jenny and I,” or at the splitting of an infinitive, as in “To quickly escape was mandatory.” 

Likewise, mixing languages seems to me to be either snobbish or boorish, depending on whether the foreign word used is French or Low German: de rigueur is a language snob’s fashionable and Klutz a language-boors clumsy person.

One thing, though, language is endlessly interesting. My linguistics prof posed a question that still bugs me: “Can you think without words?” he asked. In other words, is conceptualization bound by language such that a person who owns only a small vocabulary can’t possibly think loftily. Or a person who doesn’t know the jargon of science can’t think scientifically. An intriguing conundrum.

We ate at Velma’s in St. John’s. It’s touted as the place to go for authentic Newfoundland fare. I passed up on the cod cheeks and opted for fish and brewis with Figgy Duff for dessert. You may protest that cod don't actually have cheeks, but then, chickens don't have balls either.

There were no Vereniki on the menu, me by.

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