Watchwords: "Bakeapple" one of many linguistic delights
By Mark Abley
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For most of us, this is a cloudberry (rubus chamaemorus), but in Newfoundland it's called a bakeapple.
(Photograph by: Philipum, via Wikipedia)
“What kinds of pie do you have tonight?” the man sitting by the window asked. He and I were both eating dinner in a café in the outport of Cow Head, N.L.
“Partridgeberry, apple or bakeapple,” the waitress said.
“I’ll take baked apple, please.”
I nearly intervened. I nearly called across to him that he wasn’t going to get what he expected — in the unique form of English spoken in Newfoundland and Labrador, a bakeapple is a small orange fruit that grows in peat bogs, a fruit most other speakers of English call cloudberry. But I don’t usually start talking to strangers in restaurants, even in Cow Head, so I held my tongue.
“That wasn’t an apple pie,” the man said a few minutes later when the waitress brought his bill. “It had these little berries in it.”
And so she explained. I couldn’t hear everything she said to him, but I detected the word “cloudberry” on her lips.
You could argue it would be a good thing if Newfoundlanders adapted to the rest of the English-speaking world and called things by their usual names.
If tourists don’t know their bakeapples from their roasted Granny Smiths, maybe the islanders should capitulate and start talking about cloudberries. Partridgeberry jam (if you’ve never tried it, your culinary life is not complete) would then be known as lingonberry, a Swedish name that migrated to Britain. A scruncheon would be any old morsel of fatty pork. A tickle would be simply a narrow channel. A tickle-ace — some say tickle-ass — would be the slim species of gull that everyone else calls a kittiwake.
But if you’re like me, you wouldn’t make this argument. Last month I spent 10 days in that astonishing province — by the way, there are Newfoundlanders who would still prefer to say “that astonishing nation” — and everywhere I went, I was delighted by the wealth and variety of the oral language. Much of it, of course, can be traced back to the dialects that flourished in Ireland and the West Country of England in previous centuries — one day in southern Labrador, a woman addressed my wife and myself as “ye.” But thousands of words and expressions sprang into existence on this side of the rough Atlantic, and are particular to Newfoundland.
One thing an outsider must never do is describe the local dialect as quaint. If you ask a Newfoundlander what’s the name of the dwarf plant that produces an unusually fat red berry, don’t say “How cute!” when she informs you it’s a plumboy. As a proud Montrealer, I wouldn’t be overjoyed if I told someone from Toronto I was going to the dépanneur, and the Torontonian said, “That’s a weird name!” The ability to define someone else’s language as quaint or odd is the power of the rich insider. The grammar of Newfoundlanders is often non-standard — verbs don’t always agree with the expected pronouns — but I’m not going to quote examples, because the risk is that such examples would appear patronizing. As far back as Shakespeare’s day, and probably farther, city folk have sneered at the funny expressions of country people. I want no part of it.
Sure, there were things about Newfoundland English that struck me as a little surprising. One glorious afternoon we took a boat trip on a lake in Gros Morne National Park, the bare and strenuous mountains stretching hundreds of metres overhead. The lake is really a deep fjord, enclosed since the last Ice Age ended, but in local parlance it’s a “pond.” As the river that drains the pond flows west to the sea, it’s known as Western Brook — in England and Ireland a brook is a minor stream, but in Newfoundland big rivers are often called brooks. Therefore this magnificent lake has the small name “Western Brook Pond.”
That’s fine. So be it. It’s their pond, not mine. Even if the lexicon has shed many expressions over the past century, even if the accents are seldom as thick as they were, Newfoundland English remains a vibrant idiom. Its unique words, phrases, grammar and sounds still make a rich, sometimes riotous contribution to the stock of global English.
So the next time you’re in Cow Head, ask for bakeapple pie. Vive la différence! I mean, don’ arg wid’ I.