LInguistics

2 comments May 25th, 2007at 09:33pm Posted by Eli

Newsday has an entertaining piece about the origins and subdivisions of the Long Island (“Lawn Guyland”) accent:

The odd thing about Long Islandese is that it doesn’t actually exist – not as an entity distinct from old-time New York City speech. Dialect recapitulates history, and the sounds of the city’s eastward suburbs – those twanging nasals, the diphthong drawl in “man,” the A’s of “call,” “talk” and “mall” larded with W’s – chronicle the great postwar migration eastward from Flatbush, Bushwick and Williamsburg.

“If you really want to hear a ripe Brooklyn accent, you go to Long Island,” says Amy Stoller, a Manhattan-based dialect coach. Listen to a group of Massapequa teenagers, who wouldn’t even know from Ebbets Field, and you can hear the echo of their stickball-playing grandparents. If those kids sound nothing like a clique from the next town over, it probably has less to do with geography than with ethnicity.

There are at least four different strands of New York-area accents, broadly defined by tribe: Italian, Jewish, Irish and Hispanic (the latecomer to this dialectal stew). Blacks have adopted features of all these strains, but the strongest form of dialect, formally known as African-American Vernacular English, sounds much the same in New York as it does in Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles.

…But these idiosyncrasies are difficult to itemize. A few ethnically identifiable sounds stand out.

In the Hispanic version, for example, Stoller detects a “tendency to turn vowels that are followed by nasal consonants [N, M and NG] into nasalized vowels, so ‘man’ comes out sounding almost like it ends with a French N. They never get around to putting their tongue into the bump behind their teeth, but instead divert the air through their nose.”

(…)

In the 1600s, colonists from southern England sowed their phonemes in three principal areas along the East Coast: New England, New York and the South. To this day, in all three zones, R’s at the end of words are pronounced as vowels, just as they are in England.

So New York R-dropping is not an English vowel that has been bent by iron-eared immigrants, but a sound that predates the harder R that became widespread after later mass migrations from Scotland and Ireland.

The oldest form of the Long Island accent was spoken by the Bonackers, the East End residents of Accabonac Harbor, whose R-less word endings had more of a New England ring.

It wasn’t just aristocrats who bequeathed their linguistic peculiarities on the colonies. New York speech, like that of Cockney London, makes plentiful use of the glottal stop, which turns a T into a silent gulp, transforming “little” into “li’l” and “Milton” into “Mil’n.” Cockneys also pronounce TH as F (“I fought I ‘eard a clap o’ funder”), a quirk that migrated to slave Colonial populations and remains common in African-American Vernacular.

Some speech patterns become stigmatized and others privileged, which leads to the formation of new patterns. Take the famously local pronunciation “Lawn Guyland”: Chwat explains that the percussive G linking the words “Long” and “Island” comes from an attempt to sound more refined.

Standard English has no separate G sound at the end of “long” or “thing.” NG is merely a written approximation of a nasal consonant whose separate existence we don’t recognize. It’s produced by pressing the back of the tongue against the back of the palate – a completely different part of the mouth from the locations where N and G reside.

People who want to avoid declasse pronunciations such as “goin'” make an incorrect effort to sound correct by tacking on a hard G, rather than using the stealth consonant NG. Thus, the question, “Are we walking, driving or taking a bus?” pops with plosives.

A similar overcompensation applies to R. Upwardly mobile people, vaguely aware of their tendency to consider R an honorary vowel when it comes at the end of a word, will stick a hard R where it doesn’t belong at all, so that “law” becomes “lawr” and an “idea” is “idear.”

(…)

But who can remember everything? Long Islanders who drive to “Warshington” still do so in a “cawh.” Even the thickest accents are full of such inconsistencies, and incompletely trained actors tend to apply any rule too broadly. They forget that the New York diphthong – a single vowel distended into two – applies only to an A that precedes an M or an N. So while on Long Island, the phrase “Sam can’t dance” gets three drawled, nasal A’s, an actor might use the same three honks in “Patty’s happy she’s back,” even though no genuine Long Islander would. (And for mysterious reasons, Long Islanders use the diphthong A in “can” and “cancer,” but not in “Canada.”)

Fun stuff. Oddly enough, despite living primarily with my very Brooklyn-y mother (she sounds like Penny Marshall), I appear to have no identifiable accent whatsoever, other than Generic Mid-Atlantic/Northeast-But-Not-New-England. I guess because I grew up in Manhattan, which isn’t really known for having a distinctive accent, and I don’t recall many of my schoolmates or teachers having one.

Entry Filed under: Coolness

2 Comments

  • 1. Interrobang  |  May 26th, 2007 at 12:06 am

    Oi useta dayte a guy from Lawn Guyland, and every single one of my starchy Canadian relatives made fun of the way he said “quaffee,” although he swore up and down that he didn’t. His father was actually from Brooklyn, so he had it really bad. (His particular substrain of the accent was Jewish, tangentially.)

  • 2. Ol'Froth  |  May 28th, 2007 at 4:15 pm

    All my relatives grew up in Greenpoint, moved out to the Giland, and I can barely understand them an’at.


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