Taw-kin' Lawn-Guy-land

Sprawl meets drawl: Long Island's accent may be infamous, but its origins run deeper than you imagined

The Long Island accent is an aural icon. Americans recognize it, mock it and celebrate it. Some Long Islanders labor to get rid of it. Occasionally, an actor learns to acquire it, not always with great success.

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.

The distinctions hit the ear starkly. Just imagine how offensive to the ear it would be to cast the Malverne-raised actor Tony Danza as a Jew, or to hear Bushwick native Rosie Perez playing an Irish girl. 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."

Dictated by immigration

Most of the identifying characteristics lie in the melodic inflections of speech: cadences that locals recognize but that can't be transcribed. Those intonations also recap the history of immigration. Hang around the largely Jewish village of Great Neck, and you can detect traces of Polish, Russian and German mingling with Yiddish.

Intonations are remarkably specific. "When you think of New York Italian," Stoller says, "you're really talking about largely Sicilian and Neapolitan and cadences, which are nothing like the cadences of Rome or Tuscany or Milan."

Some of the signed headshots papering the walls of the New York Speech Center in Manhattan are those of actors who yearned to scrub the New Yawk from their speech. The inner sanctum is crammed with books piled on the floor, and insets in framed mounts.

In the middle of this evocative clutter sits Sam Chwat, who lives in Great Neck, has a whiff of Brooklyn in his speech, and spends his days trying to make actors sound as though they came from nowhere in particular. Chwat pronounces his name like the phonetic term "schwa"; it seems like a made-up surname for a speech professional, but it's the one he was born with.

The New York/Long Island accent has venerable roots, he explains. 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.

Long Island's stigma

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 déclassé 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."

"In New York, more is more," Chwat says drily.

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.")

Vocal chameleons

In a region as mobile and diverse as Long Island, an accent is a sometime thing. Linguists speak of code-switching: the practice of adapting one's speech to one's surroundings. Marie K. Huffman, a Stony Brook University linguistics professor, has noticed that her students harden their R's more conscientiously with her than they do with each other.

"Language has so much to do with social identity," she says. "As a teenager, you often have the will to explore linguistic identities and then you decide what kind of adult you're going to be." That explains why some white adolescents infatuated with hip-hop start picking up aspects of African-American Vernacular, then shed them a few years later.

Laurie Simmons, a Manhattan-based artist who grew up in Great Neck, speaks the sort of pure generic American English that Tony Danza dreams of. She remembers altering her speech in high school depending on what group of girls she was trying to join. "I learned the accent because I needed to, for survival. I could turn it off and on at will. My parents didn't talk that way, but I was 'bilingual.'"

Years later, she taught the Long Island patois to her two daughters, who practiced it as an exotic, comical dialect. When the three of them attended a Passover seder in Great Neck last month with Simmons' extended family, the girls, 21 and 15, amused themselves by "doing" the accent all evening. Simmons was mortified, but nobody else noticed: Code-switching is too natural to attract much attention.

If Long Island's version of a New York accent has endured, it's partly because the working Brooklynites who forsook the city and moved into the professional classes saw no reason to change their speech. Chwat discovered as much trying to drum up business among Great Neck doctors and lawyers. "I can't make a living off them," he says. "They like the way they talk."

Asset or Achilles?

Mindy Ferrentino Wolfle, a Long Beach-based marketing and career consultant, says she doesn't counsel clients to change their accents. So long as a local business stays local, an accent isn't a liability, though it does attract attention everywhere else. Accordingly, she trained herself to sound newscast-ready.

"If I sound very Long Island, I don't sound very smart," Ferrentino Wolfle worries. "I know it's insulting to think that, but it's about perception, not about reality." Over the years, she's drilled generic American into her subconscious, and mostly it sticks. "The way I speak now is the same all the time," she insisted.

Then she paused. "I just heard myself say 'awl.' I'm going to have to work on that."

by Justin Davidson, Newsday, Wednesday, May 23, 2007


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