So THIS is why I'm not rich yet. Oy.
What Sets Long Islanders Apart? For One, an Extra Vowel
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 16, 1997; Page A03
STONY BROOK, N.Y. Deep in the interior of a suburban hinterland that the
natives call "Lohahn Guylan," linguistic explorers have stumbled upon an
uncharted and rather unappetizing vowel.
Marie K. Huffman, an assistant professor in the department of
linguistics here at the State University of New York, captured this
diphthongal rarity; she even mapped its frequency on a computer screen,
when a gaggle of Long Islanders came into the cork-lined studio of her
speech laboratory and, one at a time, said the word "bad."
Huffman discovered that when Long Islanders pronounced this word, which
should have one syllable and one vowel (bad), it slithered out of their
mouths with two syllables and two vowels (bay-uhd).
She and her assistant, Elyse Tamberino, have written a scholarly paper
on what they believe to be an "additional vowel" unique to Long Island
and the greater New York area. They presented their findings last week
in San Diego at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America.
It is called a frontal vowel. It is produced with a higher jaw and
tongue position than a speaker of standard American English would find
normal. It is one of several signature components of that distinctive
dialect known in non-academic parlance as "Noo Yawk-ese." And, to the
ears of a great many Americans, it is part and parcel of a regional
accent that sounds like hell.
"Outsiders associate the New York accent with someone who is
fast-talking, sleazy, hucksterish and lowbrow," said Sam Chwat, a
Manhattan speech therapist who charges $170 for 45-minute sessions that
help students sound less like Rosie O'Donnell and more like Jane
Pauley. His clients include actors Robert DeNiro and Tony Danza.
"Noo Yawk-ese has a whole quality of sound that is abrasive to the
ears," said Alice Merwin, a speech pathologist in Great Neck, Long
Island, who runs a company called Better Voices, Better Business. The
premise of her work, for which she charges about $125 an hour, is that
natives of greater New York can get rich faster if they sound like they
are from someplace else.
The "ayuh" frontal vowel is but one of several unsavory sounds that
"accent reduction" professionals across the New York area struggle to
expunge as they lead the region's dialectically challenged toward the
less nasal, more trustworthy, standard dialect that comes naturally to
someone born and raised in the northern midlands of the United States.
Unlike their paid-by-the-hour colleagues, linguistic researchers at SUNY
in Stony Brook are not out to cleanse the local dialect. Rather, they
are using a National Science Foundation grant to record and chart its
"Language is one of the profound markers of identity and social
belonging. Dialects persist in the United States because people feel a
need to belong," says Huffman, a California-born phonetician who moved
to Long Island four years ago. An informal consultant on her project is
her 5-year-old son, Bazika, who she said speaks with "a perfect Long
Island accent" and who is sometimes difficult for her to understand.
Huffman's partner in stalking local vowels is a native of Long Island
and a doctoral student with a hypersensitive ear. Tamberino is from
Commack, the town where Rosie O'Donnell grew up. "When I was in second
grade, I corrected the pronunciation of a friend who said `git' when she
should have said `get,' " Tamberino said.
To the scientifically trained ear, the talk of New York and Long Island
is a bottomless pit of non-standard pacing and pronunciation.
For starters, New Yorkers talk faster, based on a syllable-per-minute
count, than other Americans. Linguists speculate this is because of the
city's densely packed population. Incidentally, researchers have also
found that New Yorkers walk faster, presumably for the same reason.
While talking and walking more frenetically than much of humanity, the
tongues of New Yorkers tend to be "over-tense and too high in the
mouth," according to speech pathologist Merwin. She says, too, that
their jaws are often excessively tight and, as they speak, they have a
tendency to force more air up through their nose, rather than out
through their mouths. That may explain why former New York mayor Edward
I. Koch sounds more nasal than former Kansas senator Robert J. Dole.
Here in Stony Brook, Huffman and Tamberino say that tape recordings of
Long Island/New York speech have found that the dialect's most common
Pronouncing "o" as "ohah," so coffee is cohahfee, chocolate is
chohahklet and talk is tohahk.
Dropping the "r," so sugar is shuguh, never is nevuh and mother is
Sneaking in the "ayuh" frontal vowel, so cab is cayuhb, sad is sayuhd
and bad, of course, is really bayuhd.
Most Americans who speak a regional dialect have the ability to dress up
their speech for what they perceive to be a high-class audience.
Linguists call it "code switching." Huffman says that just about
everybody who comes into her laboratory to speak into a microphone tries
to do it. Long Island women, she notes, are much better at code
switching than Long Island men.
While sprucing up their lingo in the language lab, Huffman found that
many Long Islanders were capable of reclaiming their r's, so muthuh was
reborn as mother. Some could even squeeze their diphthongs so tohahk
became talk. But the insidious "ayuh" vowel, Huffman found, usually
wiggled past even the best code-switchers.
"I don't think that many Long Islanders are aware that they are making
this sound, so it is more difficult for them to change it," Huffman
Speaking of difficult, Tammy Carey, a Bronx-born aspiring actress whose
accent has soured countless auditions, knows from difficult. She has all
three of the common markers of Noo Yawk-ese, plus sometimes she will
dees when she means these.
"A New York accent is quite limiting," said Carey, who now lives and
works in Manhattan. "The hardest thing is to remember all the rules and
always try to tohahk, that is, talk, normally."
Under the tutelage of an accent-reductionist who is charging her $1,700
for 10 45-minute lessons, Carey said she works on her speech every day
for a couple of hours, reciting word lists and falling asleep to a tape
of standard American English.
To fund her linguistic rehab, Carey, 35, who works days for a restaurant
administration, has begun working nights, cleaning houses.
"I have no social life. But it is worth it. Look, it is better than
going to a shrink. A shrink isn't going to get me an acting job. Even
if I don't make it with my acting, it will help in business," Carey
Out here on Long Island, career-related pressure to cleanse the local
dialect is less intense. In fact, Huffman says that as a California
transplant, she feels a social pressure to re-regionalize her talk. "I
definitely feel the pull of wanting to sound like the people I work
with," she said.
Tamberino, the eagle-eared doctoral student who grew up on Long Island,
said her boss is getting better, but needs to practice. "You have to
work on your shuguh," Tamberino said.
CAN WE TOHAHK?
Three of the most common components of the greater Noo Yawk/Lohahn
The elongated vowel
The forgotten `R'
The newly discovered vowel
SOURCE: Linguists Marie K. Huffman and Elyse Tamberino, State University
of New York at Stony Brook. Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company.
New York... when civilization falls apart, remember, we were way ahead
-- David Letterman