I was in Ryann’s Wines in East Meadow around the holidays, standing at the checkout, when a fellow customer, a man in his 70s, called out to a 20-something employee from across the store.
“Where’s yuh bittuhz?” the man inquired loudly. Befuddled, the young man asked for clarification. “Excuse me?”
I immediately knew what the gentleman was looking for, and probably where he could find it. But rather than clear up the situation, I stood silent. “Yuh bittuhz . . . bittuhz,” the older man exclaimed, growing a bit frustrated.
I should have told the kid what the guy was looking for, but I was enjoying the confusion. After another few moments, the light bulb finally went on in the clerk’s head. “Oh, bittERS,” he said, directing the man to the correct aisle.
I walked out of the store with a half-smile, because that brief interaction highlighted a notion that has been turning around in my mind for some time: Younger Long Islanders don’t “tawk” like we older folks anymore.
I don’t have anything beyond anecdotal evidence of this linguistic shift, but I’m positive it’s been happening for some time.
Ten years ago, I married Jill and became stepdad to Nicolas and Jake. At the time the boys were 6 and 4, respectively. I remember how much it frustrated me that they said the word “orange” wrong. They pronounced it “OR-enge.” It sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me, and I’d correct them over and over, “It’s not ‘OR-enge,’ it’s ‘ARE-inge,’” I’d tell them. “Say it like ya from New Yawk.”
I wondered where they picked up this mispronunciation. Had they spent time in Florida before coming into my life? No, that wasn’t it. Their dad grew up just a few minutes east of me, and he “tawked” just like I do.
In a few years, Jill and I had Adriana and then Elia and, as soon as they were able to talk, they started saying stuff wrong. It was “wah-ter,” not “wah-tuh” and “hot dahg,” not “hot dawg.”
My friends noticed the same thing with their kids, and you might have, too. If not, try this. Have your kids say talk, daughter, call and coffee, and see if you notice a difference.
My interest was piqued after the liquor store encounter, so I set out to find some answers. I contacted Hofstra University to see if they could hook me up with a linguistics professor who could shed some light on the subject. They put me in touch with Ilona Pierce, an associate professor in the Department of Drama and Dance. It seemed like a curious choice, but Pierce seemed to know her stuff when it came to the “Lawn Guyland” accent.
It’s part of her job to teach budding Long Island actors how to ditch their accent for a more “neutral American” one. “I’m not a linguist, but I do spend most of my time listening to the speech of young actors — from Long Island, but also from all over the country and the world,” she said.
First off, Pierce set me straight on a point of contention. Despite what some locals claim, there is absolutely no difference between the Long Island and the New York City accent. Ours has its roots in New York City, Pierce explained, and it spread out as New Yawk— sorry, New Yorkers moved out to the suburbs.
Second, she confirmed that the Long Island accent is absolutely evolving. “I hear way fewer t-h sounds changed to t/d,” she said. “In the Long Island accent of the 20th century, you’d hear ‘wit’ for ‘with’ or ‘dis’ and ‘dat’ for ‘this’ and ‘that.’”
She also said kids aren’t dropping r’s for a’s anymore (turning “ever” into “eva,” for instance) and they have adopted a more “general American” pronunciation of words like “Harry, Gary and marry.” Case in point: my daughter Adriana is currently reading the classic “Hairy” Potter series.
So, what the heck is going on? Well, according to Pierce, accents just naturally evolve over time. Nowadays, people relocate more easily and frequently and, as they move, they bring their sounds with them, she said.
That made sense to me. The more I thought about it, I realized that I didn’t speak exactly like Grandma and Grandpa Buglione did. They came from Brooklyn and didn’t boil water, they “berled” it. They used the “terlit,” not the toilet. And if they knew a guy named Earl, they probably would’ve called him “Oil.” But I never spoke that way.
It wasn’t all bad news, though. Pierce said she still hears kids calling dogs “dawgs,” and some of them still drink “cawfee.”
Maybe there’s hope for the Long Island accent after awl.
Nick Buglione is a teacher, freelance journalist and former editor of the East Meadow Herald.