Why Staten Island? - A brief background
Staten Island is one of the five boroughs of New York City. Until the mid 1960s, Staten Island was fairly isolated, with travel to and from the rest of the city possible only by ferry or by crossing a bridge to New Jersey and then a bridge or tunnel to Manhattan. A part of this relative isolation resulted in Staten Island having a distinct culture and dialect.
On November 21, 1964, the island’s cultural and linguistic identity changed forever as the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge opened a direct route to Brooklyn and the rest of the city. Since then, the demographics of the island have changed radically as people have moved from more urban metropolitan areas (particularly Brooklyn) to the more rural (now suburban/urban) Staten Island. By the end of the 1960s, the population of Staten Island was still relatively small, particularly in South Shore - traditionally the least densely populated area of NYC. According to the 1970 and 2000 U.S. census records, Staten Island went from approximately 290,000 inhabitants to over 440,000 in the course of 30 years. During the same three decades, the population of South Shore more than doubled from 70,000 to 153,000. Just to put these numbers in perspective, it should be noted that the rest of the city had over 8 million people in 2000.
The opening of Verrazano-Narrows Bridge not only changed the population statistics of the island, but it also changed the language. Since 1964 the sociolinguistic situation of Staten Island has become increasingly complex with a number of dialects merging and emerging. As a result, the original Staten Island dialect is rapidly being lost as the island becomes more homogeneous with the rest of the city. This is clearly seen in widespread comments one encounters today that the modern Staten Island dialect “sounds just like Brooklyn”.
However, native (that is, pre-bridge) Staten Island speech is actually quite different from what has recently been described for the rest of the city (including Brooklyn). These differences are important not only for arcane reasons interesting only to linguists, but also because they might tell us something about the history of the USA and the structure of American English.
One aspect of native Staten Island speech that is intriguing and should be carefully documented before it is lost is the pronunciation of what is sometimes called the “short a”.
General Mid-Atlantic and New York City “short a” /æ/
General descriptions of New York City English include a vowel, sometimes called “short a”, that is pronounced differently in different words. This vowel is called “short a” to distinguish it from what is traditionally called “long a” - the first vowel in “father”.
In most words, “short a” is pronounced with the mouth quite open as in “cat”, “cap”, “back”, “batch”, “jazz”, “rapid” and “jacket”. This pronunciation is sometimes called “lax”. However, in some words “short a” is pronounced with the mouth slightly more closed as in “cab”, “bag”, “add”, “badge”, “glass” and “tan”. This pronunciation is sometimes called “tense”.
This difference in “short a” pronunciation is found in several dialects of English, but it is best known as a characteristic of speech in the Mid-Atlantic region between NYC and Philadelphia. Most dialects of English seem to have only one pronunciation for this vowel.
What linguists studying vowels in the Mid-Atlantic region in recent years have found is that there are rules that determine when each pronunciation occurs and that the rules are slightly different from dialect to dialect. The standard description for NYC “short a” is that the usual/default pronunciation is the more open one (“cat” and “rapid”) and that the more closed pronunciation (“cab” and “tan”) happens only in syllables that end in certain types of sounds, for example [b, d, g, s, f, m, n]. Essentially, there is a rule that makes the more open vowel pronounced in a more closed way in some words.
Many dialects have a limited number of “exceptions to the rule.” One famous pair of words found in many of the Mid-Atlantic dialects is “can” (something that soda comes in) and “can” (to be able to). According to the “rule”, only one pronunciation should be allowed - the one that rhymes with “tan”. That said, Charles Ferguson, William Labov and other linguists have noted that there are sets of conditions for what kinds of exceptions are allowed. For example, function words and “adjectives of emotion” (e.g. “bad”, “glad”, “mad”, “sad”) seem to have exceptional behavior in some dialects.
Staten Island “short a” /æ/ - similar but different
When compared with the linguistic descriptions and analyses for other dialects, pre-Verrazano Narrows Bridge Staten Island dialect (at least in South Shore) is different in a number of ways. In a study looking at the pronunciation of over 1,000 examples of “short a” pronunciations by two generations of native Staten Islanders, I found three important differences between the SI pattern and that described for other dialects.
First, there are many more “exceptions” to the pronunciation rule than is described for other dialects. Examples of word pairs with two different “short a” vowels in the data I collected are bad-lad, glass-lass, badge-Madge, calve-salve, gasp-asp, ask-cask, dragon-maggot, basket-gasket, after-NAFTA. In each of these pairs, the first word has a more closed vowel (“cab”) and the second word has a more open vowel (“cat”). The data also include several words that differ only in vowel pronunciation, for example: halve-have, cad-CAD, Ann (one name)-Ann (another name), Sarah (one name)-Sarah (another name). These examples and many more like them lead to the conclusion that the native SI dialect has two distinct “short a” vowels, not just one that gets pronounced differently in different types of syllables. George Trager made similar claims for some dialects in the first half of the 20th century, but this is quite unlike most standard descriptions of modern Mid-Atlantic English.
Before moving on, it is important to say that there is some variation among speakers/sub-dialects in which words have which vowels. This is something that Trager reported and that I found in the data I collected. For example, while my consultants were consistent in using the more open vowel (“cat”) in “dad”, “had”, “lad” and the more closed vowel (“cab”) in “crab”, “add”, “fad”, “brag”, they disagreed for “blab”, “drab”, “clad”, “crag”, “am”, “an”. These last two words are especially interesting because they are both function words and thus should have the more open vowel according to some accounts. However, one of my consultants consistently had the open vowel in “am” and the closed vowel in “an”, while another consultant had just the opposite. What this shows is that SI English does not treat function words differently from content words as has been claimed for other Mid-Atlantic and NYC dialects.
A second interesting thing about the native SI “short a” vowels is that while the typical NYC rule is described as turning the more open vowel (“cat”) into the more closed vowel (“cab”) in certain syllables, the SI rule seems to be the opposite. That is, the rule turns all “short a” vowels into the more open one in certain words.
What this means is that while the native SI dialect allows either vowel pronunciation when it is followed by most consonants (recall bad-lad), it is impossible in this dialect to have the more closed pronunciation if the following sound is [p, t , k]. Examples are “cat”, “cap”, “back”, “apt”, “pact”, “rapid”, “battle”, “racket” and “factor”. There is actually more to the story than this, but what is important here is that this is quite unlike standard descriptions of Mid-Atlantic English.
A third finding about native SI “short a” vowel pronunciations is that both are actually long! As seen in the chart, the vowels in “can” (something that soda comes in), “can” (to be able to), “keen”, “cane” and “con” are all about the same duration, and they are considerably longer than the vowels in “kin” and “Ken”. This is not at all what is reported for similar vowels in other Mid-Atlantic dialects, where one and/or the other “short a” pronunciation is claimed to be short in duration. As far as I know, the presence of two long “short a” vowels has not been reported for any other Mid-Atlantic dialect. What is the point? It is simply that SI English seems different in yet another way, and that the term “short a” is a misnomer for the native SI vowels.
Is Staten Island English unique?
Native Staten Island English is quite different in a number of ways from what is usually described for Mid-Atlantic and NYC English - at least as far as the “short a” is concerned. It may be that native Staten Island English is truly unique, or it may be that there are similar dialects just waiting to be discovered. It may also be that the general description of the “short a” in the Mid-Atlantic region has been mistaken and that most dialects are like Staten Island English. Either way, the native Staten Island dialect is interesting and important because it can be used to support and/or challenge what we think we know about both the structure and history of American English.
Is Staten Island English a remnant of “old NYC”?
Staten Island has a long and proud history that has resulted in a number of cultural and linguistic traditions that both bind it to and distinguish it from the rest of NYC. One of these is the pronunciation and distribution of the “short a”. On the one hand, the native Staten Island dialect has the two “short a” pronunciations that are often considered a marker of NYC speech. On the other hand, the details of the pronunciations seem to be different.
If we believe some of the descriptions of NYC speech from the early 20th century and the general claim that isolated communities often retain historical language characteristics, then native Staten Island English is likely a remnant of the language that was once much more wide-spread in the Metropolitan area. So, native Staten Islanders should take pride in the fact that they may have maintained a bit of NYC heritage that has disappeared elsewhere in the city.
It is my hope that linguists make the effort to collect data from the still-remaining native Staten Islanders before they and their language disappear completely and a precious part of NYC history and American history is lost forever.
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Last updated May 2010 -- By the way, my name is pronounced approximately like [mɔˈɹejn ˈtʷollʲɑː].