Last Speaker of Bonac
Does anyone still speak the ancient dialect of Springs and Amagansett? EAST decided to investigate
This story began, as many East stories do, with a conversation across a desk. We were discussing something totally different — forgotten now — when a member of the staff brought up the old accent of hardscrabble Springs and Amagansett: the Bonac accent.
We asked around the office: Does anyone know anyone who actually still speaks this way? We were met with shaking heads. Several people thought they knew someone — a Miller or Lester, Havens or Bennett — but no, on second thought, that person had died some years before, or moved away, or wasn’t answering their phone.
Over the course of several weeks, we became slightly obsessed with trying to find someone who didn’t just dot their conversation with a few telltale words or phrases (calling someone “bub,” for instance, or saying “yes, yes” as an affirmation) but actually used the elusive dialect in its true accent in everyday speech. Our search was frustrating. No one could name with confidence a real Bonac-speaking Bonacker of East Hampton, New York.
The sound of this endangered tongue can be heard at the Long Island Collection of the East Hampton Library. Housed in a cozy, book-lined study tucked away in a back room, the Long Island Collection is an underutilized trove of information, housing deeds, drawings, letters, maps, prints, yearbooks, and other historical documents dating back to the 17th century. Among the archives are several thick file folders on Bonackers and a large body of recordings that includes many taped interviews with baymen from the 1960s and 1970s. Most of these conversations have to do with the fishing and clamming industries, which at that time were already struggling, but the interviews inadvertently captured something else: the voice of the East End’s earliest settlers.
The accent has been described as a mixture between Boston Brahmin and King Lear. Listening to the old recordings, you might not quite agree. It’s a little guttural, a little twangy — with a syllable-skipping lilt like teeth slipping over a lozenge.
Describing accents isn’t easy. Attempts to nail down exactly what phonetic traits comprise Bonac tend to slip into onomatopoeia or else simply compare it with more familiar dialects: Does it sound anything like old Brooklyn or Lawn Guyland? No, no, bub. It has a distinct character and history, more closely related to the coastal speech of some isolated communities stretching from the Carolinas to Cape Sable, Nova Scotia, with elements traceable back to a Shakespearean era of English.
Isabel Spink is a linguist from Stony Brook University who did research on Bonac during the 1970s and ’80s, taking pains to break it down into distinct phonetic components. According to Spink, first and most conspicuous is the dropping of Rs, both primary and terminal, as in fahmeh for farmer. She found Bonac also plays havoc with diphthongs, turning every “I” sound — usually a diphthong of “I” and “ee” in New York speech — into the diphthong “oy”: By guy, that’s good pie! comes out Boy goy, that’s good poy! Another identifying feature was ellipsis, the shortening of certain words and syllables, as occurred frequently with the phrase pretty near becoming prit near, as well as an omission of personal pronouns so that I went out becomes went out.
It isn’t just pronunciation though, that defines Bonac. David G. Rattray, the late poet and linguist from East Hampton, identified certain phraseology and slang unique to Bonackers — most of which were variants of archaic English terms and phrases. This suggests the onetime presence of a rich regional lexicon. A few favorites: cattywumpus, wickus, scoot, swivet.
Most historians seem to agree that the accent descends from the regions of Kent and Dorset in England. But while early settlers brought their speech over with them, it changed once it got here, morphing over generations of isolated use into specific regional slants. As late as 1896, Martha Brockee Flint wrote, “[A]n Easthampton man may be known from one reared in Southampton as readily as a native of Kent is distinguished from a man born in Yorkshire.” That was only a hundred-and-some-odd years ago.
Could it really be that there is no one left who still talks this way?
We got crafty and decided that — because anyone who still spoke real Bonac would likely be well into their 80s or 90s — we would employ the most old-fashioned journalistic method (short of knocking on doors): We put an ad in the classified section of The East Hampton Star. The notice read: Wanted: Bubbys for a story about the Bonac dialect. Do you know anyone who still speaks in the old way? The ad listed this reporter’s cellphone number and email address.
Over the following weeks, we did get several calls, most from people who believed they knew someone. . . . But, invariably, when that person was tracked down, they would adamantly deny having the accent. Every lead went dry. We also received one ticked-off email from a reader who was offended by our use of the term bub and assumed we intended to make fun of our subject.
We were surprised. Anyone who grew up east of Town Line Road has heard the term bub used often, and always with affection. It is kind of like calling someone “buddy,” and is probably the last vestige of Bonac dialect in common use today. (And, interestingly, is still in use in parts of the Canadian maritimes, where friends and children are commonly called “bub.”)
Bonacker, to modern ears, is not a pejorative term, it is a point of pride: To say you are a Bonacker today is to announce that you belong. But, clearly, this anonymous emailer remembers the old days, when Bonac was spoken in the poorer neighborhoods — among the baymen and farmers who lived way north of the tracks, hard-working people who were not always granted the respect they deserved.
The word Bonac itself derives from Accabonac Harbor, which itself derives from accabonac, a Montaukett Indian word that, depending on who you ask, either means “place of deep roots” or “place of groundnuts.” It’s one of those words that imply many things. First of all, historically, it referred to a specific geographical area: Springs — although Bonackers also lived in parts of Amagansett. (Today, the East Hampton High School sports teams are called the Bonackers, but originally, someone from East Hampton Village was not one.)
Bonac also refers to a culture that is tied not only to place, but to a specific lineage. Spink said it best in an article in Newsday in 1984: “One cannot become a Bonacker any more than one could become a Cajun by moving to the bayous of Louisiana.”
This comparison with Cajun culture provides a useful way of thinking about Bonackers in general. While Bonac is not, strictly speaking, an ethnic group, it almost functions like one — meaning it is not a group that can be joined. One simply either is, or is not, a Bonacker.
Stuart Vorpahl, the late bayman and activist for fishing rights, was interviewed for the same 1984 article. “When my daughter Christine was in the fifth grade,” he said, “her teacher insisted I get that Bonac slang talk out her. I almost fell out the tree. I looked at him and I said, ‘Nothing doing, bub.’ ”
Articles about the Bonac accent’s disappearance began to appear in major newspapers as early as 1975. Newsday, The New York Post, The New York Times. This fascination is probably rooted in the fact that there is, obviously, something poignant about the loss of an old regional culture — and that poignance is especially sharp in a place like this, where the dominant culture that replaced it is such a radical contrast.
For at least 50 years now there has been a media obsession with baymen and haulseiners, who occupy a unique space in the collective imagination of Long Islanders. It’s fair to say that the old fishing families of the East End (that is, Bonackers) represent us in the way that the cowboy represents certain regions of the American West — an emblem of a time when life and industry were still tied to earth and salt water. We miss those days, even if we never lived them.
Over the past several decades, this nostalgia — this mythologizing — has expressed itself in ever-extended media coverage, in news articles and photo portfolios and songs, of the myriad ways the old Long Island fishing culture has been modernized and erased.
Indeed, the trope of “The last of the . . .” has become something of an office joke at East, a parody on the headline-making cliché. Our editor has been heard to threaten that she will commission a series of New Yorker-style satires: “The last pool boy” and “The last tennis pro,” et cetera.
So we didn’t, actually, want to just write the story of “the last speaker of Bonac.” We wanted to write a story about how the loss of the accent is not the loss of a people.
The descendants of the old-time baymen and haulseiners still live here. They may not work in fishing or farming, and they may not speak the distinctive way their grandparents did — but how many of us actually speak the way our grandparents did?
We have not given up on our search, however, and would love to get in touch with anyone who still talks the talk. We are waiting for your call.
Until then, the curious can avail themselves of the nearly 400 hours of tape in the Long Island Collection. We might not be able to transport ourselves back in time, much as we may wish to, but we can revisit the past through the earphones and hear Bonackers tell their story in their own voices. •
Above: Milton George, William Havens Sr., and Sam Merritt. Doug Kuntz / East Hampton Star archive.
At Top: From left: Floyd A. Havens, Dominic Grace, Ted Lester, Bill Lester, Sidney (Lindy) Havens c. 1972. The baymen, farmers, and haulseiners of Springs and Amagansett once spoke a dialect with roots in 17th-century England. Doug Kuntz / East Hampton Star archive