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The Mast-Head: Talk Bonac to Me

Thu, 09/07/2023 - 11:02

So the other day, Ellis and I were in the Star delivery van, headed east more or less with a view of Napeague Harbor out of the driver’s-side window. Spotting a knot of gulls wheeling and diving into the harbor, Eliis asked me to explain.

“They are on bait,” I began, then launched into something that went a bit like this: “By Jesus, bub. They’re bustin’ water. Get your butt down the habah and throw your loine out there, by Jesus,” and so on.

Ellis turned and with a puzzled look on his face asked, “Dad, what are you doing?”

“Talkin’ Bonac,” I replied, crestfallen.

Ellis started eighth grade at East Hampton Middle School this week in the same building on Newtown Lane where I went to school, as did my father. Talking Bonac was just something my friends and I did whenever most anything having to do with the water or fish came up.

For those readers, like Ellis, who might not know, Bonac is a lot of things — a place, a way of life, and a dialect — all of them fading as time goes on. Bonac has, or maybe had, its own words for things. A yellow Lab we had in the house growing up was named Wickus, which my father said was an old term for, more or less, a dirty old man.

To outsiders’ ears, Bonac sounds a little like a form of English as it might have been in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similar micro-dialects, as linguists sometimes describe them, are spoken in a few coastal communities; you can hear traces of it in Maine, for example, and in some watery parts of the Carolinas. The East Hampton Library Long Island Collection has recordings of interviews with Bonackers that give a good sense of what it sounds like. There are similar video archives at LTV Studios and online.

We speak differently out here. To this day, people I meet from away are surprised when I say that I am from Long Island. “But you don’t sound like you’re from lawn-guy-land,” they say, which is true. Our language roots go back to the early British colonists, not the Dutch, whose influence can be heard UpIsland, that is, west of the Wainscott Post Office, in words like coffee and office.

In other water-related news, Peter Mendelman of the Harbor Marina clan read my column last week about the oily stink from under the floorboards of my sloop (from an old Dutch word), Cerberus. A nicely tissue-paper-wrapped bottle, accompanied by a thoughtful note, arrived in my office late the day after publication.

“I hope you enjoy,” Peter had written. It didn’t feel like wine; the neck was too short. Was it rum or a fine gin?

I took off the tissue paper. It was a quart of citrus-scented bilge cleaner.

“Ha ha ha excellent vintage,” I texted.

“Cheers! Bottoms up!” Peter replied.

The boat smells better already.

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