To talk Rhode Island requires more than a passing knowledge of the expression ‘No school Fosta Glosta’ or the difference between a cherrystone and a littleneck.
It’s a hybrid of Northern and Southern New England English, a Boston-meets-Brooklyn sound with a dash of Italian and Portuguese slang mixed in.
Some say you can talk Rhode Island by using a Boston accent mixed with Italian slang. Not quite. ‘Cot’ and ‘caught’ are not pronounced the same way in Rhode Island as in the rest of Eastern New England.
Rhode Islanders, like many New Englanders, do tend to drop their Rs – and then add them to the end of words, such as ‘bananner.’ And like Bostonians they use the same word for a political fundraiser: a ‘time.’
To Talk Rhode Island
Thom Jones, voice coach at Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium, says Rhode Islanders’ broad A is less pronounced than in Boston. Rhode Islanders say ‘Pawk the caw,’ whereas Bostonians say ‘Pahk the cah.’ In Boston you ride a hahs, but in Providence, you ride a hawse.
To talk Rhode Island, pronounce the ‘er’ at the end of a word as an ‘eh,’ says audiobooks narrator Matt Haynes. Rhode Islanders drink from a bubbleh. The klenzehs, or cleansers, is the local dry cleaner.
Like the other New England accents, the Rhode Island accent started with the English colonists who first arrived in North America. They brought with them speech patterns from Elizabethan London and rural speech from Yorkshire and Lancashire. In Rhode Island, Italian, Irish and Portuguese immigrants contributed their own pronunciations.
After they arrived, immigrants to Rhode Island learned to look down on Swamp Yankees, or Swampehs. The newcomers viewed swampehs as uneducated rural folk, stubborn, old-fashioned and frugal. Swampehs take only mild offense at their nickname.
To talk Rhode Island Italian-American-style, add a V where a V doesn’t belong. ‘Va-DI-len’ is the way to pronounce the name of the state. Antnee, Bvenda, Richit, Shevl are names of children in Italian-American neighborhoods like North Providence and Cranston.
Haynes notes Rhode Islanders turn ‘am’ into ‘e-am’ and ‘an’ into ‘e-an.’ That’s how Cranston, which is about 33 percent Italian-American, comes to be pronounced Cveaanstin. You might drive a Camavo in Cveaanstin.
A Jaguah is more likely to be driven in South County, which is really Washington and Kent counties. South County was so nicknamed during the American Revolution because it sounded better than its real name, King’s County.
You may go to a casino in Rhode Island, but don’t expect to gamble. The word comes from the Italian, ‘casina,’ which means little house. The big house, the Adult Correctional Institute, is known as the ACI and is located in Cveeanstin, which is north of Wa-wick.
To talk Rhode Island, you have to know the nicknames for the state’s cuisine.
If you ask for gravy in Cveaanstin, you will get a red tomato sauce for your paster.
A cabinet is a milkshake, unless it’s an Awful Awful.
Hot dogs and clams inspire especially vivid nicknames.
A New York system wiener, unknown in New York, consists of a 4-inch pork, beef and veal wiener in a steamed bun with yellow mustard, onions, celery salt and a ground beef sauce. It’s also known as a gagga, a bellybuster, a destroyer or a hot wiener. You might eat it with coffee milk and an order of beef stew – French fries loaded with ketchup and salt.
A saugy is a hot dog with a natural casing that snaps when cut. The Saugy Company has made them since 1869.
Rhode Island’s Portuguese people contributed chorizo or chourico (pronounced shuh-reese), a small, dense, spicy sausage to the state’s cuisine. If you don’t like too much spice, order linguica (leen-gwee-sa) instead.
A stuffie is a stuffed clam, or quahog, which is harvested with a bullrake. In western Rhode Island, quahog is pronounced kwa-hog; in eastern Rhode Island it’s ko-hog.
A cherrystone is a quahog slightly larger and juicier than a littleneck, which is the smallest clam legal to harvest.
A grinder is another word for a sangwidge, which is a ‘torpedo’ in the Pawtuxet Valley and a ‘dynamite’ in Woonsocket.
Many Franco-American mill workers used to live in Woonsocket, where they developed their own much-made-fun-of patois.
Today it’s a standing, if inaccurate, joke about how they talk in Woonsocket. “Side by each" is the classic example. “Shut the light” is another.
“Puffcorn” is a Woonsocketism for popcorn.
Other Woonsocketisms include misplaced phrases, such as “throw me down the stairs my hat” and the double pronoun, such as “I’m going to the klenzehs, me.”
For those who didn't grow up in Rhode Island, "No school Fosta-Glosta" was a catchphrase of radio host Salty Brine. Children eagerly listened to him list school closings on snow days, and Salty Brine lumped Foster and Glocester side by each as “No school, Fosta-Glosta.”
With special thanks to Quahog.org.
Images: Rhode Island sign, By Morrow Long - Pachaug Trail - "Welcome to Rhode Island sign" at Beach Pond, Hope Valley, RI, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16138014.
This story was updated in 2018.