American Regional Dialects - Tawking the Tawk in New York Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

American Regional Dialects - Tawking the Tawk in New York

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Introduction to American Dialects | Southern Drawl | Tawking the Tawk in Noo Yawk
New England's Wicked Good Accent | Philly Talk and Pittsburghese
The Midwestern 'Non-Accent' | Da Chicago Dialect and the Northern Cities Vowel Shift

Thahs an old joke. Um. Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, an' one of 'em sez, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible!" The otha' one sez, "Yeah, I know, an' such smahhl poor-shuns."
- From Brooklynite Woody Allen's opening sequence to the film Annie Hall

Public opinion surveys conducted in the US, regularly judge the New York or Brooklyn accent as the most unpleasant and most incorrect. New Yorkers don't really like their accents either. It is however one of the most distinctive accents in the spectrum of American English. With five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island) and more than eight million people, even within the city itself there are sub-accents and giant exceptions. The gates of the Big Apple ask for the 'tired, poor huddled masses, yearning to be free'. New York City is a melting pot of the world and is home to dozens of cultures and languages who have influenced what is popularly known as the New York accent.

The conception of the New York accent is popularly skewed towards the heavy, sometimes ridiculous speech of characters in movies and television shows. If someone's only experience of New York City is through a screen, you would probably think everyone there was a criminal or a detective1. Many actors portraying a New York accent are, of course, faking, and many do a poor job or exaggerate heavily. If you watch old films, you might see some very nasal, high, cartoonish-sounding accents that New Yorkers used in the 1890s. 33rd Street became 'Toidy-Toid Street'. A bird might be called a 'boid', or a nurse a 'nois'. The first vowel sound in the word 'liar' changed from 'eye' to 'oy', which had the benefit of making the words 'liar' and 'lawyer' homonyms. Nobody in New York really talks like that these days. The character Archie Bunker from the 1970s television sitcom All in the Family (set in Queens, New York) used to, and that's part of what made him so funny. The old stereotypical New York accent is actually heavily Irish-influenced (though some people view the hackneyed 'fuhgeddaboutit' mode of speech associated with New York as Italian 'mafia' talk). The newer New York dialect is now being influenced by the Jewish, Italian, Polish, black and Latino communities.

One stereotype concerning New Yorker speech is correct: they do spit out their words in rapid succession, with few pauses in between the words. In terms of syllables per minute, New Yorkers speak much more quickly than the average American. Anyone who has just begun to learn a foreign language and tries to listen to a normally paced conversation in that language will struggle to understand what is going on. English speakers often have the same problem with a strong New York accent. What's interesting, though, is that New Yorkers pride themselves on their brevity. They say only what needs to be said. A greeting may be, 'Ha ya doin'?' and anything more than a one or two word response is thought of as being longwinded.

A Nieuw/New/Noo Language

The only thing we have to feah is feah itself!
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a famous Noo Yawker.

New York was first settled by the Dutch, who spent the equivalent of about 24 dollars in order to buy Manhattan (today, it costs about that amount for a New Yorker to set foot in a taxi). It was known as New Amsterdam, or Nieuw Amsterdam in Dutch. The British eventually took it over and renamed it New York. After the Americans took it over in the Revolutionary War, it eventually became Noo Yawk. Its former owners left their imprint and for many years there was still some trace of Dutch influence on the Noo Yawk tongue. Unfortunately, the influence was all but lost to history.

Actually, for many years New York was affected by an awkward self-consciousness due to its unattractive accent, which became more influenced by incoming immigrants. New Yorkers came to consider the speech of people like Franklin Roosevelt2 or Katherine Hepburn, who both dropped the 'r' sound off the end of their words, to be prestigious and even regal. New Yorkers began to imitate this pattern, and suddenly it wasn't so regal now that everyone in the city had adopted it. It was vulgar; crass, even. The dropped 'r' sound now contributes heavily to the classic 'Brooklyn' or New York accent.

Interestingly, the accent of New York City did not really spread by imitation into surrounding regions, as the accents from Boston and many southern cities have. However, linguists say that the New York tongue infects the cities of Cincinnati, Ohio (600 miles from New York City) and New Orleans, Louisiana (1,200 miles from New York City by land). The reason for this is largely left unexplained by linguists, but there is an anecdotal theory that 19th-Century New York bankers set the a new phonetic flavour in those cities when they journeyed there to invest in the lucrative cotton and textile trade.

A Subway Ride to a Silver Tongue

It is said that if you go into the Midwest or West of the country and ask the people about their accents, they'll talk openly and unreservedly. But if you go into New York and start asking questions, the Noo Yawkers will start to sweat and speak more carefully. New Yorkers are more self-conscious about their dialect than any other group of Americans. In fact, the differences in accent among New Yorkers do not change between boroughs or ethnic groups. The best indicator of a person's version of the New York dialect is socioeconomic status.

Eminent linguist William Labov once conducted a famous experiment by visiting three shopping centres in New York City of different income strata. He asked the clerks for directions to a department on the fourth floor, and listened closely to their responses. Then he would ask again, forcing the clerks to enunciate the two words carefully. The upscale store's clerks most often pronounced the 'r' sounds in 'fourth floor', and he most often got a typically Noo Yawk 'futh flaw' response from clerks at the discount shopping centre. Labov's conclusion was that the more ambitious and wealthy tended to consciously tone their accents down because a strong New York accent was thought to be frowned upon by non-New Yorkers and by the wealthy. This is an interesting reversal of the popular view in the early part of the 20th Century, which regarded the dropping of the 'r' sound as highbrow. Slowly but surely, all New Yorkers are beginning to pronounce their 'r' sounds more and more.

This reversal with regards to the 'r' sound is at least partially due to the fact that following World War II, British English was no longer regarded as the 'correct' system of pronunciation for the English language. Rather, the Midwestern 'broadcast' American English heard over the radio became standard. Midwesterners always pronounce the 'r' sound in words, but most British speakers of Standard English (Received Pronunciation) generally pronounce the 'r' only at the start of a word or syllable. Since the pronunciation of 'r' has superseded the non-pronunciation of 'r' as 'standard', there has been a slow change across the Atlantic coast of the United States (including the American south) to actually pronounce the 'r' sound. Contrary to its culturally central nature, New York is taking longer to 'conform' than other regions.

Tawking the Tawk

They talk very loud, very fast, and altogether. If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer, they will break out upon you again - and talk away.
- Famous New England blatherer John Adams, in 1774, commenting on the speech of New Yorkers.

Pronunciation by people from New York City is so distinct that people from Northern New Jersey can identify people from 'the city' just across the bay. While eight million people certainly don't all speak exactly alike, there are some generalisations about pronunciation in the New York accent that can be helpful guidelines. Here are a few.

  • One of the simplest characteristics of a New York accent is the 'raised a' which results in words like 'last' coming out like 'lea-hst'. 'Coffee' should be said 'coaffee' or 'cohahfee' with a blending of the 'oa'/'ohah' sound. Mike Myers pronounced it 'cawfee' on his recurring Saturday Night Live sketch 'Coffee Talk with Linda Richman' where he played a woman with a deliciously exaggerated Long Island accent to perfection.

  • Words such 'water' and 'river' drop the ending 'r' sound and replace it with a short 'a' sound. The result is 'rivva' and 'watta' with the emphasis placed on the second part of the word.

  • The number three can be pronounced 'tree', like the woody plant. Sometimes an 'h' sound will be there, but it will be quite muddled.

  • The pronouns 'dis', 'dat' and 'dese' (this, that and these) are often associated with New York, but their use is really more of an American urban characteristic. Philadelphians also have the delusion that these pronouns are unique to them. Actually, this urban phenomenon is due to the fact that immigrants are likely to settle and group together in big cities. Some immigrants have primary languages which do not use a natural 'th' sound, so they replace it with a 'd' sound. While this pronunciation is common in New York, it is not exclusive to the city (or to any city).

  • Another characteristic found throughout American cities, but especially in Brooklyn, is the use of the second person plural 'youse' or 'youse guys'.

  • 'Chocolate' can sound like 'choke-late'.

  • When pronouncing 'd' or 't' sounds, the tip of the tongue is put on the back of the lower row of teeth, which produces some distinctive tones (go on, try it).

  • If you're waiting for something in a single-file queue, you're not standing 'in' line, you're standing 'on' line in New York. This is especially true if you're accessing a WiFi network on laptop computer at the same time.

  • You hear the same sound in the vowel of 'off' as you do in 'dog'. They come out as more like 'awff' and (appropriately enough for New York City rappers) 'dawg'.

  • New York City is home to dozens of different ethnic groups and language-speakers. Counter-intuitively, the difference between the speech of varying ethnic groups in New York City is fairly minimal. The biggest differences in ethnic speech are not pronunciation, per se, but rather inflection in words and cadence of speech.

Lawn Guyland

Long Island is a land mass belonging to the state of New York which juts out east of New York City. Brooklyn and Queens are on the western end of Long Island, but the rest of the island is largely suburban. When two New Yorkers form a family, it's not uncommon for them to move to Long Island and 'settle down' (other popular places to 'settle down' are Connecticut and upstate New York). The advantages of this change would be to take advantage of lower crime rates and a superior educational system. Conversely, the disadvantages would be a long commute into 'the city' and exposure to the Long Island accent.

The Long Islanders have such a distinct accent (some consider it more influenced by Jews than other accents) that it has merited a nickname - Lawn Guyland. This nickname is due to Long Islanders' habit of combining consonant sounds in between words. The words 'Long Island' are spoken as if there isn't a pause in between them (or, if there is a pause, it's between the nasal 'n' sound and the 'g' sound). In addition, Long Islanders are known for their diphthongisation of simple words3. That means that simple vowel sounds are pronounced as if there is more than one vowel. The unique Lawn Guyland vowel 'ayuh' is a perfect example of this. The word 'bad' is pronounced 'bay-uhd' as if it has two syllables and two vowels.

In Lawn Guyland-speak, the 'raised a' is most prominent, though the 'o' sound is also greatly effected. The word 'dawn' or 'don' is pronounced with a stretched out 'aw' sound until it becomes 'daaw-un' (with great emphasis on the first syllable). If you're trying to imitate it, your open mouth should move downwards like a horse munching in its feed bag.

North Joy-zee

Darth Vader never says, 'Luke, I am your father' and nobody from New Jersey or New York ever pronounces 'Jersey' as 'Joisey' or 'Joy-zee' in everyday speech. It's just one of those things. It's something that has become a popular belief and is therefore troublesome to get rid of. When attempting to imitate a North New Jersey accent, people who do not often come into contact with the accent might say, 'I'm from Noo Joy-zee!' This impression will earn clucks of disapproval from true Jerseyans.

If you visit New Jersey, there are a few cultural things that might pop up in everyday speech. The place where the ocean meets the land, that's not the beach. It's the shore. The Jersey shore is a popular destination for pretty much everyone in New Jersey, even though it's not very warm and it can be quite dirty. If you want to converse with Jerseyans, familiarise yourself with the life and works of Bruce Springsteen, also known as 'The Only Good Thing to Ever Come Out of New Jersey, Ever'.

A few other North Jersey quirks include the pronunciation of 'radiator', which sounds like 'RAHD-ee-ay-tor'. The phrase 'go ahead' comes out as one syllable - 'g'hed'. The North Jersey accent is really quite similar to the general New York accent, especially to outside ears. However, as you get into central and southern Jersey, the accent becomes more influenced by the Philadelphia accent, and less by the New York accent. South Jerseyans say that their accent has a lot to do with adding an '-er' to the end of words normally ending in '-a'. The name 'Carla' becomes 'Carler', 'Cuba' becomes 'Cuber'.

1Incidentally, on the long-running American television drama NYPD Blue, detective Andy Sipowicz (played by Dennis Franz) has a perfect Chicago accent. If you are looking for a genuine New York accent, listen to actor Danny DeVito for a while.2FDR was from Hyde Park, New York, which is only about 70 miles north of Manhattan, along the Hudson River. His accent was a prime example of a US East Coaster who sounded almost British (by American standards) and therefore to be considered of high class.3Go ahead. Just ask any New Yorker on the street what Long Islanders are known for, and they'll invariably reply, 'Diphthongisation'.

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