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- Amanda Bjork
Why Do They “Tawk” Like Dat? A Brief Study of the New York City Accent
New York can easily be called the biggest collection of villages in the world, a melting pot of nearly all the world’s cultures in one small place. For years, the New York accent—from famous faces such as Rosie Perez to Spike Lee, Fran Drescher to Archie Bunker—has been studied, extolled and derided (Bortolot, 2011). New Yorkers keep their accents, wherever they originally may have come from, and the resulting sound(s) are what has come to constitute the globally recognized accent found in the unique “New York City English”. There are many different but recognizable characteristics and sounds that make up the famous accent. Many of which may have surprising origins, and many whose origins may never be known. Contrary to popular belief, in New York City, the origin and classification of accent has more ties to ethnicity than to a speaker’s specific geographic region (such as borough). Over the years and through the evolution of the New York accent, there have been many varying reactions and responses to it, from wearing it proudly to attempts at “un-learning” it altogether. The New York City accent is a variation of the English language that is spoken by many people in New York City and much of the surrounding metropolitan area. Pioneer American sociolinguist William Labov has done the most work on the specific subject and has described it as the most recognizable variety of sounds in American English. Overall, the New York accent is made up of all of the elements within the speaker and the city, and it has defined the language of New Yorkers for generations.
First of all, to understand where the accent originated, we must be familiar with some of the characteristic sounds that may have gone previously unknown or unidentified as a New York characteristic. Based on years of research, American sociolinguist William Labov has concluded that the New York accent originated as a derivative of a British accent, specifically speakers from South London. But the many aspects of the accent have roots all over Europe. The New York accent is a non-rhotic accent, unlike most American accents, which simply means that the “r” is not usually pronounced, just as in most British varieties of English. There are sounds that we all recognize as part of the New York accent. Words and phrases such as “schtreet” (street), “yaw mutha” (your mother), and “waduh” (water) (Quinlan, 2013). The unique way that New Yorkers draw out their vowels is another important feature. New Yorkers are also guilty of the intrusive “r”. When the “r’s” are dropped, New Yorkers will frequently put them back in where they don’t belong. For example, “Linda” may become “Linder” and there are phrases like “come heah and bring me a soder”. Another distinct, and possibly the most recognizable, sound from the New York accent is the “aw” sound, such as in “cawfee”, “tawk”, or “sawce” (coffee, talk, sauce). New Yorkers tend to broaden the vowel “a”, for example, saying “awe-ful” instead of “awful”. One may also hear (or not hear) a dropped “H” in New York speech, for example, “uge” instead of “huge” and “uman” instead of “human”. The New York accent sometimes features “TH” pronounced as if it were a singular “T” or a “D”, wherein a word such as “pathmark” becomes “pat-mark”, or “dese” and “dose” for “these” and “those”. The only immigrant language that had the “th” sound in it was Greek, meaning all the other travelers to the New World had a hard time pronouncing the sound. Another interesting aspect of the accent is the fact that New York vowels can change from one sound to another during pronunciation. These changing vowels are called diphthongs. This is believed to be part of the Irish influence on the accent, as the Irish frequently switch the diphthong “OI” with “ER” or “IR”. Two of the most popular and recognizable examples are when the word “oil” sounds like “earl” and “toilet” sounds like “terlet”, although this practice has shown a sharp decline over the generations. Another characteristic of European influence on the New York accent is the word “youse”. It is very rare to hear this outside of New York, and it is thought to be Italian influenced because there is a plural “you” in the Italian language but there is not in English. The New York accent also receives some influence from the Yiddish (Jewish) language, introducing the intrusive “G”. There is no soft “G” in Yiddish like there is in English, so the “ing” sound becomes “ink” (Tannen, 1981). For example, “seeing” is pronounced “seeink”, and “doing” is pronounced “doink”. Yiddish syntax is also different than in English, so it’s possible to hear phrases (in the New York accent) like “a genius, he isn’t.”
New York City is a melting pot of different cultures, immigrating from all over the world over the years. The origins of the New York City accent are diverse, and the source of many features is probably not recoverable. William Labov has pointed out that many features were originally found in southern England as mentioned above. He also claims that the vocalization and subsequent loss of “r” was copied from the prestigious London pronunciation, and so it started among the upper classes in New York and later spread to other socioeconomic classes. So it has been reasonably concluded that the New York Accent originated in and was “brought” here from London, in the simplest terms of explanation. In the 1800’s, all major cities on the Eastern seaboard began to copy the British pronunciation; saying “caah” instead of “car” and not pronouncing that final “r” as a consonant. New York did not imitate London directly. There were quite a few changes in the vowels so that the New York City accent and dialect began to branch off in its own direction, while still drawing major influence from the London pattern of “r-less” speech. The East Coast is referred to as the “r-less corridor” by linguists, and other coastal cities have accents with features in common with New York, like Boston and Charleston, S.C. Those cities were settled around the same time, and the speakers came from a certain place, South London, using a specific sounding type of British English. It can’t quite be determined when the other prominent features melded into the accent we know today. After the British, the next generation of European immigrants to New York City (Irish, Germans, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Russians, and Italians) contributed their own respective features. The New York accent is less a result of which particular city or borough the speaker is from, than which country that one’s forebears are from. It has been a common misconception (even by New Yorkers) that accent was related to borough; that there was a Queen’s accent, or a Brooklyn accent, or a Manhattan accent. This is not really the case, as it would be whatever the lineage or ethnicity of the speaker was, like an Italian-New York accent, or Spanish-New York accent. The variations of the New York City accent are a result of layering ethnic speech with the influence from waves of immigration. Over time, the collective influences combined to give New York City (and surrounding areas) a distinct and recognizable accent. Sociolinguistic research, which is ongoing, suggests some differentiation between the accents of these groups may exist. There have been differences found in the rate and degree of speech of Italian-New Yorkers versus Jewish-New Yorkers (Mammen, 1936). The features of the New York accent from Irish origin are the most stigmatized, evidence being that those features have declined over the years. William Labov has argued that these differences are relatively minor. All European American groups share relevant and similar accent features of some kind. Many people who represent as Italian-American speak “New Yorkese”, Labov says, no matter where they live. Labov gave this example: “In Philadelphia, an r-pronouncing city, there’s a certain amount of r-lessness among Italian-Americans.” (Virginia, 2010) There are neighborhoods throughout the city that are predominantly a specific ethnic group, but they are not limited to any one borough so the accent cannot be classified that way. As can be taken from earlier in this essay, some of the other variations of the New York accent are Irish, Yiddish, even Russian and Arabic. So essentially, the New York accent is a product of evolution, ethnic roots, and immigration.
Over the many years, there have been a myriad of varying responses to the New York accent. These reactions have been personal for New Yorkers, or even present in society via the portrayal of the accent in media (movies, television, etc.). In a study done on language and social strata, Labov wrote “The term ‘linguistic self-hatred’ is not too extreme to apply.” People from New York and New Jersey described their own speech as “distorted,” “sloppy” and “horrible.” (Virginia, 2010) Some New Yorkers even go so far as to take classes to lose or “unlearn” their accents. Labov also found (in separate interviews) that only one third of New Yorkers liked their accent and most were under the impression that the other Americans dislike the accent in general (Tierney, 1995). Many professional-class New Yorkers from high socioeconomic backgrounds often make a concentrated effort to speak with less conspicuous accents for this reason and in order to be taken seriously; in particular, many use rhotic pronunciations instead of the characteristic New York non-rhotic pronunciations, while maintaining some of the less stigmatized features of the accent. However, the common association of the New York accent with the working and middle class has also, since the latter half of the 20th century, warranted many upper class New Yorkers to refrain from speaking with a New York accent. Because of the accent’s humbler origins, generations of parents hoping their children would grow up to be doctors or lawyers and get out of “the neighborhood”, encouraged their children to leave it behind, deeming is lower class, ethnic, or crude. The New York accent has also often been associated with negative stereotypes, such as mobster, gangsters, criminals, and thugs. Portrayal of the accent in kind of a negative light (such as in television shows and movies) has made New Yorkers self-aware of their accents and not in a good way. The accent was even somewhat unpopular in Colonial times. People did not want to sound like New Yorkers, so the accent didn’t spread like others did but remained nearly exclusive to New York City, and parts of New Jersey and Long Island. But there are two sides to this coin, as some New Yorkers wear and project their accents with pride, pride that comes with being from New York City. And there is hope for media, maybe instead of erasing longstanding regional and social distinctions, television will help preserve them (Virginia, 2010). Outside, the accent used to be stigmatized, but inside of New York City, it’s a positive thing. Being from New York matters, and people need to convey that message, and one way for them to convey that is through language (Bortolot, 2011). Up until 1945, it was considered distinguished to drop the “r”. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on his radio addresses: “We have nothing to fe-ah but fe-ah istelf.” After World War II however, Americans stopped considering British English to be quite so prestigious. But the classic New York City accent is fading away. It has been mocked and stereotyped to the point that it has fallen out of favor in the majority. Contrary to the popular impression that accents are disappearing, sociolinguists say regional accents are remaining quite distinct even as they change. Renée Blake (a socio-cultural linguistics professor at NYU, specializing in New York City English) says that “while the New York accent will never die, the meaning of the accent continues to evolve as the city does.” Accent is an aspect of evolution (Quinlan, 2013).
In conclusion, where did the famous and recognizable New York City accent come from? Well, in essence it came from the people. From the native New Yorkers who chose to sound different. But it is not a difficult stretch to find out that the accent originated in London. Since the British colonized America, I’m sure it could be argued that all of the native accents in America were originally were derived from British. But many of the characteristic sounds present in the New York accent can be traced back to their British counterparts with ease. However, as it turns out, there is more than one aspect of what makes up the New York City accent. The other main piece of the puzzle is ethnic roots or lineage. There are different varieties of the New York City accent that are based on ethnicity, due to the city’s long standing reputation as the gateway to America, a true melting pot of people and cultures. There are Italian-New Yorkers, Spanish-New Yorkers, and Yiddish-New Yorkers that all have a unique sound all their own. That was just to name a few, but the list of different types of accents in New York City could go on for a significant time. Or maybe it couldn’t, because there are a growing number of New Yorkers that have developed distaste for the way that they sound and wish to change their accents. While some New Yorkers have no problem with their accent or wield it proudly, a majority of them are looking down upon it so it has begun to fade out. But the accent will never die out and no matter how many habits New Yorkers consciously unlearn, they will still unconsciously say some things differently from the rest of the country (Tierney, 1995). Many New Yorkers are proud of their unique sound; it continues to be spoken widely in the city today, even without strong class distinctions. The accent has many curious phonological features which stand out when compared to other accents. These features show how the accent has evolved into a unique type of speech which reflects the New York speakers and their city’s history. New Yorkers with different backgrounds have continuously and will continue to shape their accents according to their needs; this process of change will never stop as long as the accent continues to be used. Conversely, it remains to be seen whether the negative attitudes of those from other parts of the United States towards New York City speech will change in the future, and whether New Yorkers will continue to cherish the traditional, unique features of their accent. It is a strong symbol to and of New York City. And while some look down on the accent, there are just as many who see their speech and accent as an integral part of the city’s identity. Thus, although New York City speech has a rather bad reputation within the America, it is still valued and cherished by its speakers. Perhaps it is precisely this infamy that has partly caused the accent to be widely used and preserved among New Yorkers. It’s also a New York state of mind; they rebel, consciously or unconsciously, against the beliefs of the majority. Regardless, the accent is permanently ingrained in and connected to the thriving metropolis and will continue to grow and change as New York City does itself.
- Quinlan, Heather. (Writer/Director). (2013). If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent [Documentary]. USA: Canvas Kid Production Company.
- Tannen, D. (1981). New York Jewish Conversational Style. International Journal Of The Sociology Of Language, 1981(30), 133-149.
- Virginia,H. (2010). Points of Entry Speech Therapy. New York Times Magazine, 20.
- Mammen, E. W., & Sonkin, R. (1936). A STUDY OF ITALIAN ACCENT. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 22(1), 1.
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- Tierney, J. (1995, January 22). THE BIG CITY; Can We Talk?. The New York Times Archives. Retrieved March 26, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/1995/01/22/magazine/the-big-city-can-we-talk.html
- Roberts, S. (2010, November 19). Unlearning to Tawk Like a New Yorker. The New York Times. Retrieved March 26, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/nyregion/21accent.html?pagewanted=all
- Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: language, ideology and discrimination in the United States (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.
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