Breaking down the New York accent

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Anatomy of an accent

Breaking down some of the accent's classic features. Some are still around, and others you can only find on Turner Classic Movies.

A becomes "Aw"

This feature, famously parodied in how words like coffee are pronounced, extends from Providence to Baltimore. Recent studies find its use is declining among younger people, but it's still a distinct, perhaps essential, part of the accent's identity.

A becomes "Ah"

You see this when man becomes "ma-an" and cab become "ca-ab." This tensing of the "a" sound, as NYU's Kara Becker calls it, is common among white ethnic speakers, but is now seen less.

Mary-marry-merry

We make distinctions in how we pronounce these words, George Jochnowitz explains, as do many people from the East. This is a distinction, also found in cot-caught, that carried over from British English but has faded across the rest of the country, Jochnowitz explains. We did a small test in our office. Fellow managing editor Pete Catapano, a Queens native (as well as yours truly, a Westchester native) made the distinctions. Reporter David Freedlander, who hails from Baltimore, pronounced them all the same. He shook his head at us, too.

Rs that vanish after vowels

Though this feature is disappearing among some younger speakers, it has tremendous staying power. Jochnowitz explains its origins: "The centralizing glide where an R was lost is British, but grew significantly in New York, giving pronunciations like taw-uh for "tore" and theah-uh for "there." The vowel of "tore" was extended to words like "coffee."

OI becomes ER, ER becomes OI

It's perhaps the most stereotyped aspect of New York English. When speakers turns "girl" into "goil," for instance. It's as rare as hen's tooth now, except in old movies set in New York.

Rhyming words like singer with finger

Says Johnowitz: "The loss of the distinction between the -ng- sounds in 'singer' and 'finger' entered from both Italian and Yiddish and perhaps some other European languages as well." And Becker says she's not seeing that any more in her research.

TH becomes T and D

Seen in classic New Yorker pronunciations as "fada" for father, it's heard much less among younger speakers, says Becker. "It was so stigmatized and so stereotyped that it's really almost gone," she said.

Youse

Jochnowitz cites two factors for the gradual disappearance of that distinctly New York "youse." "Stigmatization and the spreading of 'you guys' all over the country, which filled the void in the pronominal system that had created 'youse' in the first place."

-- Rolando Pujol

****

Is TV killing dialects?

It has been speculated for years that the power of mass media will erase or considerably flatten regional accents, and we'd all sound like an Anywhere, USA television announcer.

But that's just not so, linguists say.

Walt Wolfram, a distinguished professor of English at the North Carolina State University says mass media influences lexical choices, or the use of certain words.

"But for the most part we model our speech based on interpersonal modeling, so, for example, my kids who were raised in suburban Washington D.C., they didn't speak like me, they spoke like the kids around them," Wolfram said.

But TV has little influence on hard-core vowels.

Michael Newman, an associate professor of linguistics at Queens College, says there are signs that regional dialects are growing stronger.

"In fact, there's plenty of evidence that distinctions are becoming greater, urban dialects are becoming more and more different," Newman said.

Even if Americans all agreed to rid themselves of their regionalisms, dialects would inevitable crop up again, experts say. That's simply the way language works, at least outside the television announcer's booth.

"It's the nature of language use that there are dialects, first of all, and they will always be there," said linguistics department chairman Robert Vago of Queens College. "So even if we were to say, 'Ok we like some dialect, we'll speak that way. Well, in a matter of decades, certainly within a century, the language is going to undergo dialect shifts as well ... It's not going to be ever that one language is going to have one form all over the language area."

-- Rolando Pujol

***

A tightly confined accent

The New York accent's geographical footprint, unlike other regional dialects such as that midwestern Chicago-style twang, has never been very widespread.

"The New York City accent has always been very tightly confined to the city and its New Jersey connection," said accent expert Bill Labov.

Some well-known accents, such as Philadelphia and its "wuder" for "water," and Boston and its "cahs in a yad" (cars in a yard) are more widespread, sometimes by more than 100 miles, Labov said.

-- Rolando Pujol

***

Prestige speech: How it changed

Before World War II, refined New Yorkers tried to distinguish themselves by adopting speech patterns closely patterned on the British model, experts say.

Up-and-coming actors were trained to lose those Rs -- after all, that's what the British did. But native New Yorkers also drop their Rs, a form of language that quickly became stigmatized thanks to Hollywood depictions of Gotham's cabbies and gangsters.

"People who came to New York to study drama learned to do that, to stop pronouncing Rs at the end of their words. And just about the time of the end of World War II, this made a sudden reversal, so that in careful speech, people started pronouncing Rs," said Bill Labov, who did seminal studies on the accent during the 1960s. For instance, he found that employees in more prestigious department stores were more likely to pronounce their Rs in the word "fourth."

You can still see evidence of this shift in what was considered prestige speech by simply watching old films.

"So if you watch a movie that was made in the '30 and '40s, the judges are always speaking this prestige speech ... and then in the '50s and '60s all the high-prestige characters are pronouncing their Rs and the New York City natural dialect is spoken by gangsters and comedians and various other low-status people," Labov explained.

Among the most famous examples of that form of pre-World War II prestige speech can be found in the vocal patterns of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Consider, for example, this famous line: "The only thing we have to feah (fear) is feah itself."

A few decades after he made his speech, people of his class feared something else -- dropping their Rs.

"By the time I did my study most people would try very hard to get away from the New York City speech pattern," Labov said.

Looking ahead, the trend toward "R-fullness" continues.

The United States is becoming more "R-full," said language expert Walt Wolfram. Not pronouncing Rs is "becoming so obtrusive; it's almost sort of unAmerican to lose your Rs. No, no, no, no, people from England and Australia and New Zealand. They do that. Not Americans."

George Jochnowitz, a New York native and language expert, says he, too, has become "R-full," in part because he lived outside the city for stretches. He suggests New Yorkers are adding Rs more than in other cities famous for the feature, such as Boston.

"Hahvad Yaahd" (Harvard Yard) is safe for now.

-- Rolando Pujol

****

We asked New Yorkers five questions about how they speak:

1. Did you have your accent when you were younger and did you try to get rid of it?

2. Are you proud of your accent?

3. What things do you say that give you away as a New Yorker?

4. Who is your favorite New York speaker?

Jesse Kyriazis, 20, Jackson Heights

1. Not at all embarrassed by my accent.

2. I lived in Florida for six months last year. It wasn't like Miami, it was kinda like a hick town, and they knew right away.

3. Words like "wah-ter."

4. Michael Strahan ... New York Giants!

Gabriel Kouloumbes, 20, Flushing

1. People always think I have a Brooklyn accent, but I'm from Queens.

2. I don't mind it. But I would be if I had one from other places. If I had a Boston accent I'd shoot myself. The New York thing is the sarcasm. I'm proud of that.

3. You know, different places have different ways of saying things. ... Plus in New York, we have more gestures (body and face movements) when we talk. See, right now I'm even doing it.

4. I guess Nas; I like listening to him. He's from Long Island City. ... Robert DeNiro. ... He's got more of a New York thing goin' on \[than Nas\]. It's funny, no matter where you go in this country, people know [you're a New Yorker]. It's not just the talk, but the walk, the dress code.

Lisa Kelly, 38, Marine Park

1. I didn't realize I had an accent until I was older when I started to think about changing it, but I didn't do anything about it.

2. No, but not ashamed of it. I'm proud to be a New Yorker.

3. Oh my. "Noo Yawk" for one. "Cawfee," a lot of things. "Tawk."

4. Rudy Giuliani. I just think he comes across as such a New Yorker.

(Nicole Segal and Stephen J. Bronner)

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