It’s clear from the unprintable-in-a-newspaper opening line of “You Talkin’ to Me? The Unruly History of New York English” (Oxford University Press, $19.95) that Stony Brook University assistant professor Elyse "E.J." White is comfortable combining a scholar’s measured tone with the salty vocabulary of popular speech.
It’s also evident in the deadpan humor with which she discusses the pitfalls of teaching remotely (“We’re all Zoom University now”) and her strategies for making her class on the history of the English language compelling online: “a lot of it is costume-based pedagogy; I dress like Elsa, the snow queen, or a Harry Potter character.”
White spoke to Newsday about New Yorkers’ verbal style from her home near the Stony Brook campus.
What made you want to write this book?
It partly came from Stony Brook’s mandatory course on the history of the English language that I teach. Teaching the history of language in a city, you can introduce students to the idea that people will speak different forms of the same language in the same place. It can really give you a sense of the incredible variety that’s possible even within one language.
And the history of the English language in New York City goes back to the Dutch; it’s a very long span of time, full of incredible incidents. The stories were so compelling that it felt like a book I would want to read.
And how about that great title?
The publisher came up with it. As an academic, I wanted a very boring title to show that I was a serious person. The publisher, being smart, came up with a fun title and put it in the contract so I couldn’t change it.
I didn’t think I had anything interesting to say about “Taxi Driver,” but then I happened to be at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, which has Robert DeNiro’s papers. I read the script with his notes, and he tells himself what the character is thinking, about body language, but never, “You need to be using this accent” — he knew it, because he’s from New York.
Also, that speech in front of the mirror is basically the same as the “Do you, punk?” monologue in “Dirty Harry,” except that Clint Eastwood’s speech is a soliloquy; he doesn’t expect the other person to interrupt. DeNiro’s character expects that the other person is talking back to him; with New Yorkers, it’s a culture of exchange, of conversation and confrontation — that’s normal.
You note that non-New Yorkers find this style of conversation rude.
Interruption, answering questions with questions, answering stories with stories — these are the ways New Yorkers get close to one another. There are two ways of being polite: to embrace people, or to give them room.
I’m from the Pacific Northwest, and when I’m talking with my parents on the phone, they expect that I will give them room, so they stop when I interrupt them. But I am interrupting them because I am embracing them; this makes for little hiccups in the conversation.
Willingness to swear is another part of the New York dynamic, and my parents would not let me swear at all growing up; they still rebuke me when I do it on the phone, and unfortunately I now do it quite a lot, because it’s a New York thing.
Does that mean that people on Long Island talk like New Yorkers?
The two halves of Long Island are believed to have different accents: Suffolk County takes on part of the Connecticut accent, while Nassau County is part of Greater New York. But in Suffolk I can certainly hear people using a New York accent; it’s about 50-50, and I suppose it would be closer to 70-30 closer to the city.
What does a New York accent signify to other people?
If you have a character on television or in a movie with a New York accent, they will almost inevitably be the funny villain; if they’re on the good guys’ team, then they’re the team villain.
This happens even when the story is set in a place where New York doesn’t exist: in “Aladdin, which takes place in the Middle East centuries ago, Gilbert Gottfried plays the funny villainous parrot — he’s wily, he’s shrewd, he’s always trying to come out on top; he’s got to have a New York accent. There’s a New York of the mind, which the New York accent is part of, that New Yorkers both embrace and feel a little bit insulted by.