November 20th, 2010

I don’t wanna tawk like a New Yawkah

The New York accent seems to be on its way out. Not only is it less common than it used to be, but scads of New Yorkers are hiring speech therapists to rid themselves of theirs, which are seen as liabilities in this global world.

It’s just another example of the homogenization of modern life. Unique regional characteristics still exist, but they are being pushed out by nationwide and worldwide communications and businesses.

Have you been to a variety of malls around the country lately? If so, you’d learn that, for the most part, the word “variety” is a misnomer. If you didn’t know you’d traveled to get there, you would almost swear you were in the same place, over and over and over. Likewise the strip outside of town—you know, the one with the McDonald’s and the Burger King and the Pizza Hut and the Applebee’s.

But many years ago, I also was part of the “leave my New York accent behind in a cloud of dust” crowd. Except for a few details, Lauren LoGiudice’s story is my story:

“I grew up with people who could be the cast of ‘Jersey Shore,’ ” Miss LoGiudice, 27, said. It was not until she got to Wesleyan University that she realized how much her speech pigeonholed her. And as a young actress who is “tall and Anglican-looking,” she worried her accent would be a roadblock. “If I had looked like Meadow Soprano,” Miss LoGiudice said, “I wouldn’t have had to worry about my accent.”

The differences? I didn’t go to Wesleyan. And I’m not “tall and Anglican-looking” (by the way, I doubt she actually means “Anglican“—perhaps “Anglo-Saxon”?). In fact, I was more the Meadow Soprano type.

However, the rest was the same. When I went off to college, people there teased me about my speech. My New York accent—which, compared to those who had surrounded me when I was growing up, was exceptionally mild—was considered a fine target for mockery and jokes. Some of it was good-natured, but it still got to me, and just a month or two into my freshman year I decided to eradicate the cause.

I didn’t need no steenking speech therapist, either. I did it myself through sheer force of will. I was highly motivated, and within a couple of months my New York accent was no more. So thorough was I in my excision of all traces of the speech patterns of my original home that no one thereafter has ever guessed, on hearing me, where I was born and raised. I am officially generic.

51 Responses to “I don’t wanna tawk like a New Yawkah”

  1. Perfected democrat Says:

    I’m a Colorado native, my parents also, didn’t even get to NY till I was in my thirties, but over the years, occasionally someone will comment about my, NY accent? Makes me wonder if it is possible that not only do people sometimes talk “funny”, sometimes they hear “funny”.

  2. Surellin Says:

    I’ve noticed this phenomenon myself. I’m a midwesterner who speaks pretty much what you might consider Standard American English, and on a recent trip to Florida (the first in many years) I was struck by how few people spoke what I recalled as Southern. The whole world is starting to sound like TV people!

    Another aspect of this – the eternal divide between people who refer to soft drinks as “soda” and those who call it “pop”. I regret to see that the “soda” people seem to be winning. My part of the world (central Ohio) used to be firmly in the “pop” cateogry, but I think the East- and West- coast media is having its effect. Now it is becoming “soda” all over. Pfui. :-)

  3. Occam's Beard Says:

    Never mind the New York accent. Ugly as it is, it is mellifluous compared to the New England accent, by far the ugliest in existence. That’s the one that needs to be extirpated, root and branch: that ugly, braying, provincial accent associated with “The Hub.” (A wildly pretentious expression that needs to follow the accent to perdition.)

    I’m done now. I was gone, and now I’m back.

  4. suek Says:

    I _like_ accents. They’re a clue to background. So are speech patterns. And often, choice of vocabulary.

    I have to deal with a lot of customers and vendors on the phone – I like to guess about them. Some I’ll never meet, but I build pictures of them mentally – and I’m sometimes very surprised. One vendor is a New Yawk Jew, and his voice is so like (an actor whose name I can’t remember) who is typically Jewish…dark complected, black curly hair – so that’s the picture my mind sees every time I talk to him – even though when he actually came by, it turned out that he’s an ordinary sort of bland colorless looking person in the flesh. You definitely wouldn’t pick him out of a crowd. But that’s not the face I see in my mind when I talk to him on the phone!!

    One woman sounds very ordinary – she uses her business “phone voice” usually, but as I’ve dealt with her over the years, we’ve gotten to exchange a bit of chit-chat, and I’m certain she’s black – there’s a certain caliber to her voice… I’ll probably never know. It would be fun to meet some of them.

    Which probably explains why I think the ads that someone (Geico?) has on…with the person – male – named “Peggy” who is answering … _really_ funny.

    I guess I like differences.

  5. Wry Mouth Says:

    I gots parents from the Burg– Picksburg. The Picksburgian accent is, for me, the perfect blend of Suthun and New Yawk accents. I *love* variety in all things, loved it when we were the USA and not just America. Whenever I travel, I look for regional places to eat, and assiduously avoid chain restaurants. Lucky for me, the kids don’t seem to mind.

    Jeet yet?

  6. M J R Says:

    “Another aspect of this – the eternal divide between people who refer to soft drinks as “soda” and those who call it “pop”.”

    But do not forget the New Englanders who refer to the stuff as “tonic”, usually pronouced “tawnik”!

    (Or am I decades late? — I did my undergrad work in the Bahstin area in the sixties, and quite possibly the lingo’s changed in the interim.)

  7. jon baker Says:

    I was deployed with some soldiers from Minnesota. I remember hearing one Minnesota soldier talking about the accents of Minnesotoans from a different part of the state.

    I think TV is part of the reason for the disappearance of various accents.

    When I was a kid we moved from NorthWestern Louisiana to the Houston area, and I was picked on for my accent-which is not cajun by the way.

  8. jon baker Says:

    There is a third category for drinks: “coke”-as in “I want a coke” followed by “What kind?” “Oh, ill take a root beer” “Coke” like “Kleenex” , where a brand becomes the generic.

  9. jon baker Says:

    Another divide is the word “dinner”. Is it the middle meal of the day or the last? When I was a kid, our family used it for the middle meal, with the last meal being called “supper”. But many of my friend’s family used it differently.

  10. gatorbait51 Says:

    In New Orleans , people had a particular accent, used to be very much da Nint’ Warhd” Now that’s what Chamations sound like. Cajun ( or Coonie ) accents are VERY distinct and strong. Try having a long chat with the gutsy fishermen in Acadiana . The Marine departments of most Oilfield Service companies are dominated by Cajuns . and they don’t seem to be phased by Television. The Yat accent is being erased ,though and THAT is a shame .

  11. gatorbait51 Says:

    Chamation= Chalmations =people living in Chalmette, parish seat of Saint Bernard( Sain Bernahhd ) Parish ,cap.. Yeah, you right

  12. texexec Says:

    Where I live in Texas, a “soda”/”pop”/”coke” is called a “cold drank” :) .

    How about “you guys” versus “y’all” being another divide?

    I kinda like “lak” (Texan for like”) the differences too.

    Has made travels by those of us who have been in “tha all bidness” (“the oil business”) more fun.

  13. njartist49 Says:

    A true tale:
    I grew up in north Jersey and commuted to Rutgers Newark. Until my senior year, I pronounce Newark “Nerk.”

  14. Adrian Day Says:

    Too bad. Accents are a wonderful thing, and I find that New York accent in women particularly sexy.

  15. Nolanimrod Says:

    One thing has remained constant from the cartoons of the thirties to today: if you’re a screenwriter and you want to make sure the audience knows right-off that a character is not too bright, culturally bereft, and likely to embarrass his friends at the most inopportune moments, you can avoid all that nasty exposition stuff and character-setting scenes just by giving him a Southron accent.

  16. Gringo Says:

    A Texan who moved north got rid of her accent because she was tahrd of speaking in public and as a result having total strangers put their arms around her and ask, “What part of Texas are YOU from, honey?”

    Occam’s Beard: as I am a New England native, I rather like the New England accents. To each their own. There is a certain resemblance between the classic downeast Main accent of Bert and I and certain old timey rural Southern accents. For example, both speak slowly and drop R’s.

    I worked in South America with a German national who learned his English on oil rigs. While his accent wasn’t as strong as the Texans he met, he sounded like a native speaker of English. By his accent, I would have placed him to be from Alabama or thereabouts. It is very rare that someone can pick up a language in their late twenties and sound like a native speaker. Perhaps that is an endorsement for having more Texans overseas as ESL instructors.

  17. Gringo Says:

    gatorbait51: My first exposure to the New Orleans accent was at a Spanish language school in Mexico when I was in high school. One of my housemates was from Chalmette. To me, he sounded as if he were from Da Bronx.

  18. Tatyana Says:

    Noo Yawk accent is a music of spheres compared to way Highlander Scots speak English (had to ask one such guy, a customer service rep @ a British phone operator Co, to call a translator. Or a native Englishman. Even when she turned out to be Indian, I could actually understand what the hell was she saying… He was unimpressed, needless to say)

    At least New Yorkers are not so rude as to make fun of someone’s accent: we are city of immigrants, still.

  19. expat Says:

    I had a friend in Junior High whose mother was from Tennesee. She had the most beautiful light Southern accent, not at all twangy. I have heard a few other women on TV who sounded similar, and it turned out they were also from TN. I don’t know whether the accent is geographically specific, or whether they all attended similar boarding schools. It was definitely classy.

  20. Kate Says:

    That’s ok. I went to college in MA for a year. I was teased about my Connecticut accent. Then I went to college in Southern Connecticut and I was teased about my Northwest Connecticut accent. You could always tell someone from the western part of Connecticut. They’d never say New, it’s always N’. N’ York. N’ Jersey. N’ Haven. If you came from Norwalk. It’s Nahwalk. Hartford and east, it’s all MA to them. But such things are going the way of the dodo bird.

  21. Promethea Says:

    Check out this wonderful website showing American and Canadian speech patterns. There are only a few small places where “standard American English” is spoken.

    http://www.aschmann.net/AmEng/#LargeMap3Left

  22. Promethea Says:

    Here’s another terrific website. You can pick any language and hear how a few of those speakers will speak English.

    http://accent.gmu.edu/browse_language.php

    Enjoy!

    I was especially interested in the Scandinavian speakers because they tend to be terrific speakers of English as a second language. Yet there are differences, which the site explains.

  23. Occam's Beard Says:

    When living in Europe I met a guy who spoke perfect, fluent, idiomatic, Standard American English, and who got all cultural references. After knowing him for several years I was astonished to find out that he was Italian. Italian-Italian, not Italian-American. Born and raised in Italy, lived there until early adulthood.

    Turns out he’d spent some time in the US, and obviously had an amazing aptitude for linguistics. I’d have sworn to God he was a born and bred American. If I’d met him in the States, and he’d told me he’d never set foot out of the US, I’d have believed him. Amazing.

  24. Tom Says:

    I love regionalisms, like speech and cuisine. I hope they endure. My daughter was for a while infatuated with attending Yale. But after visiting and interviewing, shook her head: “My favorite color is not gray, I smile a lot and I say ‘y’all’ “.

    But why so many talking heads with Brit accents? Seems disproportionately high. Perhaps pontificating in British is deemed more likely to inspire credibility in the Country Class.

  25. Occam's Beard Says:

    Occam’s Beard: as I am a New England native, I rather like the New England accents.

    Gringo, the only New England accent I know is the Boston one, and I’d rather listen to a high-def recording of fingernails on a blackboard than to it. Much more euphonious.

    But, as you say, to each his own.

  26. Occam's Beard Says:

    But why so many talking heads with Brit accents? Seems disproportionately high. Perhaps pontificating in British is deemed more likely to inspire credibility in the Country Class.

    The accent we now associate with Britain, BBC English, is a recent development that evolved from the Home Counties accent and for others was an affectation adopted as a badge of class rank and social status.

    Here’s the amusing part: Shakespeare and in fact most Englishmen around before the Great Vowel Shift spoke with an accent …much closer to the Standard American English of today than to its British counterpart.

    Simillarly, the British substitution of “s” for “z” also postdates the American Revolution. Despite our (generally deserved) reputation for being trendy and faddish, the divergences between British and American usage largely reside in changes on their side of the pond, not ours.

  27. Bob From Virginia Says:

    I used to able to give a Chicagoan his address by the way he spoke. No more, everyone is developing the standard TV accent. I know a family in Virginia whose children have different accents from their parents even though they live on the same family farm.

    I also noticed New Orleanans sound similar to New Jerseyites.

  28. Alex Bensky Says:

    Well, I am a native Detroiter so I don’t have an accent. I speak Midwestern American; God talks like I do. Everyone else has an accent.

    And by the way, the correct word when referring to soft drinks is “pop.” Everyone else is wrong.

  29. Tom Says:

    Yeah, Bob and Gringo, parts of greater N’Awlins (that’s hpw it’s locally correctly said) have the same accent as Hackensack. A story I don’t know goes with that.
    See the mahvelous link provided by Promethea (Thanks, P.!)

  30. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Had a friend in the service who came from Alabama, and whose wife–highly educated at Mercer–spoke with an accent that sounded like a mint julep being poured into my ear. Only got half of what she said. Loved listening.
    Had an uncle from Norwich, CT who went to Notre Dame in the mid Thirties. They had him take a remedial speech class.
    Best accent is a reasonably well educated southern college guy going on and on and on, telling a story on himself, perfectly straight face, the accent getting thicker as we call off our chairs and roll on the floor.
    In “Fargo” I think the accent was deployed to good effect. This guy can’t be as evil and vile and vicious, he’s talking like a clown. So your emotions went back and forth. This lady can’t be a cagy cop, she’s talking like a slightly dim housewife.

  31. rickl Says:

    I was born in Ohio, lived in western New York state for a few years, went to college on Long Island, and have lived most of my life in the Philadelphia area. So I guess I’m sort of a mutt, linguistically speaking.

    (Heh: “linguistically speaking”. I crack myself up.)

    Even though I left Ohio when I was eight, I still think I retain a midwestern accent for the most part. Then again, all the time I’ve spent listening to Bob Dylan has probably been a factor.

    Television has definitely worked to homogenize regional accents. Many young people sound the same regardless of where they are from. In girls it’s the “Valley Girl” accent. In boys it’s what Vanderleun has called the “Voice of the Neuter”.

    Speaking of which, today Vanderleun has a link to video of a young girl who is a fashion designer. She sounds like a cross between a Valley Girl and a gay man.

    “Raising Airheadzona”

  32. Gringo Says:

    Richard Aubrey:
    Had an uncle from Norwich, CT who went to Notre Dame in the mid Thirties. They had him take a remedial speech class.

    I taught school for two years in TX. I once got an interesting reaction to my New England accent. A student came to me after class, and informed me, ” You know, Mr. Gringo, there are classes you can take to improve your speech defect.”

    As this was a very difficult school- I later saw a rating that put it at one of the ten worst in the state- I was too well acquainted with lack of respect from students. This student was not the disrespectful sort; he said so in what he saw as an attempt to help.

    I stifled my laugh and informed the student that there were many millions in New England who spoke in a manner similar to mine.

  33. Beverly Says:

    I have to add: I was in Maryland some years ago, and the older Marylanders split the difference and would say “y’all guys.” Cracked me up.

    I’ve hung onto my Carolina drawl out of sheer stubbornness in NYC. But the NY accents crack me up. I know a guy here on the Lower East Side named Larry who tells the most convulsively funny, hair-raisingly honest stories about his daily adventures working at the OTB in that accent (Italian-American), complete with salty neighborhood idiom. He kills me.

    I want all y’all to hang onto your accents, dadgummit. The world is beige enough!

  34. expat Says:

    Beverly,
    What can you expect from Marylanders, especially Western Marylanders. Look at a map. There’s Virginia horse country, West Virginia whatever, Pennsylvania anabaptists and Scots-Irish, plus the National Pike (first macadamed road in America), which has for centuries been taking folks from all over the world out west. And now we get Beltway overflow. We’ve heard it all and we pick and choose at will.

  35. Matthew M Says:

    Neo, when you decided to silence your NYC accent, from whom or where did you model a generic American accent?

  36. SteveH Says:

    I was born and raised in Georgia and have to say my slight southern accent has worked out to be a great asset. I couldn’t tell you how many people i’ve met where the conversation started with them asking “Where are you from?”. Think somewhere between Haley Barbour and Alan Jackson.

    Also it’s not a “pop” or “soda” or “cold drank”. It’s a “co-cola”. A garden hose is a hose pipe and northeners plug appliances in but we plug them up. As in “Y’all plug up that radio”.

    And i’ll never get used to the midwestern over formality of calling their parents mother and father. It’s ya mama and daddy. Or at the very least ya mom and dad!

  37. PapaMAS Says:

    I grew up in South Philly and had a bit of an accent, not thick but noticeable, when I went off to college. Yes, I did say, “Youse guys” occasionally, especially when drinking. Given that, here’s my first question: Can you ever really eradicate an accent? Friends of mine seem to have their “original” accent resurface when imbibing or, strangely, when they are cold enough their teeth chatter.

    Second, I don’t know why, but I seem drawn towards using a Southern accent. It seems more natural to me for my speech to slow down from the rapid-fire Eastern style and say, “Y’all” a lot. Can a person be predisposed towards an accent?

  38. Oblio Says:

    I’ve lived in Yankee New England, Lowland New England (on the South Shore), in Brooklyn before it was fashionable (I was poor), DC, Virginia, the Highland South, Texas, and Minnesota. My family lives in California, so I visit a fair amount. I have visited every part of the Anglosphere except Southern Africa and New Zealand. Each of the regional accents is interesting. Each has its charms and quirks. Each can be cringe-inducing.

    For my money, the loveliest of all is a high class Southern Lowland accent from South Carolina or Georgia and the coastal parts of Alabama. And I could listen to the Highland Scots all day every day. Glaswegian is a different matter.

  39. rickl Says:

    SteveH:

    northeners plug appliances in but we plug them up. As in “Y’all plug up that radio”.

    That reminds me. Even though I spent time living on Long Island when I was in college, I never took to saying “stand on line”. That seems to be peculiar to the New York City area. Everywhere else I’ve been one stands in line.

  40. Cappy Says:

    Alex Bensky is right, as much as it pains me to speak that of any resident of that state up there. Only those from the lands kissed by the clear waters of the Great Lakes, as in Cleveland speak correctly. All others have accents.

    As for Wry Mouth, the accent may be forgivable, but Pittsburgh is not.

  41. Promethea Says:

    rickl . . .

    You mean “lawn gyland.”

    I agree about the “stand on line.” It’s “stand in line.” Also, I always say “sleep late,” not “sleep in.” Maybe the latter is from the NYC area too.

  42. Promethea Says:

    BTW, when I speak, I don’t hear any accent at all. I’m always amazed to hear a very strong southside Chicago accent when I hear myself on an answering machine or other recording.

    Do others reading this find their accent different in their ears from when they hear themselves recorded?

  43. Steve Rosenbach Says:

    Neo, like you, when I went away to college (Hoboken, of all places!) I worked hard to get rid of my Baltimore (“Balmer”) accent. I thought it was ugly and ignorant-sounding. Years later, when I moved back to the Baltimore area, I realized it was actually sort of charming.

    I find regional accents fascinating, and I regret their passing.

  44. Michael F Says:

    Fun thread, esp. the chat with the junior fashion designer.
    I was raised by an American family who had migrated in 1911 from Iowa to rural western Canada. So I spoke their version of English then, and one brother still does. During the Sixties I drove with a buddy to Quebec for the summer, but stayed eight years, living in predominantly English Montreal.
    The first question my father asked when I came back for a visit: “Good God, what happened to your voice!?” Meanwhile I was seriously frustrated by having to wait and wait and wait for the rural locals to finish their drawled sentences.
    Now I think I’m kinda neutered, er, neutral in my accent. That is, I don’t have one. Heh.

  45. Liz Says:

    As an Anglican, I’d like to air a pet peeve of mine. There’s a difference between “Anglican” and “Anglican Catholic” – the latter would be better termed as “Anglo Catholic”.

    Anglican = Episcopal. Anglo Catholic = small minority of the worldwide Anglican community which adheres more to the Roman Catholic side of things. That was not an entirely accurate use of the link.

  46. julia NYC Says:

    I like accents. Ordered some stuff from a shipping company in Maine and got a old Maine lady and she was just great. Loved her accent. Great experience. I called the company again later to order more stuff and got a generic sounding young person who lived in Maine too. Disappointed me.

  47. Donna B. Says:

    Hayell y’all, accents are wonderful thangs. Mine is sort of whatever I choose for the occasion.

    Born and raised in S Colorado and N New Mexico, I naturally have a rather neutral – and precise – accent. But, since my parents were southerners and imitating the Beatles was a youthful pastime, I have found that I can, with a little effort, imitate most accents I hear.

    The two most useful are the dripping, somewhat poisonous sweetness of the slow southern and the clipped barbs of the slightly British.

    Of course, I’d never overdo either of them.

    (But I’ve always wished for fonts that could conjure them.)

  48. Oblio Says:

    Statistically, if you look like the majority of Anglicans, you are a black African. And the Episcopalians are on the outs with the Worldwide Anglican Communion. The linked website looks to be a splinter group of Americans that walked out of the Episcopal Church USA because of the decision to ordain women.

    In general, the Anglicans don’t look the way you expect them to look, except in Virginia, and perhaps Fairfield County, Connecticut.

  49. Scottie Says:

    Carolina accent here!

    Regarding Surellin’s observation of the lack of a Southern accent in Florida – keep in mind that Florida has for decades been the prime destination for retirees from locations wayyyyy north.

    I work with a native Floridian, and her accent definitely ain’t northern or generic.

    Regarding northern accents – I typically don’t object to the accent so much as to what’s being communicated.

    Usually very loudly and at a rapid pace.

    In meeting folks from all over the planet, northerners have usually been the only ones who seemed to assume that just because you talked slow, you were also mentally slow.

    Which ties into the earlier observation someone else made regarding Hollywood stereotypes.

    For the longest time it seemed that you could always tell who the dummy/racist/villain was by their accent….which so often was Southern.

  50. Tesh Says:

    Have you seen theh YouTube video of a young lady emulating 21 different regional accents? Amy Walker, an actress from Philidelphia, thisaway:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UgpfSp2t6k&feature=fvw

    Of course it’s stereotypical, but her characterization of the New yorker accent underlines the thought that it’s not just pronunciation, it’s speech and thought patterns that can be strongly regional. Those underlying patterns are harder to change than mere pronunciation and enunciation.

    I like the concept of different accents, but some of them just hurt my ears. For one, “forest” should never rhyme with “far west”.

  51. Scottie Says:

    It’s funny watching my 7 year old daughter learn to read and spell.

    They want her to sound out the words, but when “cat” comes out of her mouth as a soft sweetly spoken slightly drawn out southern belle rendition of “ca-yut”….it makes it…ah…interesting…lol.

    Which reminds me of a lovely young woman I used to work with. She worked up in Chicago for a time, and when she came back to North Carolina she had a yankee fiance in tow.

    We were chatting one day and he described how word got around in the office they worked in that there was a southern girl with a really strong accent that had been hired.

    Apparently, it was the fodder for a lot of jokes – until the men actually heard her speak.

    Her fiance described how it was like bees to honey immediately afterwards as every guy in the office took a sudden intense interest in her.

    Didn’t sound like the other ladies in the office were too happy about it….

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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