The traditional New York accent – where residents pronounce coffee “cawfee” etc. – will be gone by 2015 scholars claim.
Kara Becker, an assistant professor of linguistics at Reed University recently wrote that “Current linguistic research finds that many of the defining features of local speech are losing ground”.
“Research shows that not all accents are created equal in the US,” she writes. “When Americans are asked to rank locations in descending order from most to least ‘correct’ speech, the New York City accent is rated second to last (only the South rates lower). Speakers of the New York City accent, it turns out, are associated with a number of negative attributes, like being unfriendly and unkind.”
She adds that New Yorkers themselves suffer from “linguistic insecurity”.
Recent research has shown that there are “big differences” across age groups in New York, where older speaker have the classic New York accent – “fuhgeddaboutit” – but younger speakers did not replicate it.
Columbia University professors in linguistics predict that the New York accent will be greatly diminished by 2015 and gone forever by 2020.
The present day New York accent comes from a varied history. The area has seen settlers from the Netherlands, England, Germany, and still maintains a prominent Italian, Irish and Jewish population. The influence of Yiddish is apparent.
Noo Yawk will soon be history.
So what is the New York accent? One key component, linguists say, is the “R.” Not only do New Yorkers drop Rs (call the doctah!), they add them in where they’re not needed, usually when the next word starts with a vowel, which creates “I sawr it with my very own eyes!” and “The sofer in the living room is green.” It all started across the pond. The New York accent, with its dropped Rs, is “absolutely from British English,” says Kara Becker, a Ph.D. student at NYU who is writing her dissertation on New York City English. Londoners began to drop Rs around the end of the 1600s, according to Michael Newman, associate professor of lingusitics at Queens College.
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 certain type of British English,” Becker says.
There’s also the famous New York Honk, which Tom Wolfe wrote about in 1976. The Honk was a certain upper-class East Coast accent that persisted after WWII, spoken by wealthy prep-school types such as Bobby Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller. Wolf called it “derived in the natural Anglophile bias of Eastern social life.” The unique way that New Yorkers draw out their vowels is another important feature of the dialect. Raising the vowels is one of the first exercises Gabis does with actors learning the accent.
New York-style vowels are diphthongs — meaning they change into another sound during pronunciation. That’s just a boring way to describe the musical “aww-uhh” that New Yorkers bring to their vowels, pulling them apart like taffy, turning “sausage” into “sawww-sage.” Words like “talk” and “walk” turn into two-syllable words: “Taww-uhk” and “waww-uuhk.” Travis Bickle’s famous line from “Taxi Driver” actually sounds more like, “Yoo tawwhkin’ ta may?”
Where do these diphthongs come from? There’s no obvious answer. They’ve popped up since the 1600s in both England and America, perhaps just local dialects that developed independently.
More apparent is the lineage of “dese” and “dose.” The only immigrant language that had the “th” sound in it was Greek, meaning all the other travellers to the New World had a hard time pronouncing the sound — in other words, they had trouble wid it.
And the rest of the country pronounces a word like “singer” as “seeeng-er,” with a soft “g.” But in the New York dialect, it’s “SING-er.” That pronounced ‘g’ is a vestige of Yiddish and Italian.
Nobody’s quite sure when these features melded into the accent we know today, though it shows up on some of the earliest sound recordings. After the British, the next generation of European immigrants to New York City — Irish and Germans in the mid-1800s, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Russians, and Italians starting in the 1880s — contributed their own features. There were references to a “Bowery accent” by the turn of the century.
As the accent is dying in some places, it’s migrated to others. New Yorkers have brought their accents with them to Long Island — also known as Lawn Guyland — or New Joisey.
Although George Bernard Shaw thought the New York dialect was the most beautiful sound in the world — “the ultimate in sophistication in human speech” — not everyone is in love with the accent, mostly because it signifies working-class origins. To graduate from Queens College in the 1960s, students had to pass a speech test — and you would do well to pronounce your Rs.
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.
Some parts of the accent have simply gone extinct already for that very reason. No one asks to meet you on the corner of “Thoity Thoid and Thoid Street” anymore, or declares that “the oily boid gets the woim” — that particular feature has been gone for “50, 60, 70 years,” Jochnowitz says. It was “laughed out of the dialect” — stigmatized so much that people were shamed into cutting it out.
The same thing is happening now to the “yuhs guys” and “sawr it.”
You better get to New York soon, if you want to hear the accent before it’s too late!