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April 03, 2006

Listening to New York

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Yes, yes, not all 2Blowhards readers are New Yorkers, though many are. Blowhards Friedrich and I are West Coasters, but Michael and Francis live in New York (I'm not sure about Fenster ... hmm, secretive lot, aren't we). Despite our feeble attempt at geographical diversity, this blog sometimes gets pretty New York-centric.

And I'm guilty myself. I never lived in New York City, but I spent about nine years within striking distance of it, mostly during the period 1962-74, and visited often. My first wife hailed from the Bay Ridge-Fort Hamilton part of Brooklyn.

Anyway, Benjamin Hemric (our Comments über-maven on things New York City) and I recently got into some comment-flinging on New Yorky talk here, and that inspired me to write this post. Here goes....

*** I was citing places where I used to buy newspapers and mentioned the Port Authority Bus Terminal. This sparked the memory that once in a while I'd encountered New Yorkers who called it the Port of Authority terminal. I'm certain I heard it because I recall my reaction whenever I did -- "Why do they add that word??". But Benjamin doesn't remember hearing it at all. Perhaps it's because he's from Queens and I might have had more of a Brooklyn orientation (see above). Does anyone besides me remember hearing that "of"?

*** Brooklynites are reputed to refer to Greenpoint as GreenPERNT, but Benjamin heard only one person using that form -- a neighbor who originally was from Greepernt.

*** Back in 1962 when I was stationed in the Army not far from the city (Fort Slocum on David's Island off New Rochelle). I used to come to New York every weekend. Back in those days there was more military presence in the city than now. There was Governor's Island (headquarters for First Army), the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Fort Slocum, Fort Hamilton and Fort Wadsworth not to mention facilities farther away such as Fort Monmouth, Fort Dix and McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

Every weekend lots of soldiers and sailors and some airmen descended on the city and New York reciprocated by offering services for military personnel. These included a USO office near Times Square that passed out free theater tickets and the Sloan House YMCA on West 34th Street that hosted dances from time to time. And then there was the Cardinal Spellman Servicemen’s Club on Park Avenue near 58th Street which offered weekend spaghetti feeds and dancing with volunteer gals, some of whom were pretty neat.

The point I'm edging toward is that I kept my ears opened and got a feel for the geographical distribution of the famous New York accent as it was in 1962. I'm no 'enry 'iggins, so I make no claim that I could identify whether someone was from the west or east side of the Grand Concourse. But I could detect the intensity of the accent and correlate that with location.

My highly scientific finding was that the geographical distribution of people speaking with a New York accent was roughly doughnut-shaped. Manhattan represented the "hole" where the accent was light or non-existent for the residents I happened to encounter; perhaps they were originally from someplace else such as Des Moines. (The Nice Catholic Girls frequenting Cardinal Spellman's tended not to be Upper West Side types, so maybe that "hole" actually ended at Central Park West.)

The accent-rich solid part of the doughnut took in The Bronx, Brooklyn, the inner part of Queens and perhaps nearby areas of New Jersey such as Hoboken. Beyond the doughnut were comparatively or totally accent-free areas such as Nassau and Westchester counties and maybe Staten Island.

*** My ex-wife was administrative assistant to a vice president of a steel company headquartered on Park Avenue. Seems to me she once took a class for people trying to get rid of Brooklyn accents. At any rate, she always took pains to speak slowly and distinctly. Sadly for her, when she opened her mouth no one would mistake her for being anything but a New Yorker.

I could go on and on, but methinks it's high time I run for the bomb shelter.



posted by Donald at April 3, 2006


The Port Authority's official name many years ago was the Port of New York Authority, so it's not impossible to imagine that people informally called it the "Port of Authority."

Rumor has it that years ago Macy's used to weed out job applicants whose New York accents were too strong. The way it was done was by having them study a store directory and then asking them where a particular category of merchandise was located. Applicants who answered "Fourth Floor" were given further consideration; those who answered "Fawth Flaw" were informed that no positions were available.

Posted by: Peter on April 3, 2006 11:34 AM

"Sadly for her, when she opened her mouth no one would mistake her for being anything but a New Yorker."

Nor would anyone mistake you for a diplomat.

Posted by: Raw Data on April 3, 2006 03:26 PM

During my "tour of duty" in the Big Apple, I was always charmed by strong New York accents; so few people seemed to have been brought up locally, at least in Manhattan.

Sadly, my own ear was unequal to the task of detecting borough to borough accents. Mel Blanc described Bugs Bunny as speaking with a cross between a Brooklyn and a Bronx accent; I could never tell the difference. My loss.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 3, 2006 04:56 PM

Peter -- That theory regarding the "of" makes sense.

Raw -- Compared to what I was like in my youth, I'm a veritable Tallyrand.

Friedrich -- No question Mel Blanc was a genius in his field. Regarding your tale, it's interesting to note that he hailed from Portland, Oregon. Lord knows how he learned to distinguish Brooklyn from Bronx accents. Oh yes, I said "genius" didn't I.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 3, 2006 08:17 PM

She's a lucky woman.

Posted by: Raw Data on April 3, 2006 08:53 PM

The closest I ever came to New York City was as a stem cell in Mom's ovaries back in World War II (nurse at an army hospital there). Don't think I'll ever go to New York, but with all the expatriate New Yorkers moving here, I may not have to. :)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on April 3, 2006 11:04 PM


In fact I said that maybe I had, indeed, heard people say "Port OF Authority" (see below)!

And I also claim dibs on Port OF New York Authority as an explanation, too! (Although, I might have expressed it in a less "in your face" manner, that's essentially what I was trying to "delicately" imply. Now you can see why New Yorkers usually can the high-flautin' diplomatic talk and get right to the point!)

Duu-ova! Duu-ova!

Here are the relevant sections from my earlier post -- with emphasis added:

- - - - - - - -

I haven't noticed anyone saying Port OF Authority. But now that you mention it, I'll have to keep an ear out for it. (Strictly speaking, by the way, I believe the name of the organization was "the Port OF New York Authority," and it was later changed to the "Port OF New York and New Jersey Authority.") . . . .

As far as I can recall, I've personally never said Port OF Authority, however, and, off hand, I don't recall anyone else saying it -- BUT NOW THAT YOU MENTION IT, IT DOES SOUND FAMILIAR! MAYBE I'VE FORGOTTEN THAT SOME PEOPLE (OR EVEN MYSELF[!]) SAID IT THAT WAY AT ONE TIME? Or, then again, maybe any recollection of people saying it that way is a "false" memory?

As you seem to be suggesting, it's likely only certain subgroups of New Yorkers -- people from a certain part of the NYC metro area or of a certain age or work or ethnic background -- who say/said it that way.

In Queens, my family once had a neighbor who was from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and he said Greenpoint in what I suspect is classic "Brooklynese" -- Green pernt -- while no one else I ever met said it that way. And I've noticed that various friends and relatives seem to have DIFFERENT New York accents / ways of speaking, DEPENDING ON AGE, NEIGHBORHOOD, ETHNIC BACKGROUND.

- - - - - - - - - -

It seems every so often the "New York Times" does an article on New York accentS, and some professor does go into detail about how there are actually quite a number of different accents depending on socio-economic class, (the ethnicity of a) neighbohood, and the age of a speaker, etc.

Even as a kid I began to notice at least some vague differences myself, especially, so it seems to me now, between those people I knew from the Bronx (working class Irish-American), those people I knew from Brooklyn (working class Italian-Americans) and neighbors and classmates from Queens (mostly middle-class Jews).

Although I don't think of myself as having a New York accent -- at least as compared to the intense "flavorful" accents in some local radio/TV commericals -- it seems to me that a few words I use, here and there, are said with a New York accent. But what's probably most New York about my speech isn't the accent itself, but the intonation and speed.

Although I am not Jewish (despite having the name Benjamin), someone I used to speak to a lot over the phone -- but hadn't met -- said I sounded a lot like Woody Allen to him. I hadn't thought about that, but once I listened to myself on my answering machine, I could see where he had a point. However, I can also see myself sounding like the George Constanza character on "Seinfeld" (who actually sounds more Jewish to me than Italian -- and he was played by a Jewish actor). From third grade through high school (and, to a degree, even college) my classes (and teachers) were probably 70% Jewish.

One thing that interests me about New York accents is how the pronounciation of syllables seems to vary depending on their context -- in other words the same syllable will be pronounced differently depending on the word within which it is used. Basically I grew up saying "dawg" (and even believe that I half remember trying to figure out if I should say it the way they say it on TV or the way everyone else said it), but nevertheless I always said, as far as I know, "boondoggle" (not "boondawgal"), "fog" (not "fawg), "log" (not lawg), etc.

- - - - - - -

Regarding Donald's hypothesis:

"My highly scientific finding was that the geographical distribution of people speaking with a New York accent was roughly doughnut-shaped. Manhattan represented the "hole" where the accent was light or non-existent for the residents I happened to encounter; perhaps they were originally from someplace else such as Des Moines. (The Nice Catholic Girls frequenting Cardinal Spellman's tended not to be Upper West Side types, so maybe that "hole" actually ended at Central Park West.)

The accent-rich solid part of the doughnut took in The Bronx, Brooklyn, the inner part of Queens and perhaps nearby areas of New Jersey such as Hoboken. Beyond the doughnut were comparatively or totally accent-free areas such as Nassau and Westchester counties and maybe Staten Island."

This does not seem to be accurate to me. My guess is that ethnicity (which generation American a person is), socio-economic status, etc. are probably just as important -- or even more -- than where someone is in the doughnut.

I think a lot of the residents of Manhattan neighborhoods actually probably had strong accents when these neighbohoods were still poor or working-class ethnic enclaves (e.g., Italian, Jewish, Irish, German, etc.) My guess is that, In fact, most New York accents probably originated in Manhattan (except, obviously, for Brooklynese) and then migrated (and changed) when they got to the outer boroughs.

For example, thinking of old ganster movies, etc., my guess is that most of the New Yorkers portrayed in these movies were supposed to be working-class ethnic Manhattanites (e.g., from the Lower East Side, Little Itlay, Hell's Kitchen, Yorkville, etc.) -- and I believe most of the actors portraying them were also probably originally working-class, ethnic Manhattanites.

Plus Lawngeyeland is, of course, famous for it's own accent (which, I guess, is an further development and amalgam of various New York City accents (with Long Island being populated largely by former City residents).

And even the Manhattan/Westchester upper-classes have/had their own accents which have been written about. (I think I remember an article by Tom Wolfe on this, something with the word "honk" in the title.) And one very affluent part of Long Island is famous for its "Locust Valley lockjaw" accent (people speaking through clenched teeth).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 3, 2006 11:39 PM

New York accents have even made it into Wikipedia, as has Penn's Bill Labov (dear old Penn, Donald!), who has made the most famous studies of them.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 4, 2006 12:03 AM

There's more than one NYC accent? I know in principle that the ansewr is Yes, but you could fool me. All I know is that some people sound like Fran Drescher. Also that New Yorkers generally talk fast, and are always on the attack. I'm the anti-Henry Higgins, I guess.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 4, 2006 01:46 AM

Oh, when I moved up to the NJ/NY area, I was struck by the number of different accents I heard. Mind you, they were all foul, as far as I was concerned, but they were different.

For example, consider the part tense of "think". Is is pronounced "thort" or "thowet"? (Neither one, as far as I'm concerned, but I was outvoted). I was also struck by the way that you had to go to lore school to be a loiyeh, and that if you got a job in East Asia you could have a korea in Career.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on April 4, 2006 09:05 AM

Here's an article whicg bears out what Michael said:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 4, 2006 09:36 AM

That "loiyeh" thing---makes me think of whatserface in "My Cousin Vinny". Along with "It's cawled full disclosheh, asshole!" Is that what you mean by NY accent? :)

Posted by: annette on April 4, 2006 03:02 PM

Here is the URL for the wonderful Tom Wolfe essay I mentioned -- the one where he discusses the history and ethnic and social-economic bases for New York accents -- including the upper-class New York "Honk" accent. (He also mentions the "lower-class" Longeyeland accent and the upper-class "Locust Valley [Long Island] Lockjaw" accent, which was also mentioned in the book, and movie, etc., "Auntie Mame.")

The essay is "Honks and Wonks," and is included in a 1976 anthology of Wolfe essays, entitled, "Mauve Gloves, Madmen, Clutter and Vine." (I have a Bantam paperback edition of this book which I bought many years ago. I'm not sure if it's still available, although Wolfe books seem to always be in print.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 6, 2006 11:41 AM

I was cleaning out some files today, and I happened to run across an article that I had clipped in 1998 that addresses the very questions that have been brought up! (It's seems to me to be a little less researched, comprehensive and detailed than the wonderful Tom Wolfe essay linked to above, though.) It was on page 1 of the Sept. 20, 1998, issue of the "City" section of the "New York Times":

"Talking the Tawk: New Yorkers Are Sounding More Like Everybody Else. Is It Curtains for the Accent People Love to Hate?"

Here are some excerpts:

It's loud, it's fast and when some of its more famous speakers -- like Fran Drescher ("The Nanny") and Joe Pesci ("My Cousin Vinny") use it, you know exactly where they're coming from. It's New York-ese, the mother tongue of millions of city dwellers and of expatriates who have taken it to Long Island, New Jersey and beyond . . . .

"New York accents aren't so extreme anymore," said Robert Hendrickson, an author of numerous books on regional speech including the forthcoming "New Yawk Tawk: A Dictionary of New York City Expressions" (Facts on File). "Strong accents still exists, but they are more common among older people."

. . . . "In the future," said George Jochnowitz, a professor of linguistics at the College of Staten Island, "the big differences will not be regional, but ethnic and educational."

. . . . And enclaves of traditional New Yorkese still exist in the metropolitan region, mostly in Brooklyn and Staten Island and on Long Island, where many sons and daughters of the city moved after World War II, Professor Steward said. "Staten Island," Professor Jochnowitz noted, "is the last and best holdout in the city of the New York accent."

The pecuiarities of the classic New York accent are well know, and the city's many ethnic groups can all claim the credit - or blame -- for some of its features, such as the reversal of the "oi" and "er" sounds, resulting in such bons mots as "terlet" for "toilet," "goil" for "girl" and "Greenpernt" for a certain part of Brooklyn, as well as the stress on the "aw" sound in words like "hawk" and "talk," all of which Mr. Chwat, the speech therapist, believes to be of Irish origin. The transformation of "th" to "t" (as when "with" becomes "wit") or to "d" (as in "my muddah and faddah') is said to be typical of both Irish and Italian New York speech.

Jewish speakers are more likely to have a nasal "a" -- think of O.J. Simpson's erstwhile lawyer, Barry Scheck -- or to use a singsong cadence, like former Mayor Edward I. Koch's.

. . . in New York City, so-called "r-lessness" (saying "cahd" for ard and "bah" for "bar") is widely seen these days as a lower-class phenomenon, a mark of improper speech. But that was not always so. Earlier in this century, patrician New Yorkers like Franklin D. Roosevelt wouldn't have dreamed of pronouncing their r's.

This change in so-called "prestige pronunciation" occurred after World War II . . .

As Professor Jochnowitz sees it, New Yorkese is moving toward standardization along with other regional speech variations, "but that doesn't mean it's ever going to get there." sometime, he says, "new things happen you don't expect."

So "dog" will never rhyme with "log" in New York, as it apparently does elsewhere?

"Fughgeddaboutit," Mr. Chwat said.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 7, 2006 08:21 PM

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