Patricia T O'Conner

Tawk of the Town

You Talkin’ to Me? The Unruly History of New York English

By

Oxford University Press 296pp £14.99 order from our bookshop
 

You know how to have a polite conversation, right? You listen, wait for a pause, say your bit, then shut up so someone else can speak. In other words, you take your turn.

You’re obviously not from New York.

To an outsider, someone from, say, Toronto or Seattle or London, a conversation among New Yorkers may resemble a verbal wrestling match. Everyone seems to talk at once, butting in with questions and comments, being loud, rude and aggressive. Actually, according to the American linguist E J White, they’re just being nice.

When they talk simultaneously, raise the volume and insert commentary (‘I knew he was trouble’, ‘I hate that!’), New Yorkers aren’t trying to hijack the conversation, White says. They’re using ‘cooperative overlap’, ‘contextualization cues’ (like vocal pitch) and ‘cooperative interruption’ to keep the talk perking merrily along. To them, argument is engagement, loudness is enthusiasm and interruption means they’re listening, she writes. Behaviour that would stop a conversation dead in Milwaukee nudges it forward in New York.

Why do New Yorkers talk this way? Perhaps, White says, because it’s the cultural norm among many of the communities that have come to make up the city: eastern European Jews, Italians, and Puerto Ricans and other Spanish speakers. As for the famous New York accent, that’s something else again.

White, who teaches the history of language at Stony Brook University, New York, argues that ‘Americans sound the way they do because New Yorkers sound the way they do’. In You Talkin’ to Me? she makes a convincing case that the sounds of standard American English developed, at least in part, as a backlash against immigration and the accent of New York.

Although the book is aimed at general readers, it’s based on up-to-the-minute research in the relatively new field of historical sociolinguistics. (Here a New Yorker would helpfully interrupt, ‘Yeah, which is what?’) Briefly, it is about how and why language changes. Its central premise is that things like social class, gender, age, group identity and notions of prestige, all working in particular historical settings, are what drive change.

Take one of the sounds typically associated with New York speech the oi that’s heard when ‘bird’ is pronounced boid, ‘earl’ oil, ‘certainly’ soitanly, and so on. Here’s a surprise. That oi, White says, was ‘a marker of upper-class speech’ in old New York, a prestige pronunciation used by Teddy Roosevelt and the Four Hundred who rubbed elbows in Mrs Astor’s ballroom. Here’s another surprise. The pronunciation is now defunct and exists only as a stereotype. It retired from high society after the First World War and by mid-century it was no longer part of New York speech in general. Yet for decades afterwards it persisted in sitcoms, cartoons and the like. Although extinct ‘in the wild’ (as linguists like to say), it lives on in a mythological ‘New York City of the mind’.

Another feature of New York speech, one that survives today, though it’s weakening, is the dropping of r after a vowel in words like ‘four’ (foah), ‘park’ (pahk) and ‘never’ (nevuh). This was also considered a prestige pronunciation in the early 1900s, White says, not just in New York City but in much of New England and the South as well, where it was valued for its resemblance to cultivated British speech. Until sometime in the 1950s, in fact, it was considered part of what elocutionists used to call ‘General American’. It was taught, the author writes, not only to schoolchildren on the East Coast, but also to aspiring actors, public speakers and social climbers nationwide. But here, too, change lay ahead.

While r-dropping is still heard in New York, Boston and pockets along the Eastern Seaboard, it has all but vanished in the South and was never adopted in the rest of the United States. Here the author deftly unravels an intriguing mystery: why the most important city in the nation, its centre of cultural and economic power, does not provide, as is the case with other countries, the standard model for its speech.

To begin with, White reminds us, the original Americans always pronounced r, as the British did in colonial times. Only in the late 18th century did the British stop pronouncing r after a vowel. Not surprisingly, the colonists who remained in the big East Coast seaports and had regular contact with London adopted the new British pronunciation. But those who settled inland retained the old r and never lost it. (As White says, this means that Shakespeare’s accent was probably more like standard American today than Received Pronunciation.)

Posh eastern universities also helped to turn the nation’s accent westward. Towards the end of the First World War, White says, Ivy League schools fretted that swelling numbers of Jewish students, admitted on merit alone, would discourage enrolment from the Protestant upper class. Admissions practices changed. In the 1920s, elite schools began to recruit students from outside New York’s orbit and to ask searching questions about race, religion, colour and heritage. The result, White says, was that upper-crust institutions ‘shifted their preference for prestige pronunciation toward the “purer” regions of the West and the Midwest, where Protestants of “Nordic” descent were more likely to live’. Thus notions about what constituted ‘educated’ American speech gradually shifted.

Another influence, the author writes, was the Midwestern-sounding radio and television ‘network English’ that was inspired by the Second World War reporting of Edward R Murrow and the ‘Murrow Boys’ he recruited to CBS from the nation’s interior. Murrow’s eloquent, authoritative reports, heard by millions, influenced generations of broadcasters, including Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and Dan Rather, who didn’t try to sound like they had grown up on the Eastern Seaboard. The voice of the Midwest became the voice of America.

This book takes in a lot of territory, all solidly researched and footnoted. But dry? Fuhgeddaboutit. White is particularly entertaining when she discusses underworld slang from the city’s ‘sensitive lines of business’ and she’s also good on song lyrics, from Tin Pan Alley days to hip-hop. She dwells lovingly on the ‘sharp, smart, swift, and sure’ lyrics of the golden age of American popular music – roughly, the first half of the 20th century. It was a time when New York lyricists, nearly all of them Jewish, preserved in the American Songbook not only the vernacular of the Lower East Side but also the colloquialisms of Harlem and the snappy patois of advertising.

You Talkin’ to Me? is engrossing and often funny. In dissecting the exaggerated New York accents of Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx, White observes that ‘Bugs even wielded his carrot like Groucho’s cigar’. And she says that the word ‘fuck’ is so ubiquitous in Gotham that it has lost its edge, so a New Yorker in need of a blistering insult must look elsewhere. ‘There may be some truth to the old joke that in Los Angeles, people say “Have a nice day” and mean “Fuck off,” while in New York, people say “Fuck off” and mean “Have a nice day.”’

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