Anthony Weiner was feeling at home. After a long day of campaigning, he made a final stop at a mayoral forum in Canarsie, a middle class Brooklyn neighborhood that overlaps his old congressional district. The last candidate to speak, he told the crowd he would be “just fine” if they voted for whoever had visited the run-down auditorium at the Hebrew Educational Society the most. The audience—a mix of older whites, remnants of the Jewish and Italian populations who settled in the shoreline community starting in the 1920s, and younger Caribbean immigrants who began arriving in more recent decades— responded warmly to Weiner’s colloquial manner.
“I think for the middle class and those struggling to make it in communities like Canarsie awl around the city, things have actually gotten worse, not better,” Weiner said. The three legs of the stool that helped his family make it in New York City and eventually propelled him to Congress— affordable housing, a good education and good jobs—have grown wobbly, he told the crowd.
“I eyask you, in today’s New York, where would you send a friend to find some affwardable place they can affward to live?” he asked. “When we were twaught in home economics cleahss, they said how much you should spend for housing, they said it should never be more than a third of your income. Almost half the city pays half their income for rent.”
It wasn’t just what Weiner said—it was how he said it. Anthony Weiner was employing the classic New York City dialect—in effect, letting voters in the outer borough of Brooklyn know that he was one of them. And he isn’t the only one. Council Speaker Christine Quinn, former councilman Sal Albanese and businessman John Catsimatidis all speak like native New Yorkers. City Comptroller John Liu and his predecessor, Bill Thompson, demonstrate the spread of key features of the accent to the city’s minority communities. Even for Joe Lhota, Bill de Blasio and George McDonald, an occasional Noo Yawk syllable can give them away—and perhaps even help them connect with voters.
“Overall, politicians are in a unique position to play up their regional accents, because they’re in the business of connecting with their constituents,” said Kara Becker, a linguistics professor at Reed College and a leading expert on the New York City accent. “In New York that is going to hold true, and I would imagine it would be a benefit for a lot of politicians to assert that authenticity of being a real New Yorker, by, if not playing up, by allowing their native New York way of talking to come out. They’re not going to be working to suppress it. They’re going to be reveling in it and allowing that to come out.”
The New York City accent is one of the most easily recognizable accents in the country. One of its most well known features is the tendency to drop the r in certain words, pronouncing mother as moth-ah and card as cah-d. Another common feature is raising the o in words like dog and coffee, which in the five boroughs have traditionally come out more like dawg and kwa-fee. Like a growing number of New Yorkers, Weiner rarely if ever drops his r’s. But like many of his rivals in the mayor’s race, he still tawks the tawk.
Other features fly under the radar. For example, while most Americans say the words lot and thought or cot and caught identically, New Yorkers pronounce the two vowels differently. Another lesser known feature is the “short-a split,” or the difference in the vowels in words like bat and bad. The first vowel is pronounced the same way most Americans do, but in the second word the vowel is raised, like the word yeah, resulting in something like be-ahd. So while much of the rhetoric in the mayoral race this year is focused on the middle class, it’s often pronounced middle cle-ahss.
The city’s accent is also one of the most unloved of any in the country. Along with the Southern drawl, it consistently gets the strongest negative response in surveys, but it wasn’t always that way. Linguists say that features like r-dropping along the East Coast mirrored the prestige accent in England, and they like to give the example of Franklin Delano Roosevelt barely pronouncing his r’s when he said, “The only thing we have to feah, is feah itself.” (Ironically, Weiner, who told City & State he doesn’t have an accent, recently mocked a female British reporter’s accent while campaigning.)
After World War II, the middle of the United States quickly displaced the five boroughs as the place considered to have the best accent. Although New York City remained the country’s cultural capital, locals began to view their own speech with disapproval and embarrassment. In the 1960s a graduate student named William Labov conducted his now-famous department store study, in which he asked employees for directions to a division he knew was on the fourth floor. If they said “fawth floah,” he knew they were locals— and how often he heard the distinctive syllables was linked to social class. His 1966 landmark study, The Social Stratification of English in New York City, coined the term “linguistic insecurity” to describe the dislike New Yorkers had for their own way of speaking.
“What happens in New York is that when a New Yorker speaks more formally, they sound less like a New Yorker,” said Michael Newman, a linguistics professor at Queens College. “So they take the features that are specific to the New York dialect and try to sound less like they’re from New York. That’s different than someone in Paris or London or Toronto does. They don’t sound less like a Torontonian, a Parisian or a Londoner. They just sound more like an upper class Parisian, Londoner or a Torontonian.”
Over the decades, a dialect once tied to the aristocratic FDR became associated in the popular imagination with mobsters, comedians and working class stiffs. Catchphrases like “fuggedaboutit” and “Yoo tawkin’ to me?” perpetuate the negative stereotypes. It’s no surprise, then, that some features have declined. In Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, with the influx of outsiders from other parts of the United States, one might think that the accent has died out entirely. It is rare to hear anyone ask for directions to toity toid an’ toid, or to ask to use the terlet. Dese and dose are now these and those. R-dropping is in decline, and r-intrusion—idear instead of idea, for example, or pizzer for pizza—has also waned.
Yet linguists characterize the changes as an evolution, not an eradication of the accent. Some linguists have found that even as young white New Yorkers drop features that their parents and grandparents have, many African-Americans, Latinos and Asians in the city embrace the way of speaking as a sign that they truly belong. Becker’s study on the Lower East Side a few years ago found that some longtime residents emphasize r-dropping as a way to identify themselves as locals, especially amid gentrification and a flood of younger outsiders who speak so-called standard English.
“One of the things that’s really interesting about that is it suggests that despite the fact that some of the features of this New York City accent are being lost, speakers are still connected to their New York identity, and they use language to express that identity,” Becker said. “Despite the change, there’s still the use of some of these features, to indicate to others, ‘Hey, I’m a New Yorker, and I’m proud of that.’ ”
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Tags: Adolfo Carrion, Ann Marie Olivo, Anthony Weiner, Bill De Blasio, Bill Thompson, Canarsie, Chris Koops, Christine Quinn, David Dinkins, Ed Koch, Erick Salgado, George McDonald, Jack Hidary, joe lhota, John Catsimatidis, John Liu, Kara Becker, Marty Markowitz, Michael Bloomberg, Michael Newman, New York City English, Noo Yawk, Patrick-Andre Mather, Rudy Giuliani, Sal Albanese