A New York State of Language

 

New Yawk English. You know it when you hear it. It is unique and serves as a cultural marker.

“You Talkin’ To Me? The Unruly  History of New York English,” By  E. J. White tells the story of New York English. It is as much about why New Yorkers talk the way they do as about how they talk.

A study of New York linguistics, told by someone who is a linguistics expert, it is not a dry, scholarly tome. Rather it is as lively as Brooklynese, told with Bugs Bunny insouciance and Archie Bunker confidence. The book opens up with a study of New Yorkers’ favorite obscenity.  More than a term describing human reproduction, New Yorkers use it as an endearment, a qualifier, and an expression of respect. (Only in New York.)

Today the New York accent is a class marker. People who speak it are viewed as lower class; hustlers, tough wisecrackers who are after something. White reveals that same accent, in the early twentieth century, marked the speaker as a cultivated American, part of the elite. (Theodore Roosevelt spoke with a New York accent.) White traces how (and why) its demotion occurred. The flat Midwestern accent displaced chewy New York speaking as Standard American English during the rise of radio.

White also shows how the New York accent works, what makes it distinctive and how it evolves. She looks at its origins and its evolution. She also examines its impact on American society. Many New York expressions have become part of everyday language. Con man, phony, rinky-dink, bootlegger, swindle have New York origins. So do terms like bender, rush hour, and get-rich-quick.

She also shows the role played by New York’s music industry, both in New York and broader American culture. Everything from Tin Pan Alley to hip-hop emerged in New York, and was molded by its New York experience. White examines code-switching; changing between Standard American English and various New York vernaculars to identifying with or separating from the audiences being addressed.

For those interested, White provided a guide to the phonetic symbols she uses in the book. Using these you can follow along as you read and speak the New York pronunciations aloud.  It turns the book into an entertaining participative exercise.

“You Talkin’ To Me?” is a fun and fascinating book. White has captured the spirit of New York in a captivating examination of American English.

“You Talkin’ To Me? The Unruly  History of New York English,” By  E. J. White, Oxford University Press, 2020, 320 pages, $19.95 (Hardcover), $15.30 (Audiobook), $9.99 (E-book)

This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City, TX. His website is marklardas.com.

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  1. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    And @arahant if you were wondering there was a lot of discussion about rhotic and non-rhotic speech patterns. If you read it carefully someone might even come across a few mentions of Woody Allen’s new rhotic speech patterns.

    • #1
  2. Charlotte Member
    Charlotte
    @Charlotte

    This sounds like a good one!

    • #2
  3. AUMom Member
    AUMom
    @AUMom

    I hope you get a commission on the books we buy after reading your reviews, Seawriter. 

    • #3
  4. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    AUMom (View Comment):

    I hope you get a commission on the books we buy after reading your reviews, Seawriter.

    Nope. Just a free copy of the book. 

    • #4
  5. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    Any discussion of the Dutch influence on New York dialect?

    • #5
  6. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Love this kinda thing. 

    • #6
  7. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Any discussion of the Dutch influence on New York dialect?

    Quite a bit. 

    • #7
  8. David Carroll Thatcher
    David Carroll
    @DavidCarroll

    I love books about language. 

    FYI, I personally find the New York accent offensive, even though my family had very close northern NJ accents.  I can’t explain it, but that is my reaction when I hear it.

    • #8
  9. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    I love books about language.

    FYI, I personally find the New York accent offensive, even though my family had very close northern NJ accents. I can’t explain it, but that is my reaction when I hear it.

    According to the book, that is a typical reaction.

    • #9
  10. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    I love books about language.

    FYI, I personally find the New York accent offensive, even though my family had very close northern NJ accents. I can’t explain it, but that is my reaction when I hear it.

    According to the book, that is a typical reaction.

    I can’t help but wonder how much of this is because New Yorkers are generally depicted in media as unpleasant people. 

    • #10
  11. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    I love books about language.

    FYI, I personally find the New York accent offensive, even though my family had very close northern NJ accents. I can’t explain it, but that is my reaction when I hear it.

    Yeah, I grew in NJ not far from NYC and there are definitely subtle differences from the city and the different surrounding areas.  The worst by far is the Lawn Guyland accent  . . .oy veh! that’s hard to listen to. And don’t even get me started on that nasally twang from Philly and South Jersey.

    Anyway, here is a California boy learning to speak New York . . .

    • #11
  12. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    David Carroll (View Comment):

    I love books about language.

    FYI, I personally find the New York accent offensive, even though my family had very close northern NJ accents. I can’t explain it, but that is my reaction when I hear it.

    I had thought I was familiar with most northeastern accents. I then discovered a strange Connecticut accent characterized by glottal stops.

    http://dialectblog.com/2011/04/01/glottal-stop-bad-for-you/

    https://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/05/nyregion/accent-what-accent.html

    I’ve seen it in some people from NY and NJ. But in their cases, it may have been a recent infiltration from an African American dialect.

    I once judged an undergraduate moot court competition. One of the participants, from an NY school, had a strong such accent. One of my co-judges, a retired NY judge, basically told the participant that with that accent nobody would take him seriously.

     

    • #12
  13. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Vance Richards (View Comment):
    Anyway, here is a California boy learning to speak New York . . .

    Not surprisingly, Judge sounds like his NorCal predecessor Tom Brady.

    • #13