When Adam Moss stepped down as editor of New York magazine last month, it marked the end of an era. Since taking the helm of the august title in 2004, Moss had helped set the industry standard for magazine journalism, documenting the life of the city in all its highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, and despicable glory.
Of course, as dedicated media-watchers know, much of the New York‘s DNA was apparent three decades ago, when Moss emerged from Manhattan’s media landscape as the 30-year-old wunderkind behind the much-loved, short-lived 7 Days magazine. Published by then-Voice owner Leonard Stern for two years bridging the ’80s and ’90s, 7 Days was a glorious failure, bleeding money, but minting the reputations for a generation of fledgling journalists.
Flipping through the 7 Days archives today is an exercise in delightful discovery. There’s Jeffrey Toobin writing about the Yankees, long before he became the lead legal analyst for the New Yorker; future best-selling author Meg Wolitzer (The Wife) writing the weekly crossword puzzle; a regular magazine-watching column from fellow future best-selling author Walter Kirn (Up in the Air); Peter Schjeldahl covering the arts scene; Joan Acocella on dance.
Over the next week, we here at the Voice archives will be sharing some of these treasures from the vault. Welcome to seven days of 7 Days.
November 1, 1989
Can’t Anybody Here Speak the Language?
Purse your lips a moment. Leave them in a slightly protruding oval, with your jaw and your tongue too poised for a fight, of sorts, against articulation. Your hands should just follow naturally now, palms upward, in a kind of perpetual complaint against nothing in particular and everything at once, because “Dis is New Yawk, and dat’s how yoo tawk.”
There’s a sweet and singular arrogance to the sound of New Yawkese, and the very posture of its pronunciation — the tongue slack and lascivious beneath the mouth’s alveolar ridge in what one speech specialist has described as a “vertical dialect” — offers a perfect simulacrum of its speakers and their city: the height and hard edge of it, the blend of street-smart swagger and riotous impatience that makes two words of two sentences: Jeet? Did you eat? Skweet. Let’s go eat. That’s found in the words of a construction worker standing beside a torn-up street with his hands out by his sides and his plump torso bowed slightly forward as though to introduce logic itself to· his fellow worker: “Ehh, waddahya doo-uhn? Put da fuckin waw-tuh pipes on dat truck!” Or in the shout of a Bay Ridge deli owner to a customer: “Fuhgit abowwwt-it. Das owwwt.” Or that shapes this sing-song exchange overheard in the box seats behind the home dugout at Yankee Stadium:
“Eh, Vinny, wheh ya go-uhn?”
“Ahm go-uhn to da bayr-trume and den to da bea-uh line.”
Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, Mayor Koch, and Gov. Cuomo all speak versions of New Yawkese. It’s been immortalized and hyperbolized in countless movies: James Cagney to perennial priest Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces — “Eh Jerry, waddahya-hear waddahyasay”; Robert De Niro as he waited for a red light in Mean Streets: “C’maahn, was dis a cawfee-and-cake light ovuh hea-uh?”
In The American Language, H.L. Mencken called New Yawkese a lowclass, “vulgar” dialect. George Bernard Shaw said of the peculiar oi sound that shapes so many New Yawk words: “It’s the ultimate in sophistication in human speech.” Out-of-towners often make fun of it, but New Yorkers themselves seem to dislike it more than anyone, and for years have been spending money to have it removed.
But whether you think it a lovably dumb sound or a shrill smart one, now may be the time to revel in it because many believe that, like light industry, the middle class, and affordable apartments before it, the New York accent is becoming a thing of the past.
Changes in speech patterns — like the catastrophic shifts being predicted these days for our climate — are occurring, but are not always easily discernible. The death of all regional accents has been predicted for some time now, the major culprit being the media, TV in particular, which threatens to make little Ted Koppels of us all — speakers of a generic English indicative of nowhere in particular. Yet a midday walk through the garment district, or through the streets of Williamsburg or Bensonhurst or Staten Island, suggests that New Yawkese is thriving.
What’s actually happening to the New York dialect involves many complex influences and circumstances, which have worked both to diminish the strains of classic New Yawkese in Manhattan and yet to preserve it in certain parts of the outer boroughs. Even more importantly, other distinct dialects are developing, fed by the influx of immigrants from places as diverse as Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East; Central America and the Caribbean. New Yawkese lives, yes, but it’s no longer synonymous with New York City, nor even its dominant voice.
Just as language and the dialects within them do not suddenly up and die in a day, neither do they emerge out of nowhere, all of a piece, and while linguists have not been able to piece together the exact history of the New York dialect, they do see it as a logical, if not wholly predictable result of the place and people who formed it. The accent, which would not become fully formed until well into the 20th century, was in the 1800s very similar to the speech patterns developing up and down the country’s East Coast. Over time, however, New Yorkers took the common features of the coastal accent and twisted their pronunciation in peculiar ways.
“If we compare the English of Boston and Maine and New York City and of Charleston,” says William Stewart, a linguistics professor at CUNY Graduate Center, “all the old Colonial coastal areas, we notice certain features, and can construct a coastal eastern English that must have been shared by all the colonies.
“For example, there’s a very fronted, flat sounding a that you still hear in older conservative speakers all the way from Boston to Charleston, to Savannah, so for car, you get not caw but cah or caaa, or Baaah Haabah. The various immigrant groups, for example the Irish, who came here to New York in the mid-19th century adopted these features, and somehow the fronted r got turned, in certain words, into woik instead of work or shoit instead of shirt, a pronunciation that occurs few other places.
“So when the non-English speaking immigrants — the Yiddish-speaking Jew, the Italian, and the German — started settling in New York . . . there was already a solidified kind of East Coast English with its own unique traits, an early New York accent which the immigrants learned and contributed their little bits to, in turn, so that by the 1930s you had a full-blown accent characteristic of the metropolitan area.”
Another common linguistic feature peculiarly corrupted by New Yorkers is what linguists refer to as r dropping. The habit is, in fact, common to much of the English-speaking world. “It’s found in Australia, New Zealand, and most of England,” in addition to the U.S., says George Jochnowitz, professor of linguistics at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.
But whereas a sophisticated Londoner’s r-lessness makes for rah-thah, and a high-class New Englander’s comes out I paakked my caah, and a southern belle’s becomes a breathy dah-lin, a New Yorker would tell them all: I’d raduh pawk my own caw-uh, dawlin. New Yorkers developed a dipthong, says Jochnowitz, “a lengthening of the vowel to compensate for the loss of the r, often with an extra little uh glide in it.”
While it’s relatively easy to see particular traits develop, tracing their roots involves a wildly speculative kind of detective work. The theory of one retired City College linguistics professor, Marshall Berger, suggests that the oi sound, which is still heard extensively in New Orleans, was brought here by New York City traders who had extensive business in the South. They acquired the corrupted English of the southern aristocrat and spread it among New Yorkers near the turn of the century.
Other theories claim that the New York dialect is derived from Gaelic because the oi dipthong is common in that language — taoiseach (leader) or barbaroi (barbarian) — or that New Yawkese is rooted in Yiddish because of the often melodic course of a New Yorker’s sentence cadence. But aside from a decided inflectional influence as in “I should have such luck,” or “all right already,” and the contribution of countless words to our vocabulary from bagel to bubeleh, to shmaltz and shtik, there’s no evidence for this.
“There’s very little in the New York dialect,” says Jochnowitz, “that can be tied down to one particular foreign influence.” Rather, “the accent has been influenced by many different ethnic groups.”
In Pygmalion, Henry Higgins plays a linguistic game in which he guess the exact London street people come from merely by listening for the subtle permutations of their speech. This was never really possible in New York. Even as New Yawkese grew to become the thoidy-thoid stereotype by which people still identify New Yorkers, the dialect wasn’t so long and deeply established in the city that distinct neighborhood variations could take hold.
The different ethnic immigrant groups were able to assimilate so swiftly into a fluid industrial economy that class, neighborhood, and thus dialect boundaries were forever being blurred. “They overlapped,” explains Jochnowitz, who grew up in Borough Park. “You never had people who stuck that much to their neighborhoods. New York was always a city where people moved around from one neighborhood to the next.
“People rose economically and moved elsewhere just like that. I remember from my childhood, there was a pattern among the Jewish immigrants to move from the Lower East Side, to Brownsville, to Borough Park, to Flatbush, and then either to the suburbs or to a better part of Manhattan.”
People often say they can hear distinct differences, for example, between Williamsburg and Astoria New Yawkese. “New York being such a large area,” says William Stewart, “the dialect seemed to split up into regional variances, so people talked about a Bronx accent and a Brooklyn accent. But often these were the same accent at different stages of development.”
Even more so today, there are relatively few distinguishing characteristics. “The pronunciation of g in Long Giland may be one,” says Jochnowitz. “Irish New Yorkers don’t say it and Jewish and Italian do. So when a person says Long Giland, you can probably conclude they’re not Irish but, generally, whatever variations exist are very slight.”
Still, for all its rapid shifts and dispersals, there was a time when New Yawkese was synonymous with the city, when it was the accent spoken not only by most New Yorkers but — befitting a city of burgeoning culture and industry — by New Yorkers of all social classes. Unlike London, for example, where there is a low-class Cockney accent and an upper-class prestige pronunciation, as linguists refer to it, New Yawkese never had a prestige version. It was, in a sense, a truly democratic dialect. But it would not remain as such for long. If you think it odd that words like shoit or terlet came from the mouths of Rockefellers and their ilk, they thought so too. Because the New York accent became so stigmatized, and perhaps because, despite Shaw’s affection for it, the sound is so incontrovertibly dumb, the city’s upper class apparently could find no way to dignify it.
“Instead of saying, ‘We’re the upper class,’ ” says Jochnowitz, ” ‘and we speak this way, and it’s good,’ they said, ‘Oy, we sound so low class.’ It’s odd. This is the biggest city in the country, the center of culture, of the stock market, of banking, and for some reason, the aristocracy here has always looked to other aristocracies as being better. I think New York blue bloods have always felt their blood’s just not blue enough, and therefore, they chose not to sound like New Yorkers.”
In The Social Stratification of English in New York City, linguist William Labov explains that the long-standing tendency of the city’s upper class has been to borrow prestige pronunciations from others — more from the eastern New England dialect in the early history of the city prior to the influx of southern and eastern European immigrants who helped formulate the classic New Yawkese, and more recently from the standard news-speak English spoken by a growing majority of Americans.
The failure of the upper classes to ennoble their own local speech, coupled with outsiders’ low opinion of it, helped to seal the fate of New Yawkese as the dialect that would never travel. “As far as language is concerned,” writes Labov, “New York City may be characterized as a great sink of negative prestige.” Elsewhere up and down the Eastern Seaboard, from Boston to Charleston, the prestige version of a city’s accent became the dominant accent of the region, making its way through the outlying areas until reaching a geographical obstacle that prevented any further spreading. In most cases, “more or less mountainous areas that impede communication” were the stopping point.
New Yawkese was limited not so much by physical boundaries as by attitudinal ones, such that today the accent, which once flourished throughout New York, says Labov, “is confined to a narrow radius, hardly beyond the suburbs that form the ‘inner ring’ of the city.” Or, as Stewart describes it, “The boroughs have become relic areas of the old dialect.”
“Everyone in the world looks upon New Yorkers as not coming across too well,” says Marilyn Rubinek, a speech specialist who for seven years taught a class on the Upper East Side designed to divest New Yorkers of their curse. “What my students say is that the accent makes them sound like they’re not intelligent. They sound uneducated even when they’re not. Listen to Koch or to Ronald Lauder — he sounds like he’s a truck driver. A lot of people might like the flavor of a New York accent, but they wouldn’t want it to come out of their body.”
Rubinek’s clients tend to come from the outer boroughs, “a lot from Jersey and Staten Island,” people wanting to advance their careers, others who are sent by companies concerned by how prospective clients might respond to their employees with thick New York dialects, and still others who, thanks to the home-video camera — a tape of a wedding, for example — or their telephone answering machines, were alerted to the horror of their accent.
Rubinek likes to go right to work on the pronunciation of r, which almost forces her pupils to complete the rest of the word correctly. She’s also noticed that with the correction of a person’s pronunciation comes a marked change in their posture.
“They straighten up more,” Rubinek says a little sadly, “and sit in a chair differently, with their hands more down at their sides. It’s a more drastic change than plastic surgery.”
There may be a peculiar brand of logic in the fact that the most cosmopolitan city in the country, informed as it has always been by the greatest variety of ethnic influences and alternately admired and mistrusted by outsiders for that reason, should have developed a dialect that its own aristocracy disdained; its working and, to some extent, middle classes still speak strong versions of; and which to this day influences nobody else’s speech outside of our own boroughed boundaries. It belongs both literally and figuratively all to New York, even as the internal battle to eradicate it continues.
All this coaching and coaxing of New Yawkese out of the mouths of New Yorkers, combined with the steady migration since the ’50s of some of its most practiced speakers to the outer boroughs and beyond (Long Island, New Jersey, Florida), and the recent immigration to the city of the generic accent of the yuppie, would seem to have rendered Manhattan a pretty nondescript place linguistically, but it has actually remained the most distinct of the boroughs in that regard, and for a whole new set of reasons.
Whereas the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island offer a perplexing cross section of social classes, ethnic groups, and old and new dialects, Manhattan has become a place of linguistic extremes that reflect the extreme polarization of classes here: either the “from nowhere” standard English of the upper, educated classes, or the “from anywhere but here English” of a newer and increasingly isolated underclass.
According to linguists, the most significant occurrence in language in New York since the codification of New Yawkese earlier in the century is the emergence of this new, largely black and Hispanic underclass dialect (with other immigrant influences). The new accent has been developing more or less independently since the late ’40s and early ’50s, when these groups began immigrating to the city in large numbers.
“The underclass is doing a really interesting thing,” says Stewart. “It’s hard to realize it today, but when you look at black English, people who at one point or other in the past were not English speakers, and for some not that long ago — and then the Hispanics who came in — the result is an underclass language heavily non-English influenced, either in the recent or distant past, so it’s a complex situation. The blacks who’ve come here created a general kind of black English. Many of the Spanish-speaking people coming in learned English largely from blacks in black neighborhoods.
“Hispanic kids growing up in those neighborhoods have in turn influenced black English, and so you’ve got a symbiotic effect. Black English, for example, like old New York English, had no final r. Spanish speakers have a final r, but because the two prevailing varieties of English here didn’t, they learned an r-less pronunciation. But because Spanish doesn’t have an uh sound as in the New York dialect’s teach-uh, or Jeni-fuh, they’ve opened it all the way up to an ah so you get teach-ah, and now the blacks have picked that up.”
Another example of this symbiotic dialect that Stewart cites is the word chain, as in the jewelry worn around the neck. Spanish speakers tend to say shane, a pronunciation that has been picked up by many blacks. However, when referring to what people might put on their tires in the winter, blacks still say chains.
Ana Celia Zentella, a linguist at Hunter College, sees not so much the emergence of one new polyglot underclass dialect but rather a dizzying array of distinct dialects, a pluri-vocal urban world in which it helps for one to be multidialectical, as it does to be multilingual in the world at large.
“For example,” she says in perfect standard English, “I cannot only function in Spanish and English, but in two or three varieties of English. I speak black English because I was raised in the South Bronx and had close black friends all my life. I can also speak a very Hispanicized variety of English, and three different dialects of Spanish — one from Costa Rica, one from Mexico, and one from Puerto Rico.”
Just standing outside some of the city’s high schools as classes let out — Martin Luther King Jr. High in Manhattan, John Jay in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, and Eastern District High School in Williamsburg (where recently a teacher’s alleged racial slurs before his class stirred unrest among the 74 percent Hispanic and 22 percent black student population) — I could hear most predominantly a songlike, sibilant speech with many slang phrasings. Kids said things like rememb-ah or Donn-ah, the ending always spoken with a loud rising inflection. Outside of Eastern District High — where a number of the students milling about on the sidewalks were not speaking in dialect but full-fledged Spanish — I heard this exchange between two black teenage girls:
“Das huh man, unnastan whah ahm sayin?”
“Yo, ah pood it like dis. Ya wannah fight huh — les ged-it ovah wid. Das movin ahn. Know wad ahm sayin?”
Whether these voices will coalesce in the manner that formed the dialect we now call New Yawkese, and how they will influence the speech of New York — either the old dialect or the new standard American English that has come to more or less define middle- and upper-class speech — is difficult to predict. But insofar as the isolation of groups or subcultures within a mainstream culture often makes for the emergence of distinct new dialects, the impression is that these voices will continue to develop independently and become ever more distinct from so-called standard English.
“How far this new dialect has spread among whites I don’t know,” says Jochnowitz, “but among the underclass teenage population, I think it is becoming more distinctive, spreading away from everyone else’s speech, including the speech of the middle-class blacks and Hispanics. I think the city is probably becoming less uniform even as the middle class is getting more absorbed into that general American speech.”
“I think it’s very clear that this dialect will not influence so-called standard speech,” says Zentella. “I mean they’ll pick up yo and bro, but they will not pick up the grammatical forms. You can’t ignore the enormous negative stereotyping associated with these dialect groups and the fact that many people in the groups themselves are trying to get away from them. This contributes very seriously to educational problems, too, because these people have been given such a sense of linguistic inferiority. Instead of seeing their particular verbal ability as skills, they’ve been made to see them as deficiencies and that affects their ability to study.”
William Stewart suggests that there’s a strong possibility of the underclass and their dialect remaining “locked in,” unable to assimilate and move up the social scale as readily as did earlier waves of immigrants, largely because of a less fluid economy that is based on a far more sophisticated, “non-mechanical” technology than that of the early days of industrialization.
“Plus,” says Stewart, “if you’re an underclass student, the schools seem to have less ability to help you transcend your socioeconomic status. There are a lot of things holding you back: poor teacher-to-student ratio, your peers, the people standing out in the street around the school — so it’s much harder and much more complicated teaching kids.
“Everyone’s hoping the media will do it, but it’s not that easy. You don’t learn that much from TV. It’s not interactional. But if they do assimilate, they will bring traces of their dialect which the upper-class dialect will reflect somewhere down the road, just as the influences of the earlier immigrants filtered into the kind of English that was already here.”
Some teachers at inner-city schools have noted a resistance on the part of their students to speaking standard English, and a clinging to their own dialect and immigrant accents. “One of my students,” says Samantha Curtis, who taught art at I.S. 183 in the Bronx, “stood up in class and insisted that Spanish is the national language.”
Whereas earlier immigrants were intent on shedding all traces of their accents and assimilating into American culture, there seems to be a marked tendency among much of the current immigrant underclass to cling culturally and linguistically to the home they left as a source of pride and identity in a new home that, in a sense, won’t have them.
“I’ve noticed,” says Marilyn Rubinek, whose family came to this country from Italy about 40 years ago, “that there’s a certain amount of pride these days with having, let’s say, a Spanish accent or a black dialect and displaying that, as opposed to a time in the ’50s and before when you wanted to assimilate, and there was almost a shame in being a foreigner.”
“Ways of speaking are passed down,” says Zentella, “precisely because people want to continue talking like the people they love.”
Only four blocks from Eastern District High School, along an avenue that in that brief distance changes its name from Puerto Rican Way to Via Vespucci, is the heart of Greenpoint, where old women in kerchiefs and spotted dresses sit speaking Italian under striped tin awnings.
Teenage boys in tight jeans were standing outside a deli, their hair shorn and etched on either side, spiked up top, long in the back. I asked one of them if he could tell me where Meeker Avenue is. He pointed far down the block toward a blur of sunlight and an elevated swing of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway: “See wheh dose cahs ah ovah deh? Daats Meekah Avenue,” — good strong New Yawkese, next to Italian, next to Spanish, next to black and Hispanic English, in a four-block stretch.
For all the evidence of linguistic upheaval and dynamic change in the city, one gets an enormous sense of stability and tradition when passing with an open ear through its myriad and tightly juxtaposed cultures. If a major monolithic linguistic shift is occurring, detecting it is a bit like trying to watch a blade of grass grow. You walk around and it sounds just like, well, New York.
It was in 1962 that Labov, as part of his study of the social stratification of our unprestigious dialect, walked into three different classes of city department stores — Klein’s, Macy’s, and Saks — and asked the salesclerks in each the same question — for which the obvious answer was: “the fourth floor.” He got the highest percentage of fawth flaws in Klein’s, and increasingly lower percentages in Macy’s and Saks, respectively.
“Someone repeated the exact test just recently,” says Labov, “and the results were nearly identical.”
In places like Bensonhurst, where a more homogeneous population and a strong sense of social and economic continuity from one generation to the next makes for a strong strain of New Yawkese, you get the sense that rather than feeling any self-conciousness about their accent — that linguistic insecurity over its negative prestige — the speakers there cling to it, even brandish it, much in the manner of those of the so-called underclass, as a positive source of pride and identity, a way of securing the structure and traditions of a neighborhood against the tides of change.
Diane Parisy, a graduate student in linguistics at CUNY, has been doing a study of one working-class Italian family in Williamsburg, to try and determine if — and how much of — the Italian New Yawkese of the first generation gets passed to second and third generations within the family.
She found, as one might expect, that the traits of the grandparents’ speech were passed down in slightly diminished strength to their children, who live in Queens, and their children’s children, even though they are attending local colleges, and, as is the pattern with those aspiring to the middle class, are speaking the standardized American English.
But she’s also found that these same kids of the third generation who have been by time and experience removed from their New York dialect, retrieve it rather strongly when speaking very emotionally about something or someone.
In 1961, when I was 7, my family moved from the Flatlands section of Brooklyn to the Hudson River town of Ossining, thus displacing whatever Brooklynese I may have had with that smooth, paved driveway of an accent one acquires in the suburbs. But I’ve found that if I get mad — or at the ballpark, for instance, carried away — I can drop an r and murder a th with the best of them. It’s as though if you’re born in New York the dialect remains synonymous with your soul — a deep, whiny river of angst and emotion into which, in extreme situations, you’ll dip and come up with: “Heh! Waddahya do-uhn?”
I went back to my old neighborhood recently — brick row houses and a mix of Italian, Irish, and Jewish middle- and working-class families — just to give a listen. The boys on the block, the stickball infield — “Ditchdirt,” “Mousey,” “Bowbles,” and “Seb” — were gone, of course, but not the accents. A short time later, I bumped into the guy who grew up in the house attached to mine. His family, Irish, had moved away many years after mine but not very far, to Far Rockaway. I’d forgotten his street name, so I said “Hi, Patrick,” and he said, “Heh, Chucky Bucky Beavah!”
It’s true that in Manhattan that particular accent that we’re all still branded as having — that thoidy-thoid and thoid which, even if all classes, educated or not, spoke, never sounded quite that absoid — is hard to find now. Whereas once you may have been able to walk into any Lower East Side store and know the lilt of the counter clerk’s voice, or, as an out-of-towner, hail a cab just for the pleasure of making a cabbie say the name of that street, now the faces and voices are more mixed and changed, and getting in a cab is, even for a native, a kind of ethnic roulette — the game we sometimes play of trying to guess the cabbie’s ethnic origins without peeking over the seat at his license.
But New Yawkese is still out there in our dialect soup, and insofar as the city itself — the streets, the shadowed heights, the edge, and the speed of it — informs a way of speech, it will remain, reshape, and resurface in often unpredictable ways. In fact, even that old time New Yawkese is still heard, in “echoes,” the way the offspring of that first wave of Eastern European immigrants often spoke — “I betcha ya can’t do it, I betcha,” or “I tell ya it’s mine, I tell ya” — and thus earned the names Johnny or Eddie Echoes.
William Stewart has noted, for example, that some of the old immigrant accents have been institutionalized so that the Irish New Yawkese has become, in large part, a cop accent, traces of which he’s heard from the mouths of even young female Hispanic officers.
And then there was the day he wandered down into the Lower East Side, east of the Bowery, into the area a bit south of Orchard Street where so many Jewish merchants had and still have clothing and hardware stores, an area that has melded somewhat now with Chinatown. He was looking specifically to buy a copper wok and wandered into one of those hardware stores to find it. Behind the counter was a Chinese man who, upon hearing Stewart’s request, paused a second, then tossed up his hands: “I should know from coppa woks?”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 12, 2019