October 25, 2011

Humanities Day 2011: Fuhgeddaboudit: Middle-class New Yorkers try to shed their accents

In a lecture titled “Oy ♥ Noo Yawk (But Maybe Not Da Tawk a’ Da Town)!” Linguistics Professor Michael Silverstein tackled the distinctive New York accent and its socioeconomic and cultural ramifications.

Comparing and contrasting two New York Times articles on the subject, Silverstein also examined the research of various linguistic theorists.

“[The accent] is characterized by its lack of noticeable ‘r’ pronunciation,” he said. Linguists use words such as “guard,” “car,” “beer,” and “beard” to test the r-index of speakers. New Yorkers with a strong accent generally have an r-index of zero, he said.

Silverstein said that “r-less New Yorké” is found mostly at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, contributing to a more stratified population.

Middle-class New Yorkers have often tried to rid themselves of the accent, overemphasizing the “r”s in words and seeking speech therapy, according to Silverstein. Those New Yorkers, he said, often find that in order to ascend the Manhattan social ladder, speaking “normalized” English becomes an advantage. However, it alienates them from friends and relatives who still retain the accent.

Silverstein said that the tension created by the accent has persisted, pointing out similarities between a 1984 and a 2010 New York Times article discussing New Yorkers’ attitudes toward their accent woes.

For the 2010 article, he conducted a statistical analysis of its online comments. He discovered common themes among the comments, including a “global versus local dichotomy” and a “pro–New York City, anti-homogenization point of view.”

Many comments expressed dismay at the gradual loss of the accent resulting from cultural normalization. “People see the accent as an emblem of local urban identity. It gives them a sense of place,” Silverstein said.

Silverstein, a Brooklyn native, grew up in a time when New Yorkers were instructed to shed their accent. Thus, he said, other people often find his accent difficult to place. “[It’s a] dialect-less voice from nowhere,” he said.

The New York accent is fading, Silverstein said, because it has moved to boroughs outside of Manhattan. He said that over the past few decades, the accent has shifted toward Brooklyn, the Bronx, and even Long Island.

Perhaps, Silverstein said, when asked about their city’s eclectic accent, New Yorkers will only say “Fuhgeddaboudit!”