Your accent no roadblock – look at New Yorkers!
Posted on January 19th, 2011

By Philip Fernando, Former Deputy Editor, Sunday Observer, Sri Lanka

 New Yorkers feel they have the most detectable of accents while also being host to innumerable dialects. They are peeved that “many don’t hear what we say, because they are intrigued by the accent.” The thick accent got parodied in a song thus: “Who is de toughest goil in dis whole woild?-Moitle from Thoidy-Thoid and Thoid. Meaning “Who is the toughest girl in this whole world – Myrtle from Thirty-Third and third” intersection. The prevalent New York accent is easily encountered the moment you land there.

 New York dialect differs due to deletion or addition of a sound-often aw gets prolonged, r is dropped: talk becomes taawk, Long Island is Lawn uylan, Get me a soda becomes Get me a soder, Hi morning is Hi mawning, Who is calling is Who is callin and those people becomes doze people and tree is three.

 Individuals with a trained ear could differentiate between the accents of each of the five boroughs of Long Island, Westchester County, the lower Hudson Valley and surrounding parts of Connecticut and New Jersey. Upstate New Yorkers have their own accents. Manhattan is much more cosmopolitan where accents have levelled.

Getting mocked

Those with the thicker NY accent get mocked almost everyday. “People tend to put you in a category when they hear a particular accent,” friends told me. Most New Yorkers take it in their stride though. “We are enchanting, aren’t we? This is the most captivating characteristic central to our identities,” they exclaimed.

 A few get defensive “hey if you do not like it please leave, do me a favour.” But it is not easy to get rid of an accent. Some have tried it for years.

 The thick accents are disappearing somewhat but there are plenty of native ‘New Yawkers’ still around.

 Accents cause an implied negative feedback unless you share identical cultural mores like living in Howard Beach, a heavily Italian neighbourhood in Queens. There you can use doctuh and wawtuh (doctor and water) easily like ducks taking to water.

People shed their accent not to get pigeonholed in their quest to climb up socially. To those in public communications a thick accent was rarely an asset. Yet it is no roadblock to most New Yorkers.

Bloomberg shed his Boston twang

Some believe that long-time Mayor, Michael R Bloomberg shed his Boston twang before entering politics. But others like Arnold Schwartz of California stuck to their accents and still prevailed. It could work both ways. In an era when people and jobs are ‘globalised’ a more run-of-the-mill accent helps them to be mobile.

 Speech therapists have a field day in New York. The online Yellow Pages include more than a dozen listings by ‘accent reduction specialists,’ while searching Google under “New York accent-how to reduce or eliminate”- generates about 4,000 hits it was reported.

 Speech therapy typically takes at least several months, with as many as three sessions a week and can cost up to a few thousand dollars.

 Speech therapists tout the slogan “it feels good to be understood,” while making students unload their long ingrained accents: breathe correctly or pronounce vowels that use the back of the tongue and deliberately substitute sounds to replace prolonged drawls and gobbled vowels.

Some converts still find it unnerving.

“Losing my accent was like losing a part of me and they might not recognize me that I am from Queens anymore,” I heard someone say taking the tube downtown. In 1896, E H Babbitt commenting about the language of New York working classes characterized their accent as a distinctive hodge-podge of Irish, German, Yiddish and Italian woven with black and Hispanic dialects and a Caribbean lilt. Writer O Henry also captured their voices in his short stories of early 19th century.

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