You Talkin’ to Me?: How the way Americans talk has changed.

From a Wall Street Journal review by Daniel Akst of the book You Talkin’ to Me? by E.J. White:

For people all over France, the socially approved accent for speaking French comes from Paris by way of news broadcasts and other cultural emanations. In Britain, the equivalent way of speaking comes from what E.J. White calls “the ‘golden triangle’ that connects London, Oxford, and Cambridge.” In most countries, she notes, “the variant that speakers treat as the national standard belongs to those nations’ capitals of finance and culture.”

Americans are different. Not only don’t they emulate the speech of New Yorkers; they don’t even like the way New Yorkers talk. They find New York’s conversational style pushy and rude, and New Yorkers know they are seen that way. But Ms. White, in “You Talkin’ to Me?,” has a more interesting story to tell, and that story is a highlight of her lively and wide-ranging look at “the unruly history” of what might be called “the Kings English,” Kings being the county that consists of Brooklyn.

We all know what “Brooklynese” sounds like from Sheldon Leonard, Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny and countless others. But the New York accent is far more complicated than that, varying by ethnicity and social class and evolving with the metropolis that gave birth to it. One hears little of it in the city nowadays. The stereotypical sound, once the accent of working people in all five boroughs, has migrated to the suburbs, especially to Long Island.

Perhaps its best known characteristic is non-rhoticity—that is, the letter “r” isn’t usually pronounced after a vowel (a style originally from Britain and shared by Bostonians). For instance, Noo Yawkahs take pride in the city’s wawtuh. Speakers of this lingo, rather than discarding all those unused r’s, attach them to words ending in vowels. A guy I know married a woman he called “Linder,” who of course spelled her name “Linda.”

Hard-boiled New Yorkers will rejoice that Ms. White—a professor at Stony Brook University who is not herself a native—comes to her subject unburdened by nostalgia, so that the topic is never obscured by a scrim of schmaltz. “You Talkin’ to Me?” also goes far beyond linguistics, using New York speech to illuminate American culture, history and social class. . . .

Another explores how New Yorkers and their speech shaped the American Songbook. Ira Gershwin said he came up with titles “by listening to the argot in everyday conversation,” and Cole Porter, Ms. White says, “filled his songs with slang and phrases of recent coinage,” including “you’re the top” and “I hit the ceiling.” Despite the top hats and champagne, his speakers knew the speech of sidewalks and speakeasies. . . .

Between the wars, the nation’s top colleges moved to choke off a growing campus influx of New Yorkers (read: Jews) and their unsettling accents. Applicants were asked their religion and mother’s maiden name, among other things, and schools started recruiting more aggressively outside the Northeast. As gateways to the upper class, the author says, explaining their role in setting standards, “elite colleges participated in the same world of social distinction and display as finishing schools, aspirational media, and elocution teachers.”

Radio further marginalized the New York accent. “Normally individuals have little ability to move the tides of language,” Ms. White writes, but Edward R. Murrow was an exception. A product of Washington state, he joined fledgling CBS in 1935 and hired such future journalistic legends as William Shirer and Eric Sevareid, who were from the hinterlands and didn’t sound like New Yorkers. Murrow’s dramatic broadcasting of the London Blitz nudged millions to pronounce their r’s.

Mr. Akst, a former science columnist for the Journal, writes the weekend news quiz.


  1. I thought it was called “da Kings English.”

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