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.”…

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….

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 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….

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

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