The Death of the New York (or "New Yawk") Accent

The Death of the New York (or "New Yawk") Accent

New Yorkers are easily identified outside of the city by any number of things. Maybe the way they expect everything to move faster, taste better, or speak clearer. Maybe the neurosis that expects everyone else to have a therapist, too. But often -- or "awftin" -- it's the classic New Yorker accent. Which people are trying to kill.

Yes, there are people out there actively trying to eliminate the New York accent from the world. Sam Roberts reports for the New York Times in "Unlearning to Tawk Like a New Yorker" that three people -- after having been mocked about their accents to the point of going to therapy about it that they were "diagnosed" with New York accents, which is apparently a historically "distinctive amalgam of Irish, German, Yiddish, and Italian -- now infused with black and Hispanic dialects and a Caribbean lilt -- that was identified at least as far back as the early 19th century."

But why is this a problem?

  • One girl went to Wesleyan and it made her stick out. Also, she wants to be an actress, and you can't be an actress with a New York accent, apparently.
  • One guy who hosts a "New Age" television show on cable access thinks he'll reach more people without the accent.
  • Apparently the New York accent is a "handicap" in an "age of globalization" when a "more generic identity can be seen as an advantage." To support this, Mayor Bloomberg's post-Boston accent is used.

And then there's this:

"A New York accent makes you sound ignorant," said Lynn Singer, a speech therapist who works with Miss LoGiudice. "People listen to the accent, but not to what you're saying."

The solution to sounding ignorant is apparently a guy named Sam Chwat, who is "the dean of speech therapists." You know what comes next: people go to speech therapist, get rid of their accents, and feel better about their lives, maybe. The actress gets a role at the end of the piece. Super.

But would it be so wrong to call these people as just weak-willed New Yorkers?

Maybe the thinking that an accent is the thing holding them back from success in life -- i.e., fitting in at Wesleyan University/hosting a New Age cable access show -- is indicative of a much greater personal problem at hand and that a speech therapist will only prolong and obfuscate whatever insecurity or neurosis is making the New York accent the target of this fixation. People want to think the Mayor is from the East Coast, somewhere, somewhere rather than nowhere. Are we really going to judge his potential or performance -- rather than on the merits of his work -- on his accent? That's absurd! Do we really want to sacrifice our identities for the comfort of others?

Not everyone does. A few New Yorkers contacted for the piece rightfully maintain their accents and tell other people to go to hell, essentially, which they should. Why not just find a dialect coach and learn how to turn the accent on or off? Or just temper it? If the accent is really making that much of a difference in some New Yorkers' job performances, either they need to get better at their job, or they need to ask themselves what kind of people they're working for and/or with.What kind of New Yorker hires a speech therapist to completely kill off their New York accent?

'Doesn't really seem like much of a New Yorker to me. You might as well get rid of the high standards, the fast pace, and the neurosis, too. They're all indicators of coming from the greatest place in the world. If people aren't proud to hold that up -- or even worse, want to hide it -- maybe we don't have that much to be proud of to begin with. And that's a sad thing for this place. At the very least, this New Yorker expects a little more. Or wants to.

[fkamer@villagevoice.com]

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