Not for Nothin’1In New York English, “Not for nothin’’’ means “I’m just saying” or “Don’t take this the wrong way.”
– Essay By Tanya Visceglia –
Wherever I go, my aw and eyh vowels race ahead of me like chocolate-smeared toddlers to blurt out my Brooklyn before I get a chance to catch up and explain their behavior. And my final “r” sounds are like traffic lights in Rome – seen only as a suggestion. Following command performances of the mirror scene in “Taxi Driver” –”Yoo tawkinna me? I’m standin’ heah,” I often hear how “adorable” and “colorful” my accent is, and that I should “play it up more,” like earrings chosen to accessorize an outfit. But I know that my accent is not just entertainment: it is my destiny. My speech marks me as a creature of the unchic, parochial outer boroughs, best suited to waitressing or secretarial work.
Growing up in Bay Ridge, which at the time was mostly blue-collar, white Catholic, I idolized the sophistication of “the City”, as we called Manhattan, and longed to purge every trace of Brooklyn from my voice, mannerisms and style. In the process, I suffered the fate of most social climbers: I sounded stilted and self-conscious — Eliza Doolittle suspended in amber, halfway between the original and the aspirational. Higher-class speakers instinctively smelled this weakness and treated me with contempt. Not only was I too clumsy to mimic the standard dialect that for them flowed effortlessly, I also clearly had so little respect for my own identity that I was desperate to exchange it for theirs. In Bay Ridge, my belabored final ‘r’s met with an equally chilly reception: “Whadda you supposed to be, from England?”
But fifteen years of living overseas have covered the city in a patina of nostalgia. Now, talking with other speakers of New York English feels more like home than any other experience I have on U.S. soil. One day at the JFK airport carousel, a baggage handler helped me with a large, awkward suitcase. Accepting my thanks, he grinned: “Whattaya got in dere, a body?” Another afternoon, I was waiting on an unbearably hot subway platform for 40 minutes. When twin pinpricks of light in the tunnel finally signaled the arrival of the next uptown local, the woman next to me leaned over to say: “If that’s the train, I’m gonna throw myself in front of it.” New York talk, New York humor. We’re masters of deadpan and the rhetorical question. My favorite example of both appears in the 1974 version of the film “The Taking of Pelham 123.” In one scene, a subway train has been hijacked by bank robbers, who drive it at top speed, careening around the tracks. The passengers scream in fear as they’re thrown from one side of the car to the other, at which a crusty MTA dispatcher grumbles: “Whatta they expect for their lousy thirty-five cents, to live forever?”
My nostalgia for NYC English (NYCE) is fueled by the knowledge that its speakers are a dying breed. In 2015, the NPR segment “Fuggeddaboudit” reported that both increasing exposure to shared media content and the changing demographics of New York will bring about the disappearance of my native dialect within the next two generations. I expect that sometime before I limp off to lie in an unmarked grave, some well-meaning sociolinguist will be pestering me to “Say ‘bat’…. Now say ‘bad’…” into a Dictaphone, to be filed away in an “American Voices” archive along with Sea Island Gullah2 Gullah, also called Sea Island Creole English, is a creole language spoken by some of the African-American population living in coastal regions of the American states of South Carolina, Georgia and northeast Florida. and all the other archaic, regional patois.
The social stigma attached to NYCE is also hastening its demise; the children of NYCE speakers are explicitly encouraged to lose their accents to facilitate upward social mobility. For men, hanging onto NYCE will leave you behind with the Archie Bunkers3 Archie Bunker was a character on the TV series “All in the Family,” written as a caricature of the stereotypical ignorant, blue-collar bigot. and the Goodfellas. And it tends to mark women as either coarse or unfeminine – think of Fran Drescher on “The Nanny” or the tough broad persona of Rosie O’Donnell. William Labov’s observations in “The Social Stratification of New York English” still ring true today. Rejection of local pronunciations as substandard and inappropriate for formal conversation is so strong that “the term linguistic self-hatred is not too extreme to apply to the situation (Labov, 2006).” In an interview, one female NYCE speaker in her thirties explained her reasons for wanting to lose her accent: “It’s not them feeling superior; it’s me feeling inferior. And when I speak… horribly, I feel stupid, and I don’t have confidence in myself. And it’s holding me back in a lot of things that I want to do. I want a good career and things like that, and if you don’t speak well, you can’t…. You can’t.”
In the decades following the Labov study, a flurry of “accent correction” service providers swooped down on the metropolitan area to capitalize on on New Yorkers’ linguistic insecurity. A promotional video for one course warns that “regional speech patterns are going to mark you as regional for the rest of your life. And that’s NOT what the corporate world is looking for.” Clearly, “regional” is used here as a euphemism for “working class”; the Kennedys certainly aren’t signing up for classes to correct their Boston Brahmin. In the same promotional video, a student whose job as a sales rep requires her to participate in meetings all over the country described the embarrassment she often faced as an NYCE speaker: “I remember one time in particular: the company sent me to Milwaukee. And they weren’t even listening to what I was saying. They thought it was like a comedian’s act. They were listening more to the way I was speaking than what I was saying. Then they said, you know, ‘Where you from?’ I said: ‘Texas. Where do you think I’m from?’”
Bonfiglio (2010) remarked on the oddness of this phenomenon: inhabitants of other major cities, such as Paris, Tokyo or Toronto, do not systematically try to sound like they are from elsewhere. In fact, more often it is the rural speakers who tend to make a conscious effort to sound more citified. So how did NYCE end up with the iconic features of its pronunciation, and why did it end up getting such a bad rap? According to sociolinguist Michael Newman, “New York dialect, like the city itself, serves as a kind of counterpoint to mainstream Anglo America…. The key to understanding the disparagement of New York pronunciations is similarly that they symbolize lack of integration into the American mainstream, and so being stuck in the working class (Newman, 2014).”
As a phonetician, I know that speech sounds have a physical reality independent of their social connotations. All sounds are just disturbances of air, so no objective reason exists for preferring one over another. But as an NYCE speaker, I know that every final “r” I fail to pronounce provides further evidence in deciding the case of whether I am better fit to rule or fit to serve. Like our relative valuation of wine, cars and designer handbags, the origin of our aesthetic judgments on speech can usually be revealed by “following the money.” Eliza Doolittle, who sells flowers in the market, speaks an “English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days,” while Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby’s unattainable princess, has a voice that is “full of money… That was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.” Similarly, closer examination of the four stigmatized NYCE pronunciations in Labov’s 1966 study reveals that it is their association with unassimilated, immigrant speakers and lower-SES ethnic groups that has marked them as socially undesirable. These features include: 1. exaggerated raising and roundness of the [aw] vowel in “cawfee”; 2. the “short-a split”, which makes “back” and “bag” (pronounced beh-ug) have different vowel sounds; 3. absence of medial/final “r”, so that “fourth floor” sounds more like “fawt flaw”; and “th-stopping,” which turns “these” into “dese” and “with” into “wit.”
The “cawfee” vowel found its way into mainstream American culture through the Saturday Night Live skit “Cawfee Tawk,” in which Mike Meyers played Linda Richman, the quintessential outer-borough Jewish housewife. Decked out in a glittery sweater, self-consciously patting her huge, lacquered helmet of hair, Linda began each show with: “Welcome to Cawfee Tawk. We have cawfee. We tawk. No big whoop.” In NYCE, the “cawfee” vowel is pronounced with the tongue higher than in most [aw] vowels, with the tongue further forward and with more rounded lips. Some speakers add an “uh” to the offglide of this vowel, which makes it sound more like “caw-uh-fee.” A recent study of New Yorkers’ own attitudes toward NYCE found that this sound very strongly evokes “stereotypes of working-class speech captured in the popular term ‘Brooklynese’…. Brooklyn is called on as a proxy for the ‘outer boroughs’ [Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island]. Most New Yorkers associate the outer borough locations with stereotypical working-class speech (Becker, 2014).”
The “short-a split”, which pulls apart the vowels in “gap” [gæp] and “gas” [geəs], once covered the entire Mid-Atlantic region. Variations on this split, as well as the raised [ᴐ], can still be heard in the lower-prestige dialects spoken in Philadelphia and Baltimore. A similarly-structured short-a split is also found in the southern half of England, which suggests that both the short-a split and the raised [ᴐ] have a common ancestor in a dialect that travelled to the U.S. from England in the 19th century. In the U.K., the short-a split is seen as simply a regional variation with no particular social significance.
In NYCE, however, the most distinct short-a split is made by speakers of Italian heritage, and the highest raising of the [ᴐ] vowel is produced by Jewish women. Becker (2014) characterizes speakers’ desire to neutralize these pronunciations as a form of “ethnic distancing.” Younger speakers may be making a conscious effort to suppress those vowels to avoid being identified as members of a particular ethnic group, so that they can blend more easily into mainstream Anglo society. My own experience bites down on the uncomfortable grain of truth in that theory. Working as a waitress in a neighborhood coffee shop when I was a teenager, I remember cringing at the sight of a big-haired cugette4 Urban Dictionary defines “cugette” as “an Italian-American woman, typically from NYC’s outer boroughs, whose clothing is far too tight, hair is way too big, and who uses so much make-up that she looks like a different person without it.” customer, who pointed a long, painted talon in my direction and asked me for “a glee-uhs of waw-duh.” Walking away from her table, I caught myself thinking “Please, God. Please don’t let me sound like that.”
Pronunciation of medial and final ‘r’ divides dialects of English into the categories “rhotic” (r-ful) and “non-rhotic” (r-less). For this feature, the prestige effect is reversed on the other side of the pond: the rhotic dialects of U.K. English tend to be lower in social prestige than their non-rhotic counterparts. New York speakers’ loss of final r started in the 1800s among the upper classes, as an imitation of the higher-prestige dialects of England. After World War II, rhotic pronunciation became the prestige norm throughout the United States, and what was once the upper-class pronunciation was perceived as “common”. Three reasons have been proposed for this linguistic reversal of fortune: the loss of Britain’s imperial status; mainstreaming of the rhotic American accent typically found in the mid-west and on the west coast; and post-war migrations of rhotic speakers to New York from other dialect areas of the U.S. (Labov, 2006).
Stock phrases like “dese, dem and dose” or “to hell wit’ you” are often included in imitations of NYCE. Both are examples of “th-stopping”, which changes the initial sound in “the” to “d” and the final sound in “with” to “t”. Its origins in NYCE have been anecdotally attributed to the influence of Irish, Polish and Italian immigrants. Th-stopping is generally produced by a “substrate effect,” — interference from the sound systems of the other languages in a speaker’s repertoire. Speakers whose native or dominant language does not contain those sounds perceive them to be members of the closest sound categories that do exist in their own language, usually [d] and [t]. Th-stopping also occurs in many varieties of post-colonial English, whose sound systems quite naturally reflect their history of contact with other languages. In Singapore English, “like that” has been condensed and fused into the maximally efficient “liedat.” And a 2001 documentary on the unfortunate relationship between Jamaica and the World Bank exploited the homophony in its title “Life and Debt.”
“Yat,” an inner-city New Orleans dialect named for its greeting “Where y’at?” shares all four of Labov’s features, along with their social stigma. Born in a port city not unlike New York, the Yat dialect is a stew made with similar ingredients: an influx of 19th-century Irish, German, and Italian immigrant workers. And Yat is also on its way out; remaining speakers live in traditionally blue-collar, white parishes of New Orleans like the Ninth Ward and Irish Channel. In the documentary “American Tongues,” two young women sitting on their porch in the Ninth Ward shared their opinion of their native dialect. The first one said: “I mean, it SOUNDS ignorant. Aww, come on. Dese people hearin’ dis stuff thinkin’: ‘What’s dat gawbige comin oudda they damn mowz?’ They gonna say: “Look at dem two beautiful girls. If they’d shut their mouths, they’d be great.” The other chimed in: “Oh, everybody tells us dat. If you keep your mouth shut, you’d be perfect.”
As for my own accent, Henry Higgins seems to have fallen down on the job: I’m still the phonetician who hasn’t taught herself to speak, irrespective of the social cost. Over the years, I grew tired of continuously patching the leaky boat of an aspirational dialect, which takes about as much energy as remembering to answer to your alias in a witness protection program. I decided to give up and just swallow the occasional joke at my expense. Since I haven’t lived in New York for many years, the strength of my accent tends to vary depending on my level of excitement and how much I’ve had to drink. Ironically, I’ve recently been accused of “putting it on for effect.” What do they think I am, a magician?
Twenty years ago, I was teaching Linguistics at the City University of New York, which is full of aspirational students of all ethnicities. When students asked me for advice on how to “correct” their New York accents, I told them everything that I’ve just told you. Feeling very magnanimous and wise, I added that if they presented themselves with confidence, no one would care about their accents. Instead, people would focus on the content of their speech. Very few of them were satisfied with this response, and they shot back: “Easy for you to say.”
Not for nothin’, but they did have a point.
Becker, K. (2014). Linguistic repertoire and ethnic identity in New York City. Language & Communication, 35, 43-54.
Bonfiglio, T. P. (2010). Race and the rise of standard American (Vol. 7). Walter de Gruyter.
Labov, W. (2006). The social stratification of English in New York city. Cambridge University Press.
Newman, M. (2014). New York City English (Vol. 10). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG.
Tanya Visceglia is a recovering academic and freelance editor/translator living in Taipei. After graduating with a PhD in Linguistics from the City University of New York, she taught Linguistics at the university level for ten years in Taiwan. Her research has received funding from the National Science Foundation and the Chang Ching Guo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange. Tanya’s non-academic writing blends sociolinguistic observations with lived and shared experience. She has recently completed Shelter In Another Place, a collection of essays on the language/life interface in Taiwan.