[lg policy] New York: Speech Therapy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 27 15:36:38 UTC 2010

January 24, 2010
The Medium
Speech Therapy

In 1966, William Labov, the father of sociolinguistics, discovered
that many people with New York accents — the stock Noo Yawk kind —
didn’t like the way they talked. It was kind of sad. Labov found
widespread “linguistic self-hatred,” he reported. People from New York
and New Jersey described their own speech as “distorted,” “sloppy” and
“horrible.” No wonder those great old accents came to be regarded as a
class giveaway, to be thrown over in the name of assimilation,
refinement and the acquisition of Newscaster English.
But that was the ’60s, back before the never-ending you-tawkin-t’me
aria was enshrined in movies like “Mean Streets,” “Saturday Night
Fever,” “Working Girl” and, of course, “Taxi Driver.” Before long,
people were consciously cultivating the once-despised dialect. Now an
extra-hammy version of the accent — which thrives in the New York City
area, including northern New Jersey — is a point of fighting pride,
most recently among the brawling bozos on MTV’s captivating and
incendiary reality show “Jersey Shore.”

The show, which MTV says chronicles the exploits of “the hottest,
tannest, craziest Guidos” in Seaside Heights, N.J., has been faulted
for perpetuating ethnic stereotypes (Domino’s Pizza pulled its ads;
the New Jersey Italian American Legislative Caucus called for the show
to be canceled), but the figures on “Jersey Shore” do much more than
passively perpetuate things. The cast members — Snooki, Sammi
Sweetheart, Pauly D, Angelina, Vinny, Ronnie, J-Woww and the Situation
— are, first and foremost, show folk. They analyze, refine and
exaggerate their personas so studiously that the whole series can be
seen as a behind-the-scenes with a vaudeville repertory company.

“A Guidette,” explains Sweetheart, referring to the kind of girl she
plays on the show, “takes really good care of themselves, has pretty
hair, cakes on makeup, has tan skin, wears the hottest heels.” As she
talks, we see her getting into character: every part of Sweetheart’s
identity — including her skin color, which on the show is not an
inborn marker of ethnicity but a badge of achievement (in the tanning
bed) — is the product of intense calculation. This includes her use of
“may” for “me,” a pronunciation that expresses female sexual egotism
in a way that (to this listener, anyhow) recalls Joan Jett, who
recorded “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll” in Syosset, N.Y. “He was with may,
yeah, may!”

Pauly D, a D.J. from Rhode Island who owns his own tanning bed, has a
credo that elegantly levels the distinction between values and
affectations: “It’s being Italian, it’s representing, family, friends,
tanning, gel.” But of course Pauly doesn’t say “tanning”; he drops the
g. And when he talks about his shellacked coif, he says something like
“heya” instead of “hair.” He approximates the New York accent, though
he’s from Johnston, R.I. “Representing” as Italian-American (a more
theatrical operation than merely “identifying” as something) requires
attention to dialect. Like the others on the show, Pauly is determined
to epitomize a cinematic type.

And that type inheres as much in a system of vowels as in a geographic
place. Many people who represent as Italian-American speak New
Yorkese, Labov told me, no matter where they live. Labov gave this
example: “In Philadelphia, an r-pronouncing city, there’s a certain
amount of r-lessness among Italian-Americans.” MTV’s effort to convene
a subculture — as opposed to dramatizing assimilation into TVland, as
it has long tried to do on “The Real World” and other reality shows —
has been provocative. Maybe instead of erasing longstanding regional
and social distinctions, television will help preserve them. In any
case, as Labov said on NPR a few years ago: “Whatever the influence of
the mass media are, it doesn’t affect the way we speak every day. And
the regional dialects of this country are getting more and more

Another linguist, Dominic Watt, a senior lecturer at the University of
York, has found in “Jersey Shore” an opportunity to bring a North
American angle to the work he does in England on the question of
“leveling versus resurgence of regional and social dialects.” In
England, in spite of some provincial accents having become “positively
cool,” he told me in an e-mail message, British English is turning
more homogeneous. But he doesn’t think TV is to blame for substantive
changes in the language. “When it comes to making changes in language
structure (sound system and grammar), TV appears in fact to be a very
poor channel of communication.”

Unless, perhaps, viewers are as self-conscious as the performers on
“Jersey Shore.” The “Jersey Shore” kids, after all, have in their
living room the iconic poster from “Scarface,” the widely quoted cult
film in which the Italian-American Al Pacino, playing the
Cuban-American Tony Montana, tells an interrogator that he learned to
speak English by listening to James Cagney. If you want to know what
Montana’s talking about, it’s easy to find on YouTube: a 1955 clip of
James Cagney teaching Ed Sullivan to do an impression . . . of James
Cagney. Cultivating and stylizing accents in order to stand out as
part of a subculture — to represent, in other words — may be as
American as the melting pot.

Points of Entry: This Week’s Recommendations


George Mason University’s Speech Accent Archive on the Web allows you
to click on maps of cities and hear local accents. For dialect fiends:
The awesome $730 multimedia “Atlas of North American English,” by
William Labov, et al.


As a man’s name used to denote an ethnic group, “Guido,” according to
the linguist Dominic Watt, can be compared with “ ‘Paddy’ for Irish
people, ‘Taffy’ for Welshmen, ‘Geordie’ for people from Newcastle.”
Newcastle? Clueless Yanks can find Watt’s work and more at


For a pure, unfailing and un-self-conscious New York accent, listen to
Burt Lancaster in Louis Malle's "Atlantic City" (1980).

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