Unlearning an Accent

The New York accent to me is quintessentially American; it sounds to me like pastrami on rye bread, bagels, taxicabs, city sidewalks, book stores, baseball parks, thin-crust pizza, lines at the theater, and sidewalk stalls selling cheap jewelry and not-Kate-Spade handbags. I love just to listen to it. But, apparently, “’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.’”

Ah. Well that’s a shame. It’s not the way that I objectify the dialect, but on the other hand I would also argue that any kind of objectification tries to dismiss any desire the object might have to shift or re-constitute its identity–even if the objectification is apparently flattering (“Oh, but your long blonde hair was so beautiful!”). I’m not sure I like the result of all this, that the signs of a unique geographical and social identity must be edited out to allow for social or cultural movement. But then again, perhaps that’s easy for me to say. With a (largely) vanilla northeast U.S. accent, my speech usually doesn’t stand out.

It’s not just a desire to move out of the neighborhoods that softens the accent, the article notes, but also physical and cultural movement in:

That type of stereotypical accent, which survives mostly in black-and-white movies and television reruns, has been diluted by the influx of what linguists describe as Standard American English speakers from across the country, along with a decline in the city’s white working-class population, whose members tended to have some of the thickest accents.

The article includes a link to a phrase book from a 1938 city almanac (“Wahgoozidoo? Cynical dejection”). Since then, neighborhoods have become more porous and jobs are neither local or plentiful, as blue collar jobs once were. Globalization likes our dialects homogenized, like our cheese.

However nostalgic this is, though, dialects must be differentiating themselves today in media-saturated First World countries; language always will attempt to. Perhaps professional and technological dialects will become more prominent than geographical identities?


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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