New York observations: the accent is disappearing

January 21, 2012

Two months spent living in Manhattan last year and one of the great disappointments of that time was that … hardly anybody speaks with “New York” accents in New York anymore, at least not in Manhattan (you know what I mean: “cawfee” is coffee, and – my personal favourite – “Lawngeyeland” is Long Island).  Non-New Yorkers (and certainly Australians here in Australia) when hearing the words “New York” are fond of immediately imitating the thickest New York (Brooklyn-style) accent possible: “Nooo Yawk”.

Sure, except the accent’s going, going and soon to be gone, by 2015 or 2020, according to Columbia University linguists, partly because New Yorkers suffering from “linguistic insecurity”, says Kara Becker of Reed University.  It was not always thus:  while now the traditional New York accent is seen as the “second worst” in the United States (only the traditional southern drawl ranks lower), up until World War Two it was seen as very prestigious.  But social mores and demographic change (including the large number of people who have moved into Manhattan from elsewhere in the last twenty or so years) have made profound changes to local speech patterns.

This news made it into today’s The Australian (21 January 2012) with an article by Will Pavia (from The Times).  Interested in following this?  A new documentary by Heather Quinlan about the New York accent is called If These Knishes Could Talk was featured on the Channel 13 (New York) website in August 2011.

So if you are interested in hearing the “real” (or historic) New York, you will need to spend less time in Manhattan and lots more time in Brooklyn, and hurry.