New research says those drawn out ‘awws” and tough-talkin’ inflections of the New York accent may soon be something you hear only in the movies. While you may still hear variations of that accent across the five boroughs, that ‘New Yawk” drawl, like so many regional accents, is changing.
BY PAUL SMITH
Drop your bagel. Spit out your coffee. New research shows the New York accent– with its drawn out AWWWS and tough talkin’ associations – may soon be something we mostly hear in the movies. You can still hear variations of the accent across the five boroughs, but like so many American regional accents, it’s changing.
You can spot New Yorkers on screen right away: the accent is part of their characters. Like Olympia doo-caucus in 1988’s Working Girl. 25 years ago, Doo-caucus’s character was already a throwback, and that’s even truer now, says. Linguist Kara Becker, of Reed College. She spent the last couple of years in New York listening to how people talk. Becker focused her research between 14th Street and the Brooklyn Bridge.
“What we found on the lower east side was that a few features we associate with the New York City accent are not being used by groups we expect to be using them,” says Becker.
She’s talking about people under the age of 50. She says their vowel sounds are different from those of older generations.
Becker traces this shift to the World War II era. Before then, lots of people here spoke with a kind of New York accent—including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Roosevelt was born well-to-do in the Hudson Valley, and had what was considered an upper class accent. Becker says that after the war, the prestige of the New York accent began to wane. It became associated with working class people in popular culture. That’s when mass self-consciousness kicked in.
“It’s a place where we say there’s a high amount of linguistic insecurity meaning there are speakers who have New York accents who might seek out a dialect coach or make a real effort to lose their accent,” says Becker.
That’s what Queens native Jo Ann Smith did in the 70s, when she landed a job as a secretary at NBC. Soon after she got there, she had a heart to heart with her boss.
“I told her I was insecure that I didn’t have this college degree,” says Smith. “She said, ‘Oh I don’t have a college degree either. The most important thing for you to do is to read the New York Times every day and you must get rid of that New York accent. If you want to get ahead, you just got to get rid of it.’”
She took accent reduction lessons and her Queens drawl vanished. Back then she paid $20 per class, the equivalent of nearly $100 today.
Voice coaching is still a lucrative business, says Patricia Fletcher, who teaches from her home studio on the Upper East Side. Go see her for an accent exorcism and she’ll probably begin by working on your jaw.
Fletcher has a business to run, but she says eliminating an intrinsic part of someone’s personality can be heartbreaking.
She’s been a coach for so long, she can often tell what your voice sounds like just by staring at you on the subway. She says native New Yorkers have muscular jaws, but they’re active speakers in general. “The kind of stereotypical picture we have is a stereotype for a reason,” says Fletcher. “So, often the talking with their hands and being very muscular in the delivery.”
Lots of Fletcher’s clients are actors who want to sound like New Yorkers. Some of them already are. Once, actress Drea de Matteo, a Queens native, came to Fletcher to shake off her accent. But when she got cast as Adriana in the Sopranos, Fletcher helped her find it again.