New Book 'You Talkin To Me?' Delves Into New York Accent
A new book from a Stony Brook University professor explores what makes the New York dialect special. It’s called "You Talkin’ To Me?: The Unruly History of New York English." WSHU’s Davis Dunavin spoke with the author, Elyse Graham, who writes under the pen name E.J. White.
White is from the West Coast. She said she first heard the New York way of speaking in person when she got off a plane at Newark Airport and overheard someone speaking what she calls "Brooklynese."
"I’m embarrassed to say this, but I was surprised. I did not think that the New York accent existed in real life. I thought it was made up for television," White said. "I apologize. That’s on me. It was a stupid thing for me to assume. But in my defense, every time you hear somebody on television talking with a New York accent, they’re a henchman. They’re not a person who exists in normal life. They’re like 'Sure, boss. I can get it for ya. But it’ll cost ya!'"
Davis Dunavin, WSHU:I have to admit, I’m from the South originally, and same thing, I thought it was just something that happened in movies. What is so special about the New York accent or the New York dialect? What’s the particular place it occupies in the landscape of American dialects?
EJW:New Yorkers, they have the reputation of being aggressive, interrupting, getting in your way, that sort of thing. Part of this is just stereotyping and the way they’re portrayed in the media, but part of it is a reflection of the way that... I use a phrase New York Nice. And it turns out that it’s a completely valid form of being polite. It’s just different. If you want to know whether a New Yorker is being nice to you, you have to think, "OK, is this person animated? Are they interrupting? Are they disagreeing with me, but in sort of a lighthearted way? Is their speech rapid fire? Are they talking over you?" It’s not the way that you would engage with someone in the South or the Midwest, so people outside of New York hear that and they don’t think it’s polite, they think it’s quite rude.”
DD:And I don’t know if that’s going to be validating to New Yorkers, or if they’re going to say, "oh, we’re not nice."
EJW:Yeah, it tilts. I teach a class on the history of the English language, and I have read to students a list of complaints that according to polls people in other states have about New Yorkers. They always assume that the complaints are compliments, that I’m writing a list of compliments on the board: "Yeah, that’s right, we tell it like it is."
DD:I wonder if you have any favorite movie moments — obviously, the book is called "You Talkin’ to Me" — any favorite movie moments or cultural moments that are connected to different forms of this accent?”
EJW:The New York accent is the accent of a lot of indelible characters in America’s cultural memory — I mean, Travis Bickle. I’ve actually looked at Robert De Niro’s papers, so I’ve read the script of "Taxi Driver" that Robert De Niro himself used. And he put in little notes in almost unreadable handwriting. About how his character was feeling, this and that. He never writes down notes about how his character should be talking. That’s because he’s from New York. He already knows this stuff.
DD: Another great example is "My Cousin Vinny" — where Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei’s New York accents are put side-by-side with deep Southern drawls for a fish-out-of-water comedic effect.
And White says there are a lot of words that have been added to the English language through New York speak. Words that would fit in well in those gangster movies from the '20s and '30s. Words like "cop" and "con man."
"The word "phony" is first attested in New York City, possibly because there were so many Irish guys on the police force. There’s an Irish word that’s extremely similar to that that means "ring," and there’s a certain con you can play with a fake ring. The word "sucker" is unfortunately first attested in Toronto. But New Yorkers made it famous."
E.J. White’s new book is called "You Talkin’ To Me?" She’s an English professor at Stony Brook University.