Letters, We Get Letters.
From:     D. J. Waletzky
To:       Martin Nutt
Subject:  Re: Disappearing accents

On Fri, 2005-12-23 at 18:31 -0500, M_a_r_t_i_n_n_u_t_t___X_@_X__a_o_l_._c_o_m wrote:
In your page (Sunday, 12 Sep 2004 ) you state

The only country (to my knowledge, please correct me) that didn't build its TV networks this way is the United States, where television was invented.

Please see attachment.

That’s fascinating–I guess I was thinking about Philo Farnsworth, who invented cathode ray tubes in ’27. But there were definitely many previous and contributing inventions which made television as we know it today possible.

Soviet textbooks claimed the USSR invented both the television and the car, so suffice it to say that each nation has its own narrative of television’s invention. I guess in terms of tracing the impact of television (more about this in a bit), the commercial television system in use throughout the world today defiitely runs through Farnsworth’s CRT, if not begins with it.

All the same, I thank you sincerely for the correction; I always love when readers take the time to call me out on things I claim no authority over. =)

My real interest at the moment is regional accents. I've heard Brooklyn, and you reckon that there is Queens. What about the other boroughs? Can you identify them? What about say Austin, Texas?

What’s interesting about New York accents is that they have more to do with class than geographic origin. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for most of my life, and I can tell you that there are many different accents within New York City, but one would have great difficulty distinguishing, say, a working-class Bronx accent from a working-class Brooklyn accent today. Also, these accents have been changing over time; not to mention the fact that the ‘toid-n-toity-toid’ (i.e., 3rd and 33rd) accent has spread into the suburbs in the last generation, whereas a more Southern-inflected but still distinctly New York accent has sprung up here in the black populations who moved here from Jim Crow country since the 1960s.

That being said, however, I have noticed differences even between neighborhoods in New York; the Canarsie accent of my primary school appended an ‘r’ to words like ‘idea’ and removed it from the ends of words like ‘career.’ Having grown up across the borough in Prospect Heights, I used to make fun of my friends who spoke like that (Canarsie was mostly Jewish and Italian then) only to have them chide me for inflecting words like ‘while.’ I.e., I say “wahl” like a Southerner, (while they say “woyl,”) in the dialect of my neighborhood, which was mostly Southern and Caribbean black then. At the same time, we inflected the majority of our vowels and consonants similarly, though there was some variation. My school had students from all over Brooklyn, and the kids were either working or middle class.

These small differences aside, I can absolutely say that accents vary more by neighborhood and social class than by borough. The greatest interborough distinction you could draw would be between Manhattan (which skews towards middle- or upper-class) and the other boroughs of New York City (Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx or Staten Island).

As for the rest of the country, I can also testify that there is definitely a distinct accent for most metropoli in America, as well as generally regionalized groups–the Bostonian accent is as distinct from a Southern Drawl as it is from Cockney.

Any place as big, both geographically and population-wise, as the United States could be said to have ‘very few’ distinct accents. William Labov, Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg have a map with several maps and charts. There are not only over a dozen dialects but cyclic vowel shifts (one for the north and one for the south).

Someone pointed out, in reference to the piece I wrote about accents, that I discounted the phenomenon called ‘code-switching,’ which is the adoption of different accents based on different social situations. This is something all people, New Yorkers included do; they use not only a different vocabulary but different inflections and avoid certain sounds that they suspect would make them unintelligible or betray a working-class background. I actually do this in reverse when I get in a cab or go to a pizzeria; I use a more working class accent to show the person I’m dealing with I’m from here, and the reverse in business settings–something all New Yorkers do.

I’m no Professor Higgins, but did not notice many different, identifiable American accents (though Brooklyn was obvious). I understand that people are beginning to revise the once universally-held view that there were very few American accents, just as they're disappearing. The same thing has happened over here in England, though it has been happening longer, and like you, people blame Television (though my father used to blame Radio before that).

The point I was trying to make about television is that it is the most national medium today, as radio was during before WWII. But radio in America was more regional than television is today. What I was worrying about is the growth of the generalized Western-Midlands hybrid which television uses as a lingua franca as opposed to an organic dialect.


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