to pursue the topic a little further: accents in NYC

Kenzie asks:

My mother was born and raised in New York City. She claims she can tell what block somebody grew up on based on their accent. I don’t have her Kreskin-like powers. (e.g. knowledge of when the fridge door opens when she isn’t in the room, knowing to the penny how much groceries will cost with tax even! If you throw miscellaneous things in the cart when she isn’t looking, etc.) I was wondering if accents really are that pronounced in NYC that her claim is valid? Is this just a New York thing, can people do the same in Chicago? Boston? Montreal isn’t the same that way; you can tell what city/ville a person is from, but neighbourhoods now are a horse of a different colour, they all start to blend after a while…

It depends to some degree on your mother’s generation, but yes, in general there is a lot of diversification in NYC that distinguishes people on the basis of neighborhood, ethnicity, socioeconomics, and religion. Those neighborhoods have been there for a long time in American terms, and for a long time there was very little mobility within the city. So your mom probably can tell quite a lot from an accent. But it’s a very complex topic. Have a look at the Telsur Project at Penn, that will give you an idea. There are links to work on NYC in particular, as well.

People have this idea that language is becoming more homogenized due to the media, but in fact the exact opposite is true. Language varieties over space (dialects, if you prefer) are becoming more distinct from one another in the United States. If you’re really interested and want to see a lot of maps, here’s a pdf of chapter eleven of the Phonological Atlas of the United States. Be warned that the discussion is highly technical and the maps take some studying, but they will give you an idea of the great range of language diversity in the U.S.

Oh and: there is a very, very distinct Chicago accent. A number of them, as a matter of fact.

11 Replies to “to pursue the topic a little further: accents in NYC”

  1. That’s a fast response time. I never thought that it might be a generational thing but it makes perfect sense now that you mention it. You were right about the links. Thank you for the information.

  2. People seem to think there are homogenized regional accents everywhere: “a Southern accent,” “a Rhode Island accent,” and so on. I grew up hearing the distinctive differences in accents, so moving to RI and (within a month or so) being able to pinpoint the differences between Greenwich, Aquidnick, Pawtucket, East Providence, and so on was just an extension of that. Took another month or so before I could pick out specific Providence accents: Armory District, Mount Pleasant, Federal Hill. If someone was a transplant it often threw me, though.

    But I’m especially amused to see this post because I just got back from shopping (in Austin Texas), and the woman helping me had the most gorgeous voice. I asked her if she was from coastal Mississippi, with that sultry down-in-the-throat soft accent. No. Apparently that’s an Austin accent, which I’d had yet to hear since 90% of my friends are transplants from Dallas, Houston, east Texas (with the twang), or even outside the state completely. But the Austin accent is remarkably like a Biloxi accent, if you remove the Mississippian tendency to put in three extra vowels on everything — I had to listen to her for several minutes before realizing that’s the sole distinction.

    I felt like a bad Southerner for having gotten an accent guess wrong, but I declare in my defense that I’ve never really had much exposure to Texas before. I think I should get another month before I start being quizzed on this stuff…

  3. sG — I should have raised the issue of variation over space in the south and the mythical “southern accent”. We northern types are really bad at recognizing even huge differences, say Virginia from Louisiana. It’s all southern to us.

    I have a friend from New Orleans, born and raised, who saw a production of The Little Foxes in Boston. Afterwards he said, “I don’t know what part of the south those people grew up in, but I can tell you it wan’t in the same family.”

    Apparently each of the actors was aiming for a different southern accent, and in part at least, succeeding.

  4. This reminds of the scene in some movie (sorry, the name is eluding me, but maybe someone else will know the one) where as a ‘party trick’ one of the characters will ask someone he has just met to tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood. After hearing their accent as they tell the story (regardless of the actual details of the story) he can pin-point where someone grew up &/or lived for a period of time. As someone who has lived up and down the midwest and has heard the differences in accents in Michigan, Chicago, northern Indiana, southern Indiana (and a bit of Kentucky), this scene always appealed to me.

  5. Okey Dokey. The references are great and I had fun listening to the oldest/older/old English pronunciations and looking at the geography maps of the dialects. But can I have a reference that’s a teensy tinsy bit dumbed down (or for that matter, a whole humongous lot dumbed down)? This is really fascinating stuff and I’d like to learn more, I just don’t want to suffer quite so much in the learning.

  6. asdfg–

    hmmm. Off the top of my head I can’t think of a reference like that. I’ll see if I can come up with something.

  7. There’s an online accent-reference hosted by George Mason University, which has recordings of people saying the same three phrases, in English; the speakers are from all over the country and world. It’s pretty amazing, and it’s just one recording after another. (Then again, GMU has students from 98 countries, so I wonder how many were culled from among its own ranks!)

    I’m not sure of the URL, but you could probably find it by searching at Mason’s site: — there’ll be a link in there somewhere, I’m sure, since they created, ran, and hosted the study.

  8. SG:I have been living in Austin, TX almost two years now and know what you mean. I have one friend who is originally from Houston, one from Dallas and one from Austin. Their accents are totally different. Austin, because it is a HUGE transplant city has a very watered down accent that really does sound a little bit like Biloxi, Mississippi. As a Detroiter, they are all three very amused by my different turns of phrase and accent.

  9. There is a chicago accent i know because i live in Chicago and ive been to other places out of IL and they sound different for example watch the blues brothers

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