When I was in high school, my friends and I ate at a diner, and the waitress asked us, “Where you all from?” and it was like, “down the block,” like we were tourists even at home. It was because of the way we spoke, none of us with particularly thick Brooklyn accents, one more thing that marked us as different from our peers. When I was a younger kid, like most others from Brooklyn (at least the ones of European descent), I spoke with a low back chain shift, split my short a’s and threw rhoticity to the wind, mashing up features of Italian, Irish and Jewish speech: I tawked maw like ev’rybutty eltz. But as I entered adolescence I shed that voice for something a little less regionally specific—maybe because I watched too much television, maybe because my parents watched too much television—and by college I made the conscious choice to lose what little remained: I started to take playing music more seriously and wanted to sing with perfect enunciation like crooners did before the war, pronouncing all my r’s and vowel sounds in a manner of which Henry Higgins would have approved.
I also didn’t want to sound stupid, which sounds stupid now: who gives a shit how you talk, especially in New York, which I never planned to leave? Why wouldn’t I celebrate my place of origin and the particular mode of speech that comes with it, just like everything else you get as a native: the know-how to walk down a street or ignore a homeless person. But though the New York accent is something so many New Yorkers share, it’s not something we generally respect: we don’t think of NYU professors, hedge-fund managers, or Broadway directors. We haven’t elected a mayor with a real New Yawk accent since Koch; de Blasio has the least New York voice out of everyone who ran this year.
But the truth is you can never really lose your New York accent. My actress aunt was once identified as a New Yorker by a director because she pronounced tree like chree. (Who knew everyone didn’t do that?) And it’s not just pronunciation: a native friend relates that in a writing class she’s taking, her classmates were mystified by the sentence “she had stopped waiting for me to walk home together.” (Even if you could master every one of these tells, then one day you have a few too many glasses of wine and it just slips out; by the end of a nice dinner, especially if other family is around, my mother sounds like she’s back in the Sunset Park schoolyard. Sometimes even I slip into New Yorkese, hearing myself doing it, unable to stop it.) “You might think you sound like Keira Knightley,” native Brooklynite and Gothamist publisher Jake Dobkin wrote last week, “but everyone who’s listening is still hearing Fran Drescher.” But the New Yorkers don’t hear minor details like “chry.” They still want to know where I’m from.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart