Back at that Brooklyn accent, the standard example is the pronunciation "Toidy- Toid and Toid" for the intersection of Thirty-third and Third streets. In truth, this particular "sound" is nearly extinct in New York. This sort of speech was so mercilessly parodied in movies, radio and TV that it came to be stigmatized as a badge of low breeding and lack of sophistication. Ironically, in an attempt to correct their pronunciation of "oi" in phrases like "Toidy-toid," many New Yorkers carried the process too far (a process linguists call "hypercorrection"). Today it's common to hear Brooklynites pronounce the word "toilet" as "terlet," and while you Bostonians may "boil" an egg, in Brooklyn they "berl" it.

— Evan Morris "Word Detective"

Early on in my career in the entertainment business, I was forced, against my will, to do the voices for radio commercials. This was merely because nobody else in the organization wanted to hear their own voice on-air (neiher did I - when I hear my own voice I sound waaay too nasal). The other candidates for this task all out-ranked me in one way or other on our organization's unwritten pecking order.

After the first two or three commercials, the director suggested that I attend some speech classes. This was in order to remove every vestige of "New York-speak" from my speech. Born in the borough of Brooklyn, raised in Queens and Long Island, I'd picked up the accent shared by nearly everyone I went to school with. At home, dad spoke just like I did. Mom, the elitist, had managed to completely eradicate any vestige of an accent and sounded, literally, like a woman who had gone to finishing school - gone wrong. She wasn't very good at it and had a habit of attempting to use big words but coming out with something silly, like Archie Bunker in All in the Family. Needless to say, mom was considered an odd bird by the rest of us. But I digress.

Speed up to dinner out with my boss (definitely a speaker of Brooklynese), long after I'd been doing weekly recordings of commercial announcements as well as telephone-loop announcements. After I'd ordered dessert, he said, "What's wrong with you? Why can't you say 'chaw-clate?' I protested, and said, I say, 'chocolate.' "No you don't ," he stressed, "you say 'choklit' - it's all that friggin' time you're spending in Connecticut! We'd also had a heated discussion about the difference between to "caul" someone on the telephone and to "call" them; of course, "call" sounds much too "Wonder Bread" and "caul" evokes good rye bread (and chopped liver) or perhaps just Bensonhurst where the men use more oil-based hair tonic (e.g., Hask, Brylcreem) per capita than anywhere else on earth.

Now, to contemporary times. When dealing with the folks up here in Connecticut, many ask me if I'm from Boston. "Nope, New Yawk born and bred," say I. Then I shudder to think that I sound like the trashy people from Roxbury, Massachusetts who're parodied on Saturday Night Live.

I relax into the speech pattern I'm comfortable with when I'm having fun, or I'm busy, or I'm agitated (positively or negatively). On the other hand, I still do radio and commercial voice-overs once in a while and *poof!* I suddenly sound like I should be delivering the evening news on a local network affiliate. Same for when I announce the shows at our club - my voice takes on a deep timbre, each syllable is clearly pronounced (and the sound processor and reverb hooked up to the microphone adds to the "pro" effect.)

New Year's Eve I was helping out in the bar - it was 2-3 persons deep and the folks were clamoring for service. The Brooklyn in me came out flagrantly. "Give dis beeah to dat guy ovah dare," "She ain't gonna have anothuh tuhkeeluh so help me Gawd. "The bathroom; go ovuh dere, left, left again and it's right in front a ya!"

Eventually, the bar calmed down and all patrons had gathered in the main room to dance, and await the drop of the ball (and their free champagne). I sat down at an empty table to listen to the music and five minutes later the barmaid came out to get me, on the verge of tears. She pointed out a foursome; two Polo-clad young men and two bimbos* in evening gowns with $200 haircuts. The barmaid screamed at them in her broken English; "he is not stupid. He's like my daddy to me; he is my boss. Don't you call him stupid!"

It turns out that all four of the patrons in question were bona-fide preppies (I mean, Miss Porter's or Kingswood-Oxford or the Kent School). The guys were cool enough; but the ladies had been over-served (or just couldn't handle champagne on top of a Mai Tai and had rather rudely asked for "Iced Teas" and assumed that at that hour of the evening my barmaid would have the sense to know that they meant the potent alcohol-laden concoction Long Island Iced Tea instead of real iced tea.) I asked the barmaid what was going on and she tearfully said "they said you talk stupid." I inquired as to the exact context. She said they said "the stupid-sounding guy who was in here before can probably make us what we want."

One of the guys at the table was gentleman enough to pull me aside and tell me that because I had a "New York accent" the girls thought I was the bar-back or a busboy or something, and certainly not the boss. He apologized profusely and offered money by way of apology (I refused it but asked him to tip the barmaid well). He was friendly enough, and as our conversation continued he said that the two bimbos* had agreed that I sounded "stupid" and therefore couldn't possibly have a position of any importance at the restaurant. I was compelled to come clean with this guy, on account of his candor, and told him that they weren't the only ones in my lifetime ever to assume that I was either under-educated, "rough around the edges" or just plain slow - because of my accent.

Exactly under what circumstances this has happened to me before I can't recall - but for one. It was a librarian; the reference librarian at the West Hartford, Connecticut Public Library. Now, I might be paranoid about the situation, but I was looking for a rhyming dictionary to help me with song lyrics. The librarian in question let me get as far as "I'm writing humorous lyrics to a song that's been written and I wonder if ..." she asked me to wait a moment. I waited patiently while she pulled a binder full of stock and bond information for the first customer in line behind me. Then she addressed the second. A question about an artist. She actually left her station and pulled two books and then assigned an internet terminal to the inquirer. Then she came back to me and huffed, "the dictionary is over there (pointing toward a huge Webster's Collegiate or OED on a podium) and there're a few more throughout the library." I explained that I needed to use a rhyming dictionary. "Oh, they don't circulate." She was about to turn tails and run when I explained that indeed I was aware that reference works don't circulate (and at that moment was tempted to say something about her blood not being able to circulate) but that I could make good use of the book right there, at a table conveniently placed right in front of her watchful gaze (lest I somehow override the security system and make away with her precious volume). She begrudgingly pulled the book and handed it over. Again, color me paranoid, but I'd hazard a guess that she thought that a guy who couldn't properly pronounce The Queen's English certainly couldn't write poetry that was worth anything. I'm sure that the fact that I had to write alternative song lyrics had, by then, completely escaped her.

*Forgive me for being sexist but these women really frosted my pumpkin!


As an aside, my Uncle Edmund suffered the same kind of prejudice (would that be "voice-ism?") after he retired. He was a New York City cop for 35 years. In his retirement, he wanted to expand his intellectual horizons. His interest was mathematics. He attended or audited courses at several Community Colleges. He purchased a microcomputer (I believe a Commodore 64) and gleefully began his trip through what I consider the hazardous maze of mathematical learning. Algebra, Trigonometry, Geometry, it all fascinated him; and he became quite good at it. However, he told me again and again about how professors and students alike couldn't quite get a handle on a rather obese man in his 60s who'd chased bad guys most of his life would suddenly become interested in a field pursued initially by people much younger than he. And he also related stories about contacting other mathematicians by telephone who gave him the same feeling when they encountered his "deese, dems and doze."

SOURCES USED FOR PREPARATION/BACKGROUND:

  • Word-Detective: http://www.word-detective.com/back-m.html (accessed 1/2/07)
  • ClassBrain: http://www.classbrain.com/artstate/publish/speech_accent_new_york_brooklyn.shtml (accessed 1/2/07) (Where you can hear a fine example of New-Yawk-speak).

This writeup was inspired by When people ask "Where are you from?" I have to think for a minute by iamkaym.

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