A Sign on the Belt Parkway
A Regional Dialect is Changing
The New York accent, sometimes called the Brooklyn accent or Brooklynese, is fast melding into a general American accent. We are even starting to pronounce our Rs. New Yawk is becoming, well, New York. Linguists will wrestle with this subject for years, but I blame it on television. We are all starting to talk like anchor people, with that indistinguishable American way of speaking. Our regional dialects are being replaced by Matt Lauer and all of the Midwestern sounding folks on the evening news.
I grew up in New York City. My father immigrated from Ireland and my mother’s parents were German and Irish. Ours was not a household of heavy New York accents, although I’m sure you can tell I’m from New York. I was always taught to pronounce my Rs and would get a fierce look if I tawked like a Bowery Boy.
There are pockets of resistance among New Yorkers against the assault on their native dialect. Congressman Cholly (Charlie) Rangel is a case in point. And then there is a legion of New Yorkers who are schooled in New Yawk Tawk. New York City police officers, before they graduate from the police academy, are sent to a secret undisclosed location where they are taught to speak like cops. They are instructed to say things like “alleged poipetrata,” and “Putcha hands on the car and spredga legs.”
Tawking like a New Yawka crosses all ethnic and educational levels. The Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman spoke with a charming New York accent, as many the world over saw in his televised testimony about the Challenger disaster.
The old New York accent has a strong pull even on those from other places. The great baseball manager Casey Stengel (“Don’t nobody here know how to play this game?”) was born in Kansas City, Missouri. Perhaps his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers left an indelible New York lilt to his speech. Yogi Berra (“It ain’t ova till it’s ova”) was born in St Louis, Missouri. He joined the New York Yankees at the age of 21, and his accent never looked back.
New Yawk Tawk
How Old is a Yoot?
A New York Accent Lexicon
Today, the New York accent still exists, but in a watered down version. The old New York accent was almost a separate dialect, and a non New Yorker would benefit from an interpreter. The following is a glossary of great old New York words and their pronunciations.
Auffissa – A cop. This is the terminology of choice when trying to talk yourself out of a ticket.
Cudga, Could you, as in “Cudga hand me that do-hickey.”
Do-hickey – See thingamajig.
Erl – oil.
Fadda. Father. Actor Tony Curtis, born in the Bronx, is reputed to have said in the movie The Prince Who Was a Thief, “Yonda lies the castle of my fadda.” See mudda.
Fuggeddaboutit. Forget about it. The word doesn’t really mean “forget about it.” As used in New York it means: “Boy, you can say that again,” or “I completely agree.” It can also be used as an expression of delight, as when your spouse gives you a new Ipad, or of dismay, when you drop your new Ipad on a concrete patio. Fuggeddaboutit.
Haya Doin – Hello or How are you doing. An answer is neither expected nor desired. The only proper response to ‘Haya doin?” is “Haya doin?”
I’m outa here. Good bye.
Jete? Nope. Ju? – “Did you eat?” “No, did you?”
Joisy – New Jersey.
Lawn Guyland – Long Island. Although the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens are a geographic part of Long Island, proper New York usage dictates that Long Island refers only to the two eastern counties of Nassau and Suffolk. Go figga.
Mudda. Mother. See fadda.
Paypa – Paper, as in terlet paypa.
Pernt – Point. College Point in Queens is affectionately known as “de Pernt.”
Sapnin – “What’s happening?” See Haya doin.
Terlet – A toilet. Never pour erl in the terlet.
Thingamajig – A device of some sort, also known as a do-hickey.
The City – The borough of Manhattan. If you are from one of the other four boroughs, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens or Staten Island, when you go to “the City” you are going to Manhattan, even though the other boroughs are all part of New York City.
The Bronx – Never Bronx. The Bronx is one of few locations anywhere that gets an article in front of its name. Oral history has it that the Bronx was once populated by the family of the Jacob Bronck estate. When one went there it was to visit the Broncks.
Watchamacallit – “What do you call that thing?” Some old New Yorkers liberally sprinkle their conversations with watchamcallit for no apparent reason, as in: “It’s a nice, watchamacallit, day.” In such usage the word watchamacallit loses any meaning and becomes a verbal pause like a comma.
Wherezat. Where is that? Alternate usage is “wherezat at?”
Yannah. Your honor. This is how Brooklyn lawyers address judges.
Yoot or Yute. A youth. Think Joe Pesci in My CousinVinny.
These examples are just a few of the wonderful ways New Yorkers communicate. The next time I have a beer with a cop, I shall add to the list.
Other Regional Dialects
New York isn’t the only place with a distinctive dialect. I used to live in Chicago (Chicagga). My favorite Chicagoism was the “funchrum.” Many private residences across the city were built with a separate room in the front of the house, a front room. Somehow the front room became the funchrum. If you want to hitch a ride from someone you don’t ask if you can come along, you say: “Take with.” And, of course, you root for da Bearss.
The south, of course, has a wonderful patois. A southerner can turn a one syllable word into two, as in “gree-its” (grits), or “Hey Bubbah, watch ee-is (this). The southern use of metaphor turns the language into sharp imagery. “I druther kiss a copperhead than watch the Yankees beat the Braves.”
The midwest is known for curious language idiosyncrasies. Michigan, for example, has different names for people depending on what part of the state they are from. Yoopers are from the upper peninsula and trolls are from the lower peninsula. A fellow writer on these pages has penned an excellent article on the Michigan accent.
The New England accent makes you yearn for lobsta chowda. How do you get theah from heah? A New Englander never parks a car, he “pahks the cah.” Life is never hard but hahd. From Maine to Rhode Island the New England accent lives on, but it too is becoming less distinct as the years go by.
America is a wonderful tapestry of regional language eccentricities. We used to be able to tell what region a person hailed from just by his or her accent, and, with practice, what part of a state. I fear that we are all starting to sound like the folks on the Six O’clock News.
Copyright ©2012 by Russell F. Moran