“You Talkin’ To Me? The Unruly History of New York English,” By E. J. White tells the story of New York English. It is as much about why New Yorkers talk the way they do as about how they talk.
A study of New York linguistics, told by someone who is a linguistics expert, it is not a dry, scholarly tome. Rather it is as lively as Brooklynese, told with Bugs Bunny insouciance and Archie Bunker confidence. The book opens up with a study of New Yorkers’ favorite obscenity. More than a term describing human reproduction, New Yorkers use it as an endearment, a qualifier, and an expression of respect. (Only in New York.)
Today the New York accent is a class marker. People who speak it are viewed as lower class; hustlers, tough wisecrackers who are after something. White reveals that same accent, in the early twentieth century, marked the speaker as a cultivated American, part of the elite. (Theodore Roosevelt spoke with a New York accent.) White traces how (and why) its demotion occurred. The flat Midwestern accent displaced chewy New York speaking as Standard American English during the rise of radio.
White also shows how the New York accent works, what makes it distinctive and how it evolves. She looks at its origins and its evolution. She also examines its impact on American society. Many New York expressions have become part of everyday language. Con man, phony, rinky-dink, bootlegger, swindle have New York origins. So do terms like bender, rush hour, and get-rich-quick.
She also shows the role played by New York’s music industry, both in New York and broader American culture. Everything from Tin Pan Alley to hip-hop emerged in New York, and was molded by its New York experience. White examines code-switching; changing between Standard American English and various New York vernaculars to identifying with or separating from the audiences being addressed.
For those interested, White provided a guide to the phonetic symbols she uses in the book. Using these you can follow along as you read and speak the New York pronunciations aloud. It turns the book into an entertaining participative exercise.
“You Talkin’ To Me?” is a fun and fascinating book. White has captured the spirit of New York in a captivating examination of American English.
“You Talkin’ To Me? The Unruly History of New York English,” By E. J. White, Oxford University Press, 2020, 320 pages, $19.95 (Hardcover), $15.30 (Audiobook), $9.99 (E-book)
*Mark Lardas is an engineer, freelance writer, historian and model-maker living in Texas. Mark posts on Ricochet as “Seawriter,” and is well-known for his regular and much appreciated reviews of books on all subjects. Of his reviews, he says “I have an unusual approach to reviewing books. I review books I feel merit a review. Each review is an opportunity to recommend a book. If I do not think a book is worth reading, I find another book to review.” His website is marklardas.com