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Artillery Row Books

You talkin’ to me? Fuhgeddaboudit!

E. J. White’s book on the history of New York English is not the first on the subject, but it goes a long way in explaining the evolution of the city’s unique linguistics

New York, to quote Lou Reed, is a funny place: something between a circus and a sewer. So too is the city’s language, reflective not of the class-ridden artificiality of “received pronunciation” nor of any other take on the linguistic “what should be”, but driven unashamedly by the down and dirty “what is”.

To be of the city is to talk like the city. The visiting hick finds it rude, abrupt and noisy, but this is simply speech filtered through millions who are in a hurry and want to have themselves heard. It gets its own page in Wikipedia which notes, “The New York metropolitan accent is one of the most recognisable accents of the United States, largely due to its popular stereotypes and portrayal in radio, film, and television.”

The author largely sidesteps the history of New York slang

The detail differs — the London cockney’s lexis is not that of the Parisian titi nor of the Roman burino — but the givens are not that different. Some specifics of course are geared to the locality. Where London proffers the all-purpose and rarely meant “sorry”, New York’s term of choice is “fuck off”. Two old coins, useful but worn down beyond identity, and no longer anything like their original value. Like London’s cockney, New York’s home-grown speech is both identifiable and celebrated. Indeed, the book’s author, E. J. White, suggests that as an out-of-town immigrant it was appreciating the uses of “fuck off” that rendered her a true local.

Both forms are faded, but if rhyming slang is the shorthand for London’s speech patterns, then dem, dese and dose or the street address Toity-toid ‘n’ toid stands for New York City, with outposts beyond the bridges and tunnels. (Whatever you’ve heard, White assures us, there are no special locutions based in the Bronx, Queens or Staten Island: it’s all just New York).

This is far from the first book on New York English, nor its “unruly history”. In 1997 Irving J. Allen offered The City in Slang, a tour of the metropolis in the context of those terms that have been generated to display its various aspects. Some, like “skyscraper”, were borrowed from elsewhere (sailing ships), while others were pure localism: for instance, the smallest conceivable unit of time, the New York minute, a term first recorded in 1830.

The Gangs of New York, by Herbert Asbury, also offered a good deal of slang to those who looked. Meanwhile the fictioneers — Damon Runyon, Helen Green, Ring Lardner among many more who left the sticks to make it in the big town — interwove their urban fairy-tales with dollops of counter-language.

You Talkin’ To Me? puts a good deal of entertaining meat on the phonetic bones

Although slang plays its role – typically when White discusses the world of rap, at least in its East Coast manifestation, it is very much a walk-on. (The author ignores George Matsell, the chief of police and 300-pound “beastly bloated booby” and partner-in-crime Madame Restell, the city’s leading abortionist. Matsell’s Vocabulum or “Rogue’s Lexicon”, published in 1859, was the nation’s first slang dictionary.) She also sidesteps the brothel gossip-cum-blackmail sheets, known as the “flash press”, flourishing, albeit briefly, around the 1840s, which displayed a wide range of otherwise unrecorded slang.

You Talkin’ to Me? also tips its hat to linguistics, stripping down and explaining the city’s accent. This is all about rhotics (the way one pronounces – or does not pronounce – one’s R’s), or the short neutral vowel sound known as a schwa, and other phenomena most easily understood by those who know phonetics. For those who lack this skill, it is perhaps simpler to check out such New York writers as E. W. Townsend, whose Bronx tearaway Chimmie Fadden, would speak thus:

Say, you know me. When I useter sell poipers, wasn’t I a scrapper? Dat’s right, ain’t it? Was dere a kid on Park Row I didn’t do? Sure! Well, say, dis mornin’ I seed a loidy I know crossin’ de Bow’ry. See? Say, she’s a torrowbred, an’ dat goes. Say, do you know wot I’ve seed her done? I’ve seed her feedin’ dem kids wot gets free turk on Christmas by dose East Side missioners. She’s one of dem loidies wot comes down here an’ fixes up old women an’ kids coz dey likes it. Dat’s right.

Despite coming from Cleveland, Ohio, Townsend wrote a regular list of Fadden stories, all written in “Noo Yawk”. In a way, of course, Townsend and his peers fitted very much into the prevailing form of American humour: immigrant dialects of various sorts, whether the users came from America’s small towns or from the cities of Europe. Like London’s cockney, the New York accent and delivery displayed yet another dialect, this one very near to home.

YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?: The Unruly History of New York English by E. J. White (Oxford University Press, 2020) £14.99.

The problem with linguistics, other than for its devotees, is that it is, dare one suggest, not easily accessible. You Talkin’ To Me? puts a good deal of entertaining meat on the phonetic bones. Perhaps the most interesting appearance is of an extensive study of New York’s department stores. It appeared that everything changed according to where you were. On the ground floor, essentially set up for lookers rather than purchasers, and thus assumed to play host to the masses, salespeople tend to let their R’s slip and generally echo the lookie-loos. As one rose (socially, floor by floor) that changed. Customers who were paying out big sums expected (and received) service in tones that would not jar. It was, of course, code switching (in modern, racial contexts “talking white”), but it was considered a necessary part of one’s professional existence.

In the end, You Talkin’ To Me? is a book not so much about the language of a single city, but one that could be applied to a number of major urban areas. Invention of and a faculty in using them is very much the city’s gift, but not restricted to any one metropolis. If the accent means anything it works, like cockney, as an affirmation: in a world of the linguistically bland, the a-rhotic man is king. A form of upside-down self-promotion, what White terms “covert prestige . . . a tiny island of indifference to a standardising world”.

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