Hey, they’re talkin’ here!
With New York City at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. and its native-born among those offering crucial information to the nation in televised briefings, the New York accent has stepped up to the mic — or maybe the megaphone.
Holly Kelsey, for one, is charmed.
“I think it’s because my accent is so opposite from theirs, it’s intriguing to me,” said Kelsey, 59, of Denton, Texas, who’s been watching New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and top infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, both sons of New York City.
Fauci’s science-based way of explaining the crisis at White House briefings has attracted untold numbers of fans, and Cuomo’s news conferences have become must-see TV.
What matters most is what’s being said, of course, said Kelsey, who’s got a definite Texas tone to her own speech, but also, “I just like the way they speak.”
That hasn’t usually been the sentiment for the various fast-talking, final-letter-dropping, middle-vowel-stretching speech patterns of the five boroughs, often mocked in movies and television as the purview of miscreants and meatheads — and maybe a neurotic or two.
Researchers who have studied how the country’s various accents are perceived by those in other parts of the U.S. have found when it comes to a New York sound, well, just fuggedaboutit.
“People opinion’s about accents are really opinions about the people who use those accents,” said Laurel MacKenzie, assistant professor of linguistics at New York University.
Studies have shown “people around the country think New Yorkers sound aggressive,” she said. “Pretty much no matter where you go, people don’t like the New York accent.”
What? Archie Bunker and George Jefferson aggressive? Mona Lisa Vito? Oh, fine.
But in this frightening, chaotic moment, there’s been an appreciation for the straightforward, no-holds-barred approach to speaking of the likes of Cuomo and Fauci, and that may be changing perceptions, MacKenzie said.
“Where’s the fine line between aggressive and assertive?” she asked. “It’s the same qualities. … People are seeing them in a more positive light than a negative one.”
Daniel Keough is one of those people. “In a crisis like this, it’s nice to have people speaking so bluntly,” said the 27-year-old San Jose, California, resident who grew up in Idaho and has spent time listening to Queens-born Cuomo and Brooklyn native Fauci.
“You listen when you hear very real numbers and stories coming from those voices,” Keough said.
Of course, there is no singular New York accent — there are variations that depend on factors like socioeconomic status and ethnic group, said Gregory Guy, also a linguistics professor at NYU. And even among New Yorkers, it’s less common than it was in the middle part of the 20th century, in part because of the mockery from non-New Yorkers.
“The impact of this kind of stereotyping and stigma has led to dramatic change over the last 50 to 70 years,” he said.
But hold on, the New Yorkers would like to get a word in. They note that the accents may also evoke a directness and steadfastness commonly associated with the city and its dwellers — and that might be comforting in these uncertain times.
“One thing that gets associated with those accents is authenticity, there’s no filter there,” said Mike Mavrides, 52, who grew up in Queens but lives with his family in Brooklyn.
“New Yorkers are known for their grit and their hanging in there,” said Marty Brennan, 73, a Rockville Centre, New York, resident who grew up in Brooklyn. “Maybe the accent is a little reflective of that.”
If New Yorkers are taking back their accent, Nico Heller is doing his part: He ran an online competition for the best one earlier this month.
“It soothes me. It makes me feel calm,” said Heller, 31, a filmmaker and “the self-proclaimed talent scout of New York.”
“I get anxious when I’m on a beach and in a typically peaceful environment,” he said. “I’m at ease when I’m amongst the chaos of New York City.”
Of course, these days with self-quarantining and social distancing as the orders of the day, it’s been harder to connect with the energy. So Heller urged native New Yorkers to showcase their quintessential New York accents on video.
There were hundreds of submissions, from everyday New Yorkers as well as some famous ones, including Alec Baldwin and Debi Mazar.
In her entry, Nicole Perlongo, who was eventually awarded best Brooklyn accent, was holding an iguana as she said, “You could tell I’m from New York just through my facial expressions,” and ended with the important question, “If you don’t use your hands when you talk, is it even a New York accent?”
Perlongo, 34, wasn’t always as comfortable with how she sounded, especially when others outside of her Brooklyn neighborhood teased her about it.
“People will look at you and talk to you in a way where you feel like they don’t think you’re that intelligent,” she said.
But these days, she embraces it, and can see why others would be drawn to it when they hear Cuomo and Fauci speak.
“New Yorkers are stereotyped as rude or a little abrasive, which we can be,” she acknowledged. But “the flip to that is there’s so much love in New York. We’re always willing to help each other out.”
Hajela has covered New York for The Associated Press for 20 years. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/dhajela.