As Josef Fruehwald pointed out, attitudes towards language often are proxy for the attitudes towards the people who speak those languages. This is a case of what John Earl Joseph termed “prestige transfer,” and it makes sense. If you have negative feelings about your interactions with a group of people – for example, if your typical interaction with them consists of them giving you unreasonable orders, or harassing you on the street – you will tend to associate those negative feelings with their speech. Conversely, if you associate their voices with good times or your aspirations for prosperity, you will tend to associate those positive feelings with their accents.
Unlike Scranton, I’ve actually been to Providence, and even tried coffee milk, but I don’t have a strong memory of the accent. My wife is from just over the state line in eastern Connecticut, though, so I have positive feelings about that accent. I remember when we were first dating and she told me over the phone that her cats were playing in boxes. That fronted short /a/ in “boxes” reminded me that New England and New York are in different dialect regions, no matter how much else we may have in common. She also doesn’t lower the “o” in “frog,” and says “are you done your dinner?”
This is part 6 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Philadelphia. Nextly: Minneapolis.
Science is objective, but scientists tend to like things they study; in a notable scene from the 2008 adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the characters emerge into a cave. One exclaims, “Diamonds!” another “Emeralds!” And then Trevor the geologist (played by Brendan Fraser) remarks, “Feldspar!”
It’s natural for geologists to delight in rocks, and it’s natural for linguists to delight in languages. This is why it’s not hard for me to come up with something nice to say about almost any accent.
Ah, Philadelphia, the gateway of the American Midland dialect! David Hackett Fischer tells us how Philadelphia was the landing point for the Quaker migration from the British Midlands to the Midwest, and also for the later Scotch-Irish migration from the Borderlands and Northern Ireland to the Appalachians and the Ozarks. My ancestors, the Dowdles, were part of that later migration. In my lifetime, several of my Jewish cousins from New York have moved to the area as well.
When I think “Philadelphia accent,” there’s one name that comes to mind, and that’s the Dead Milkmen. A friend gave me a tape of theirs in high school, and I was particularly intrigued by the boyish, melancholy voice of Joe “Jack Talcum” Genaro, who sang lead on a number of their songs, including their biggest hit, “Punk Rock Girl.”
I was fascinated by the accents of both Joe Jack and the band’s other lead singer, “Rodney Anonymous,” particularly what I would now refer to as the raising of the PRICE vowel (which you can hear in “wild” and “child”) and the fronting of the GOAT vowel (in “although” and “know”). These guys were from England? No, that’s just the Midland accent undergoing the same shift as in the southeast of England.
A few months ago I discovered this 2002 interview with Joe Jack, where he discusses what it was like to be a gay man in a macho punk band. What about the “Punk Rock Girl”? “With the Dead Milkmen I was collaborating with three guys who were not gay, so I did not feel comfortable writing anything from an obviously gay point of view. ‘Punk Rock Girl’ for instance was written with Dave [Blood], who sings backups.”
The late eighties was not a great time to be queer, especially in the punk scene. “I can honestly say that for part of the time with the Dead Milkmen I was making an effort to not be queer, though it did not work,” Joe Jack told Mark Prindle. When I was most listening to the Dead Milkmen I was also most conflicted about my own queerness, and it didn’t work with me either. I’m glad to know that Joe Jack Talcum made it through too. And just so you know he’s done other stuff, you can also hear him playing the Guitar Song.
This is part 5 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Pittsburgh. Nextly: Providence.
I think it was an important move for linguists to divorce our field from aesthetics. There can be a science of taste, but science itself is not the arbiter of taste. It is not the place of linguists to judge accents or languages. Just as biologists study animals and plants that many people consider repugnant, linguists may study words and phrases that alarm or disgust people.
That said, objectivity doesn’t mean you have to like everything. Linguists have the right to our own personal tastes about languages. For example, I think German can sound very cool at times, but there are other linguists who disagree with me, and that’s okay.
The Pittsburgh dialect, with its Northern Cities-shifted vowels, is pleasant enough, but what I really love about it is its grammar. They have their own second person plural pronoun, “yinz,” from “you ones” – it’s like our “you guys,” but shorter. (Some of my neighbors have “youse,” but I never heard it in my family.) Their “an ‘at” corresponds to our “and stuff.”
The best thing about the Pittsburgh dialect, though, is that they drop the useless “to be” from certain phrases, notably “that coat needs washed.” When I visited Pittsburgh, the friendly bus driver was chatting with me on the way in from the airport. We passed a bus stop with some people sitting on a bench, and she said, “Oh, they don’t want picked up.” I wish my dialect had that! Who needs that “to be,” anyway?
Musician and comedian Mark Eddie, a native of nearby Steubenville, Ohio, plays up all these features of the Pittsburgh dialect except the “needs washed” construction in an adaptation of “Downtown,” the song made famous by Petula Clark. There are a couple of objectionable lyrics – objectifying “Shadyside chicks” and referring to transgender people as “trannies” – but beyond those you see that there’s nothing mean in his teasing; you hear a real affection for Pittsburgh and its dialect.
This is part 4 of a series where I say nice things about all of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: New York City. Nextly: Philadelphia.
One thing I have to mention at this point: It’s okay to not like an accent. This is a matter of taste. You like what you like, and you dislike what you dislike. If you think an accent is ugly, or lovely, that’s completely your prerogative.
On the other hand, patterns of likes and dislikes can be telling. If all the accents you dislike are from cities, maybe you’ve got something against cities or the people who live in them.
New York City
This one is very personal for me. My family has lived in New York for over a hundred years. My grandfather talked about “turlet seats” and putting “earl” on his salad. I was born in New York City, and I live here now. Many of my close friends have New York accents. My son has one. I could write a book about this accent.
New York accents are used in movies and television as shorthand for thugs and con artists and Jewish Princesses. They’re used in cartoons for villains and comic relief (I’m lookin’ at you, Gilbert Gottfried). What’s worse, New Yorkers have internalized this hate, as William Labov documented extensively in his dissertation. Alan Chartock, in a pathetic display of this self-hate, regularly suggests that Andrew Cuomo will not win the presidency without taking “elocution lessons.”
My mom received a steady drip of criticism and mockery for her accent until one day she snapped and said to her boyfriend, “You know, I speak very good Bronx.” New Yorkers are smart, funny and creative. There are so many great New York voices, it’s hard to choose just one. Woody Allen, Isaac Asimov, Lenny Bruce, the Shangri-Las, Salt-n-Pepa, Paul Simon, Lou Reed and Alan Alda all come to mind. But for this post, I’m choosing Washington Heights’s own Lin-Manuel Miranda to represent the New York accent, teaching children about language on public television:
In his post about Gawker’s “America’s Ugliest Accent” series, Joseph Fruehwald notes, “Predictably, the kinds of accents and languages which get dumped on the most, and get branded the ‘ugliest,’ always wind up being spoken by socially disadvantaged people.” And that’s really the ugliest thing about this Gawker gimmick: it’s pretty much the epitome of punching down. In particular I noticed that while linguists find accents in cities, suburbs and the country, all the accents that Dayna Evans chose are urban accents. On the plus side, it means that we’ll be spared the racist comments about inbreeding and Deliverance that always pop up when rural Appalachian accents are mentioned. On the minus side, it means lots of racist comments about inner-city black people. Is it a way for Evans, a native of Leicester in the British Midlands, to impose English class-consciousness on the American people? Or just an effort to mimic the championship sports brackets, which are usually filled with teams named after cities?
I have to be honest with you: I’ve never been to Scranton, and I haven’t met too many people from there. Off the top of my head, the most famous people I’ve heard of from Scranton are Joe Biden and Jane Jacobs, who are both known for their ways with words. The right likes to portray Biden as a “gaffe machine,” in the words of Brian Williams, but he does have a certain wit and sass.
Even though I haven’t been to Scranton, I did go to college in Binghamton, about sixty miles to the north. From what I understand, the culture and language in the two cities are not that different. The area is influenced by both the Appalachian mountains and the Rust Belt. I had two classmates at Binghamton with two different accents. One sounded like most of the SUNY students who weren’t from the city or Long Island; the other could almost have come right out of a West Virginia farmhouse. These women were best friends, and they had grown up down the road from each other in a subdivision on the outskirts of Binghamton.
All that is a long way of saying that I don’t really know what a Scranton accent sounds like, but it can’t be that bad. I bet most of the people voting up Scranton for “Ugliest Accent” haven’t heard anyone other than the Vice President. And I don’t know what a small city like Scranton is doing on Gawker’s list of sixteen accents, while there’s no Dallas or Houston. I guess Evans didn’t want to mess with Texas.
Josef Fruehwald has some well-thought-out criticism of Gawker’s latest hate-fest, “America’s Ugliest Accent.” He concludes: “At the risk of coming off as a slacktivist, I’d encourage you all to be the change you want to see in the world, and say something nice about an accent today, even if it’s just your own.” I was actually thinking, as I looked at the Gawker bracket, how much I like some of these accents. So I’m going to try to say something nice about all sixteen of the ones they chose, with some of my thoughts about the whole shebang, and maybe throw in a few more accents at the end.
There are lots of voices you may hear when you think of a Boston accent: President Kennedy, Mayor Quimby, “Park the car in Harvard Yard.” I think of Philip from American Tongues, but mostly I think of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, also known as “Click and Clack, the Tappit Brothers,” from National Public Radio’s Car Talk. They are masters of the Boston accent, which is sort of a Bizarro version of my family’s New York accent with a lot of the same dropped “r”s, but we raise the “o”s in some places where they don’t, and they front the “a”s in some places where we don’t. It’s all good.
You might be one of those who think Tom and Ray are annoying, and their banter can be hard to listen to if you’re not in the mood for it. I suspect that for years someone has been editing in extra chuckles to pump up the jolly mood, and it’s unnecessary. You might dismiss them as a pair of know-nothing car mechanics with working-class accents, but they’re actually well-educated technophiles, and they do great things with language and sound. I don’t own a car, and I don’t much like cars, but I listened to their show regularly for years. Just their fake end credits, like Statistician Marge Innovera, are worth tuning in for. And they sound better in a Boston accent.