August 3, 2010
A couple of years ago, I stumbled across an anonymous post on a blog in which the writer was talking about — of all people — me. The writer was musing over the fact that I had been laid off from my newspaper after 43 years. That’s neither here nor there, but I was interested in his description of me as a “raspy-voiced guy with a North Jersey accent.” I was not aware that I had an accent — North Jersey or otherwise. In fact, I’m not sure there is such a thing as one North Jersey accent, and I don’t hail from the Hudson River towns that are usually associated with “joisey” talk.
This came to mind yesterday when I was listening to a presentation on WNYC radio about the accents in New York. There was a segment on the Brian Lehrer Show — absent Brian Lehrer who, I suppose, was on vacation — featuring Heather Quinlan, a TV producer who is producing a documentary called “If These Knishes Could Talk” and Sam Chwat, a speech therapist or pathologist who, among other things, helps actors who need to alter their speech for specific roles.
For my money, this discussion didn’t live up to its promise. Perhaps one of the reasons was that — as one listener commented on the show’s web site — neither of the guests is a linguist. I was disappointed, because this subject has always interested me, and I listen very carefully to how people speak. I like National Public Radio, in fact, not only because of all the information it provides but because of the many accents. I like listening to the accents of speakers whose first language was something other than English, but I have a special fascination with the many ways in which native speakers use English.
There are two aspects of speech variations: pronunciations and choice of words. Word choice , I understand, can vary not only from one region of the country to another but within a single state. For example, the pasta known as penne is known in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, here in New Jersey, as “pencil points.” And I read a magazine article many years ago in which the writer claimed to demonstrate that submarine sandwiches are called by different names — subs, hoagies, grinders, or heroes — in different sections of this state.
I’m more interested in pronunciation. When I lived for a year at Penn State in central Pennsylvania, it was a regular smörgåsbord of accents, because the tens of thousands of students and hundreds of faculty came from all over the world to mix in with folks who lived in what was then an otherwise isolated area. My immediate neighbors were from Iran and North Carolina.
There’s no beating New York City, though, for feasting your ears on varieties of speech. One of my favorite moments in that respect occurred in an Italian bakery in lower Manhattan. While a friend and I were talking to the woman behind the counter, a man — evidently her husband — came from a back room and headed for the front door while pulling on his jacket. “Ungo empee stur,” he said to her over his shoulder. “Wonting?” (“I’m going to the A&P store. Want anything?”)
PBS has a fun exercise on its web site in which you can listen to various voices and try to place them by region on a map of the United States. To see it, click HERE.