Demotic speech

From A. G. Sulzberger’s “City Room” column (“Sewer Alligators? A Legend’s Roots”) in the New York Times of November 24:

There was Teddy May, the colorful former superintendent of city sewers, working a mouthful of tobacco with what teeth he had left while spinning his implausible story.

And with him was Robert Daley, the writer, asking the questions that would give new life — and credibility — to one of the great city legends.

“I says to myself, ‘Them guys been drinking.'” Mr. May began.

“I’ll go down there,” he continued, “and prove to youse guys that there ain’t no alligators in my sewers.”

That conversation, on a Hell’s Kitchen stoop, about where giant reptiles patrolled the city sewers was made public 50 years ago in Mr. Daley’s 1959 book, “The World Beneath the City,” …

Daley reported May as having found “alligators averaging two feet long paddling serenely around the city’s sewers”. And so began the great Sewer Alligators urban legend. Who’dathunkit: fifty years already.

What’s linguistically interesting here is the representation of May’s demotic speech, Damon-Runyon-fashion. It sounds so New York. But in fact it’s not uniquely New Yorkish; the features represented here are almost all general demotic American, common to working-class speakers across a wide geographical and ethnic/racial expanse and enduring, at least in broad outlines, over fairly long periods of time.

[Side note: we don’t, of course, have any idea what May actually said to Daley, only the record of how Daley chose to transcribe this. May might well have said something transcribable (in ordinary orthography) as “Dem guys been drinkin'”, but Daley chose not to indicate these phonological features (or r-lessness) in his report. That would have no effect on my critique, though, since these features are widespread.]

Here I’m revisiting a topic of a 2004 Language Log posting, “The curious grammar of Ohio: The Local Color Illusion”, in which I looked at a reviewer’s claim that a set of short stories set mostly in eastern Ohio reflected the linguistic peculiarities of (largely working-class) speakers in the region. It turned out that the linguistic features represented in the stories, though certainly common in the speech of these people, are almost all widespread in the working class of the U.S. The reviewer was suffering from what I called

the Local Color Illusion, the impression that non-standard features, largely to be heard in the vernacular of the working class, in some area are what make the language of that area special, and colorful — this despite the fact that the non-standard features that are most likely to be noticed are those that are not particularly regional.

The features of vernacular New York City speech that Daley represented above were indeed frequent for such speakers, but they were (and still are) widespread elsewhere.

(My 2004 posting went on to speculate about the Local Color Illusion and its relationship to several bits of language ideology.)

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: