Tawkin’ the tawk

An op-ed piece in the NYT on Monday (the 5th) by my old friend Michael Newman (who professes linguistics at Queens College and the Graduate Center of CUNY) entitled “Voters May Just Want to ‘Tawk’” (in print) and “How a New York Accent Can Help You Get Ahead” (on-line) and beginning:

Their partisans may be loath to admit it, but Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump do in fact share some common ground. There is of course their upstart, outsider image. Then they share a posture of forthrightness and candor. A third similarity is how they talk. Not what they say, but how they sound: Like they’re from New York.

Trump and Sanders

Newman cites the work of Deborah Tannen on conversational style:

New Yorkers tend to have a different conversational style than other Americans. New Yorkers usually favor being more direct. We speak over one another, particularly to show our engagement with what our interlocutor is saying. We like to tell long stories. And we don’t mind arguing as long as it is not too personal.

Back in 2012 I wrote about “Overlapping” in speech and associated stylistic features, citing Tannen on Sonia Sotomayor, referring to

what I’ve called “machine gun style,” the rat-tat-tat impression made on those who expect less directness, slower speech, and longer pauses between turns.

I added:

This high-involvement style is stereotypically associated with New Yorkers and Jews, but is more widespread than that. I use the style myself, in a (usually) muted variant, but didn’t realize that until I moved from the East Coast to the middle of Illinois, where the locals found my speech “rude” and “pushy”. Unsurprisingly, it’s most pronounced when I’m in a conversation with someone (like Tannen herself) who uses the style.

Now back to Newman:

Sociolinguists — scholars of language in society — call the way that forms of speech entail social meanings “indexicality.” A sound or a system of sounds, popularly called an accent, points to or indexes a particular social meaning. A basic example is dropping Rs, saying “coffee” with a raised aw vowel and producing Ts and Ds on the teeth rather than the alveolar ridge behind the teeth, which all index together a New York identity…The New York identity, in the case of a speaker like Mr. Trump or Mr. Sanders, in turn links to stereotypes of New Yorkers that exist in the culture, such as being frank and combative in speech.

… Voters might not want to hear from politicians at all, but for many, a stump speech is, it seems, more palatable in a New York accent.

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