New Yorkers Now Pronounce Coffee Like Everyone Else

by BILLY GRAY · January 21, 2010

    Is Noo Yawk dead? The classic New York accent is, according to the Linguistic Society of America. What would Linda Richman do?

    Linguist William Labov recently returned to the Lower East Side, where he'd conducted a groundbreaking study in 1966 that analyzed the native New York accent in all its quirky "raised vowel" glory. He found that all those charming New Yorkisms ("cawfee" for "coffee," "dawg" for "dog," "fawth flaw" for "fourth floor") are going the way of the Jewish deli.

    And for once, it seems New Yorkers can't blame Midwestern transplants for the diminished singularity of their city. Natives are the worst offenders of all:

    "Older residents like Michael, born in 1933, still sound like New Yorkers when describing their mother's "sauce." But younger residents of Manhattan's Lower East Side, like 25-year-old Sam, did not pronounce "talk" and "cause" like their older neighbors, even though their families have lived in the neighborhood for several generations."

    Who, or what, can we blame? There's the great homogenizing force of TV, for one. (Although our beloved Jersey Shore hooligans have done their part to bring some of New York's finest butchered English into Kansas living rooms.) Then there's the movement of ethnic groups who once defined and lent peculiar dialects to neighborhoods like Little Italy, the LES and Yorkville from the old-time slums to the suburbs, making way for boring Americans and new immigrants who don't speak English at all. Along those lines, people are probably more attuned these days to the New York accent as a marker of social class. (You know, "fuggedaboutit" never made it as big on Park Avenue as in Bensonhurst.)

    But don't fret. All of us living in the city can do our part to keep New York-ese alive. A few examples: you wait "on line," not "in line"; a "pie" can refer to either pizza or apple, and proper pizza-sharing etiquette requires "going halves on a pie"; when ordering an obscenely large sandwich, you request a "hero," not a "sub" or "grinder" or "hoagie"; you sit on your "stoop," not on your "steps"; and when ordering coffee (ahem, cawfee) you know that a "regular" will include milk, and will not get you a black coffee as it does in the rest of America.

    As for the best NYC-specific way to call out New Yorkers who insist on diluting their New Yorkiness? A friend of mine from Montana always told me we deployed the word "Asshole!" with inimitable aplomb.