Monday, November 21, 2011

Sounding Off: the symbolic values of speaking and listening in the city

I usually hear New York before I see it. On the plane coming into the city, coming up the steps from the subway, and particularly emerging from Columbia’s immediate area and crossing into the surrounding city, I often find myself suddenly aware of one, a few, many, a waterfall of New York sounds and voices that signal to me things about where I am before I make a visual distinction of place. Which is why I found the following video entertaining and thought-provoking (if the video embed doesn't work, click here):

This video is an elaborate impression of the signs people send about themselves and their places through their voices. It demonstrates the several levels of linguistic analysis that are involved in instantly interpreting different accents in New York City, supposedly as a "native" New Yorker would hear them. There are phonological differences, in terms of the pronunciation of unique sounds within words, such as the “masticated vowels” in the Brooklyn accent, and in terms of the placement of stress on specific parts of the word, as in the punctuated first consonants heard in the Bronx accent. There is also the speed of speech, particularly evident in the Manhattan “fast-talker”, and cadence, as in the Brooklyn “sing-song” and the drawn-out, “nasally” Queens speaker. However, for each of the cases, the most significant point is that lifestyles, borough-specific cultural traits, and social attitudes are depicted as the causative factors behind different speaking styles. Although clearly intended to play lightly on classic borough stereotypes, a quick glance through the comments shows how strongly and widely these indices resonate, positively and negatively, with viewers.

Language, speech, and its associated forms and manners have long been a recognized site for signaling all kinds of anterior social information. To put a theoretical context to this, I turn to the rather well-known thoughts on language, symbolism and power of Bourdieu, for whom every act of speaking is also an act of positioning oneself, consciously or subconsciously within one’s social field (which in fact dictates the way in which you can carry out that act of positioning). How one speaks, as much as what one says, is an act of identity assertion, a process of articulating belonging or difference, and simultaneously claiming the authority to do so. He writes:

“Thus we know that properties such as voice setting (nasal, pharyngeal) and pronunciation (“accent”) offer better indices than syntax for identifying a speaker’s social class: we learn that the efficacy of a discourse, its power to convince, depends on the authority of the person who utters it, or, what amounts to the same thing, on his “accent” functioning as an index of authority. Thus the whole social structure is present in the interaction (and therefore the discourse): the material conditions of existence determine discourse through the linguistic production relations which they make possible and which they structure” (Bourdieu 1977: 653).

Accents (sounds, styles, forms, mannerisms of speech) are instantly meaningful to us because we recognize them by degrees of difference and sameness to not only our own accents, but to those of others operating across our social field(s). As such, they are symbolic of broader generalizations that we make about relative positions in those fields. Without delving further into the implications of his structural determinism here, I instead pose the issue of power and class relationships embedded in our interpretations of accents.

Bourdieu would see the stereotypes offered in explanation of the different borough accents as a reflection of the power struggles going on between social classes, and I do not dispute that the associations we make with the accents in the video reflect power dynamics past and present, but I think that this video also describes a site for positive identity claims. Through tongue-in-cheek stereotyping, the narrator bonds New Yorkers together through their idiosyncrasies of language; a local inverse of the perhaps now-clichéd observation by George Bernard Shaw that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

This discussion is of course easy to elaborate out of New York City itself and consider in the context of broader regional or interregional accent relationships. I find it particularly interesting, as a Midwesterner, that the Midwestern accent is often described as the lack of an accent, as I have always considered (as implied above) that accents within a shared language are all relative to each other and any prescribed norm is an illusion created by a dominant group and, these days, enforced by the power of the media. However, speech behavior and attitude towards accent is different; I find that I subconsciously assert my “accent,” such that it is, and other distinctive speech patterns, far more strongly when I find myself outside of the Midwest, and even more so when outside the country, in a place where my accent or language is not the dominant social norm. This behavior in its various forms as conscious and subconscious, individual and group, and within and between languages, has been well-noted by linguistic anthropologists, who see it as a reaction to the fear of one’s identity disappearing into homogeneity or conformity. For many indigenous groups throughout the world, for instance, it has become a form of activism against a history of oppression and exclusion that progressively eroded their languages; for this purpose, the Endangered Languages Alliance exists in New York City: To bring this back to the case of city accents, a quick Google search for “New York City accent” will bring up pages of articles whose headlines proclaim concern for the demise of the “traditional” or “working-class” accent of New York City in an era of globalized language and media, changing city demographics, and increasing gentrification. These urgently-worded concerns, as well as long debates about their relevance and accuracy according to individual experience of accents, have been going on for years: for instance, and In these instances, accent and language have become potent symbols of identity and resistance that are continuously reconstituted in their daily use, and in the processes of re-learning, recording, teaching, and even in some cases, rejecting them.

Although it is somewhat beyond the scope of this contribution to consider fully here, I would also like to include a link to this 2006 article, presents changing city accents in a particular group defined by class, gender, and age (middle and upper middle-class, female, young) with a series of meditations on causes and meanings of this change. I offer one excerpt: “Mr. Vaux, who conducted a survey of American dialects while teaching at Harvard, said that while the voice heard increasingly in New York was distinctive, it was not particular to the region. Trying to pinpoint what made it unique, Mr. Vaux crossed off nasality, which he says is what humans always mistakenly identify as different in foreign speech. He overlooked “like,” for which he said the speakers of Sanskrit also had a penchant” ( Dell Hymes, in his work on ethnographies of speaking, also looks to antiquity when describing the method of assigning social and cultural characteristics to particular speech patterns. He cites Plato’s description of Athenians, Spartans, and Cretan speech patterns: “The Athenian citizen is reputed among all the Hellenes to be a great talker, whereas Sparta is renowned for brevity, and the Cretans have more wit than words” (Plato Laws Book I, Preamble: 28; cited also in Hymes 1974: 35).

Clearly, speech patterns have a long history of carrying all kinds of symbolic baggage around with them, and our interpretation of this baggage may tell us more about where we identify ourselves relative to the speaker than about the speaker themself. In either case, the processes of change played out in the sounds of speaking continue to fascinate and compel us to interpret and evaluate them.

Works Cited
Bourdieu, Pierre, 1977. “The economics of linguistic exchanges.” Social Science Information 16: 645-668.
Hymes, Dell, 1974. Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Plato, “Laws” in The Dialogues of Plato. B. Jowett (Transl.). Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1873.


Anna Toledano said...

Very interesting post! With regard to the loss of accents, I can remember as a child (and still today, at times) my mom encouraging me to suppress only the elements of my Jersey accent that would seem "uneducated." I can't shake the glottal stops in "mitten," "kitten," etc. or the short "o" in "forest," "forehead," or "orange," among other tell-tale signs. The latter element of my speech patterns never seemed to pose the problem for her that the former lack of annunciation did, and I wonder why. While in some cases people might emphasize their accents in order to differentiate themselves, as you mention, I was told to do the opposite in order to blend in - but only selectively so, which I have always found curious. What might make one distinctive element of an accent sound "erudite" to us?

Rose said...

One aspect of accents I've always found interesting is that often they're much subtler than their stereotypes, if existent at all. For example, I'm also from New Jersey, but nobody's ever commented on me having a "Jersey accent," and when I do hear a generalization of such an accent, it's nothing like how I speak. There are classic NY accent stereotypes, such as the Brooklyn accent; however, I find that in terms of the accents of NY I can recognize those that are international (Chinese, African, Middle Eastern, Spanish) but don't have a discerning enough ear to differentiate between American New York inflections.

On an unrelated note I've always wondered if it's true that some people are so good with accents that they can name not your home country but your home town based on hearing you speak. I'm skeptical.

Alison said...

Interesting question Rose...I too am a bit skeptical in the States, but I definitely have seen people able to do it in the UK. Could be interesting to investigate why it might be more true there than here.

On a somewhat tangential note, I was recently introduced to this exhibit:

and I thought it was worth posting here, although it does not have to do with accents as such, it has to do with how cities sound, and how sound can transcend language, which is sort of what I was aiming to discuss, although I didn't quite get there. And it's thematically tied to the tagline of this blog, so there's that link as well.

Alison said...

Gah, wrong link. Here:

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