cover image You Talkin’ to Me?: The Unruly History of New York English

You Talkin’ to Me?: The Unruly History of New York English

E.J. White. . Oxford Univ., $19.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-19-065721-5

White, who teaches at Stony Brook University, debuts with an enjoyable work of popular linguistics. The book traces New York City’s phonetic history, including such trivia as how the “upgliding diphthong” that leads to “thirty” being pronounced as “toidy” was, at the beginning of the 20th century, a marker of upper-class speech (there are sound recordings of Teddy Roosevelt using that pronunciation), or how East Coast elites of a later period, such as that other famous Roosevelt, FDR, favored the nonrhotic, or “r-less,” pronunciation style originating in Southern England. Other chapters dig into different linguistic and cultural influences on city place names, and how it came to be that Midwestern speech replaced “New York English” as the “standard” American accent—White notes the oddity of a major cultural and financial center comparable to London, Paris, or Rome not defining standard speech for the rest of the country. White also covers gangster slang, the language of popular music, code switching between different language variants, and the relationship of accent to class. The result is a heartfelt tribute to, and insightful inquiry into, everyday speech in New York City. (May)