Pandemic gives megaphone to New York accent

AP – Hey, they’re talkin’ here!

With New York City at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States (US) and its native-born among those offering crucial information to the nation in televised briefings, the New York accent has stepped up to the mic – or maybe the megaphone.

Holly Kelsey, for one, is charmed.

“I think it’s because my accent is so opposite from theirs, it’s intriguing to me,” said Kelsey, 59, of Denton, Texas, who’s been watching New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and top infectious disease specialist Dr Anthony Fauci, both sons of New York City.

Fauci’s science-based way of explaining the crisis at White House briefings has attracted untold num-bers of fans, and Cuomo’s news con-ferences have become must-see TV.

What matters most is what’s being said, of course, said Kelsey, who’s got a definite Texas tone to her own speech, but also, “I just like the way they speak”.

This file photo shows New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaking during a news conference in New York. PHOTO: AP

That hasn’t usually been the sentiment for the various fast-talking, final-letter-dropping, middle-vowel-stretching speech patterns of the five boroughs, often mocked in movies and television as the purview of miscreants and meatheads – and maybe a neurotic or two.

Researchers who have studied how the country’s various accents are perceived by those in other parts of the US have found when it comes to a New York sound, well, just fuggedaboutit.

“People opinion’s about accents are really opinions about the people who use those accents,” said Laurel MacKenzie, assistant professor of lin-guistics at New York University (NYU).

Studies have shown that “people around the country think New Yorkers sound aggressive”, she said. “Pretty much no matter where you go, people don’t like the New York accent.”

What? Archie Bunker and George Jefferson aggressive? Mona Lisa Vito? Oh, fine.

But in this frightening, chaotic moment, there’s been an appreciation for the straightforward, no-holds-barred approach to speaking of the likes of Cuomo and Fauci, and that may be changing perceptions, MacKenzie said.

“Where’s the fine line between aggressive and assertive?” she asked. “It’s the same qualities… People are seeing them in a more positive light than a negative one.”

Daniel Keough is one of those people. “In a crisis like this, it’s nice to have people speaking so bluntly,” said the 27-year-old San Jose, California, resident who grew up in Idaho and has spent time listening to Queens-born Cuomo and Brooklyn native Fauci.

“You listen when you hear very real numbers and stories coming from those voices,” Keough said.

Of course, there is no singular New York accent – there are variations that depend on factors like socio-economic status and ethnic group, said Gregory Guy, also a linguistics professor at NYU. And even among New Yorkers, it’s less common than it was in the middle part of the 20th Century, in part because of the mockery from non-New Yorkers. “The impact of this kind of stereotyping and stigma has led to dramatic change over the last 50 to 70 years,” he said.

But hold on, the New Yorkers would like to get a word in. They note that the accents may also evoke a directness and steadfastness commonly associated with the city and its dwellers – and that might be comforting in these uncertain times.

“One thing that gets associated with those accents is authenticity, there’s no filter there,” said Mike Mavrides, 52, who grew up in Queens but lives with his family in Brooklyn.

“New Yorkers are known for their grit and their hanging in there,” said Marty Brennan, 73, a Rockville Centre, New York, resident who grew up in Brooklyn. “Maybe the accent is a little reflective of that.”