Matt Flegenheimer, "A Voice of New York’s Streets, Saying That It’s Safe to Wawk" (New York Times, 7/7/2012):
In a city increasingly conditioned to the automated droning of public address systems, GPS guides and disembodied cellphone sages, Dennis Ferrara stands out, precisely because he seems to fit right in. Mr. Ferrara, 55, the supervisor electrician for the city’s Transportation Department, provides the audio recording at 15 intersections for the department’s so-called accessible pedestrian signals, designed to help people with limited sight cross the street safely.
And for pedestrians at some of New York’s busiest crossings — in Downtown Brooklyn and the Flatiron district of Manhattan, along a main road in Astoria, Queens, and at an oddly shaped junction on Staten Island — he is the distinctly localized soundtrack of the streets.
In Mr. Ferrara’s New York, “Avenue” takes on an “h” or three. The “a” in “Jay Street” is drawn out. And at least one “w” is appended to the first syllable of “Broadway.”
“I grew up in Brooklyn,” Mr. Ferrara said, in a bit of self-diagnosis. “What can I tell ya?”
The article is accompanied by a video (embedded below), where you can hear Mr. Ferrara's voice for yourself. The Times sent audio samples to an expert:
Kara Becker, an assistant professor of linguistics at Reed College in Oregon, who studied the New York City accent as a Ph.D. student at New York University, said Mr. Ferrara exhibited at least two of three features commonly associated with the accent, based on her analysis of four recordings sent to her.
One marker was what Dr. Becker called the “coffee vowel” — pronounced “cawfee” and named, informally, for the recurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch “Coffee Talk” from the 1990s. (Mike Myers played the talk show’s host, a woman named Linda Richman, who idolized Barbra Streisand and often became “verklempt.”)
The other is a raised pronunciation of the “a” in words like “avenue.” A third signature feature, the dropping of “r” sounds — as in “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” the Allan Sherman song from a half-century ago — is less detectable in Mr. Ferrara’s recordings, Dr. Becker said.
Despite popular opinion, there is no consistent evidence for differences in accents among boroughs, Dr. Becker said. “What we think is going on is people are using borough as a proxy for some other social stratification of the accent,” she said. “Class, level of education, occupation, things like that.”
This isn't the first time the Metro section of the Times has stepped into these waters — see, for instance, the 2010 article "Unlearning to Tawk Like a New Yorker" by Sam Roberts (discussed by Mark Liberman here). A hallmark of such stories is the use of phonetic respellings to indicate dialect features of NYC English — most commonly, "aw" for the tensed version of the low back /ɔ/ vowel: tawk for talk, wawk for walk, cawfee for coffee. The use of "aw" in these words should be a fair enough pronunciation guide for most readers. But this convention would not work so well for speakers with the so-called cot-caught merger. (Some related discussion in my post, "Blawgs, phonolawgically speaking.")
More problematic, though, is the representation of New York City's "short-a split," in which the /æ/ vowel in some words (such as avenue) undergoes raising and tensing, while in other words (such as average) it remains unchanged. (See Kara Becker and Amy Wong's paper "The Short-a System of New York City English: An Update" for more.) The tense vowel would be represented in IPA as [eə] or [ɪə], but phonetic respelling is more difficult: "ayuh" as in ayuhvenue? The New York Times article goes for the rather unedifying aahhhvenue, which helps to indicate vowel length (these tense vowels do tend to be lengthened) but not much else.
Even stranger, these imperfect pronunciation spellings are treated as if they're the pronunciations themselves: for Mr. Ferrara, "'Avenue' takes on an 'h' or three" and "at least one 'w' is appended to the first syllable of 'Broadway.'" Treating orthography as a stand-in for pronunciation has a long tradition in dialectal representations — consider the expression "g-dropping" to describe the substitution of /ɪn/ for /ɪŋ/, based on the way that this is represented orthographically (-in' for -ing). But that only really works for well-established respellings. To say that "at least one 'w' is appended to the first syllable of 'Broadway'" only makes sense if you're thinking of the "aw" of cawfee (can you spell Broadway as Broawdway?). And the "'h' or three" that we're supposed to imagine in Mr. Ferrara's avenue is even more of a head-scratcher. On first read, I was wondering where he'd be adding aspiration. Fortunately, in the age of multimedia journalism, we can just listen to the actual pronunciations instead of relying on perplexing spellings.