Tawking the tawk, wawking the wawk

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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.



25 Comments

  1. Alan said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 8:38 pm

    I once read a comic — I think by Scott McCloud — that spelled the the New York “coffee” vowel the other way around: “What are you twokin’ about?” I suppose which one makes better eye-dialect depends on whether you hear the vowel as becoming more open or more closed.

    “Aahhhvenue” doesn’t seem to hit the mark. Heck, I’d go ahead and just write “eavenue”, and trust the context to prevent the first syllable being understood as an overhanging piece of roof. Here in northern-central Pennsylvania I’ve long since resigned myself to being addressed as Eälan.

  2. Peterk said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

    the phrase should be

    tawking the wawk, wawking the tawk

    your headline makes no sense

    [(bgz) Depends what sort of “sense” you’re going for. Expressions like “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” have been around since the early ’60s. Variations on this theme, with “talk the walk” or “walk the talk,” are newer. Some discussion on the American Dialect Society listserv here.]

  3. Ellen K. said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 9:29 pm

    AW to indicate a variant pronunciation of coffee, walk, etc, does not work for all of us who aren’t cot-caught mergered. I think this relates to update 2 in the “Blawgs, phonolawgically speaking” post linked above. I don’t have the cot-caught merger, but law (and other -aw words) has the same vowel as coffee, walk, etc. So those spellings don’t at all help me understand how the Brooklyn accent differs from mine, which I know it does. My accent, for whatever it’s worth, would be some combination of Chicago, St. Louis (suburbs) and Kansas City.

    After listening to the recording, the story seems to be that I do pronounce that particular vowel like him, but am not familiar with the accents that don’t. At least, not enough so for the respelling to make any sense to me on first read.

  4. David Donnell said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 9:46 pm

    That’s all fine. I only wish the PA-recording-lady on my M train to Queens would stop pronouncing the Dekalb stop as “dee-KAHLB”, and the Forest Ave stop with that damned Californian long O vowel!

  5. Anton Sherwood said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 10:23 pm

    Er, doesn’t coffee have /ɔ/ in the standard dialect?
    I’d describe the variant – if my memory of that Mike Myers routine is accurate – as breaking to /oə/.

    [(bgz) Yes, quite true — I meant to say the tensed version of the /ɔ/ vowel. I’ve corrected it.]

  6. Rod Johnson said,

    July 8, 2012 @ 11:05 pm

    I’m not sure what “the tensed version of the /ɔ/ vowel” is phonetically. (I can’t listen to the video right now without waking up my wife.) [oə], as Anton Sherwood says? One syllable or two?

    [(bgz) Sure, [oə] seems about right for Ferrara’s Broad(way) vowel. It’s an ingliding diphthong, one syllable.]

  7. Sili said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 1:03 am

    Treating orthography as a stand-in for pronunciation has a long tradition in dialectal representations […] But that only really works for well-established respellings.

    Not knowing what New Yorkers are supposed to sound like and being more attuned to British class markers, I assumed “‘Avenue’ takes on an ‘h’ or three” meant something like a very haitchy “Havenue” and “at least one ‘w’ is appended to the first syllable of ‘Broadway.'” is a Jonathan Ross-like “Bwoadway” (I’d missed the appended).

  8. Michael Newman said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 1:41 am

    The phonetic respellings are frustrating, but what’s the poor reporter to do? I suspect that the inability to render pronunciation for those who are IPA deprived is a major reason there is so little serious popular writing on dialect.

    I’m working on a book on NYC English now and the publisher wants to link sound files to the electronic edition. Hopefully, that will help make pronunciation more transparent for non-specialist readers. Other books in the series use both phonetic respellings and IPA, which I am doing too (but not for the tense short-A. I only use IPA there.)

  9. Pete said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 7:35 am

    Tawk (and wawk) is classic eye-dialect: it represents a completely standard pronunciations of the word talk in any accent.

    In fact without the context there would be no way of knowing that tawk was intended to represent NYC – it could just as easily be General American, Texan, AAVE, Cockney, upper-class English, Irish, Northern Irish, Scottish, Australian, Kiwi, or South African, all of which use that pronunciation.

  10. Brian T said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 8:14 am

    “‘Avenue’ takes on an ‘h’ or three” stopped me dead when I read it on Friday. My assumption was that the writer was aiming for “ahvehnhue,” and that seemed to sound less like Brooklynese and more like something uttered by Eliza Doolittle at the Embassy Ball.

  11. Dan Hemmens said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 8:23 am

    In fact without the context there would be no way of knowing that tawk was intended to represent NYC

    I’d go further actually – *with* context I still don’t understand how it’s supposed to represent a New York accent.

  12. Joe said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 9:07 am

    I might be wrong about this, but I thought that the reference to “w” in Broadway was a reference to the realization of /r/ as a labial dental approximant [ʋ] (in the first pronunciation of Broadway).

    It took me a while to figure out what was meant by /h/ in avenue. I know that Labov and others use use the notation /æh/ for that vowel sound (and English orthography does use an/h/ at the end of words that end in a short vowel, e.g., yeah, huh, etc.). I imagine the reporter must have seen it written but didn’t completely understand the point.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    To add to my comment above, I do here a difference between Mr. Ferrara’s Broadway (first syllable) and mine, but more length than quality. And much less marked, that is, must less distinct from mine, than a brahdway (low unrounded vowel) pronunciation would be. Which is how I assume it would be pronounced by someone for whom “brawdway doesn’t represent their own pronunciation. (Though I have only limited familiarity with east coast accents, so I could be missing something.)

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 10:16 am

    @Pete: I agree with you in general, but I’d say tawk is a non-classic example of eye dialect. A classic example is sez, where the non-standard spelling indicates a standard pronunciation but tells readers that the rest of the speaker’s pronunciation is non-standard or just seems appropriate to generally non-standard speech. Tawk uses a non-standard spelling that should indicate a standard pronunciation [*] but in this case indicates a non-standard pronunciation of that same word, the [oə] suggested above.

    Since the diphthong glides forward and might have lessening lip-rounding, as in the transcription above and in my attempts to imitate it, it does sound to me as if it has a /w/. I suspect that’s the origin of the “twokin'” that Alan quoted.

    @David Donnell: I think only people east of Pittsburgh or so pronounce “forest” with that hahrible “tomorrow” vowel. (Is there a map or something on the Internet? I tried briefly to find it under “orange class” and “Labov”.)

    * I take it that all native English speakers rhyme talk with gawk, though with so many Americans saying calm with an /l/, is anyone giving odds on the appearance of an /l/ in talk?

  15. Dan Lufkin said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 10:17 am

    A useful shibboleth for Noo Yoawk dialect is to distinguish between torch and twitch.

  16. Mark F. said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    The “aw” isn’t eye dialect in the same sense that “lissen” for “listen” is. “Tawk” is (in this context) meant to indicate a specific pronunciation, different from General American and characteristic of New York. Sure, nothing about “aw” leads one towards that particular pronunciation, which is why context (and a preexisting knowledge of NY accents) is needed. The “aw” in “How ’bout them Dawgs” (a rendering of a catch phrase associated to University of Georgia football) is an entirely different sound.

  17. Mark F. said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 11:30 am

    The “aw” isn’t eye dialect in the same sense that “lissen” for “listen” is. “Tawk” is (in this context) meant to indicate a specific pronunciation, different from General American and characteristic of New York. Sure, nothing about “aw” leads one towards that particular pronunciation, which is why context (and a preexisting knowledge of NY accents) is needed. The “aw” in “How ’bout them Dawgs” (a rendering of a catch phrase associated to University of Georgia football) is an entirely different sound.

  18. Rodger C said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 11:48 am

    I also pronounce walk and talk with l-coloring. This is not a new feature of AmE. I grew up saying that (WV, born 1948) and was always puzzled as a boy by assertions to the effect that talk rhymed with gawk.

  19. Mo said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    I wonder whether these sorts of newspaper statements are more easily understood by non-linguists. I feel like phonetic knowledge may sometimes actually obscure what they are talking about.

  20. Army1987 said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 2:17 pm

    I’d go with eahvenue (cf. yeah).

  21. Sili said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 2:26 pm

    The phonetic respellings are frustrating, but what’s the poor reporter to do?

    Expect their readers to educate themselves? We’re treated to tonnes of sports and finance reporting that unintelligible to the uninformed. Why does language have to be dumbed down?

  22. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 4:06 pm

    I’m in Chicago, where æ-tensing is also one of the most salient features of the local dialect, and I’ve given up on trying to find a respelling which will make any sense to the average reader. Writing ayuh, for instance, is likely to net you [əˈjʌ].

    But to address the content of the article for a moment, it warms my heart to hear that they’ve used a distinctive local voice for the recordings. One of the more subtle pleasures of my last visit to NYC was hearing the conductor say, “Stann cleah o’ da dooahs” when I boarded the subway. And one of my real disappointments with the Chicago Transit Authority is that when they decided to add recorded announcements to the trains some years back, they picked the most anodyne vocal actor they could find. How much better would it’ve been if they’d gotten one of Chicawguh’s famous sons to tahk da tahk instead? (Even better, a different voice for each line, so you’d never have to wonder which train you were on?)

  23. Pflaumbaum said,

    July 9, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

    In my experience, many of my fellow English English speakers don’t realise they’re non-rhotic. It takes them a while to grasp that they pronounce car differently in the phrases car mechanic and car engine. Interestingly, if you tell them to do an American accent, they’ll often successfully insert /r/ into words which lack it in their own accent; but they don’t necessarily consciously know that this is what they’re doing.

    They seem to regard their long vowels in words like hard and heard as constituting the ‘r’. And I suppose in a sense they’re right: the ‘r’ provides a clue in writing as to the pronunciation of the vowel. A further confusion is that the name of the letter r is pronounced /ɑː/ (except before a vowel). So often they end up insisting, “/hɑːd/ – there, you see, I did pronounce the /ɑː/!”

    I’m probably explaining it badly to them, but I also think a lot of people rarely think about the differences between spelling and sound. Of course, they know that some words are pronounced nothing like they’re spelt – there are surely very few like that woman GKP mentioned, who tried to pronounce words ‘faithfully’ to their constituent letters. But they don’t appreciate the multiplicity of phonemes (let alone allophones) represented by letters, and they don’t like to think of themselves as ‘dropping letters’.

  24. Darrel Newton said,

    July 13, 2012 @ 7:48 am

    In the NYT headline, shouldn’t there have been ”scare quotes” around the word “wawk”?

    “A Voice of New York’s Streets, Saying That It’s Safe to ‘Wawk’ ”

    Copy desk?

  25. Pharmamom said,

    July 13, 2012 @ 6:02 pm

    I think we non-linguists are more likely to “get it” here. I just hear a NY accent in my head when I read the article. The spelling is just a visual clue; I don’t translate the sound from it in any prescriptive way.

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