It's a long way from Boston to New York

Here’s an interesting article in today’s NYT about NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s apparent shift from his native Boston accent (more evident when he was first elected in 2002) to one that is more characteristic of New York (more evident now). A number of American English dialect experts, including sociolinguist Bill Labov and dialect coach Paul Meier, were recruited to analyze and compare Bloomberg’s 2002 inauguration speech with his 2006 inauguration speech. (If you look along the left-hand side of the article online, you’ll see a multimedia audio link, with commentary by the article’s author Sam Roberts and the two inauguration speeches.)

The article’s focus — and perhaps the focus of the analyses by these various experts — is on three aspects of pronunciation:

  1. the vowel in words like last: more central/back in Boston ([a/ɑ]), more front in New York ([æ]);

  2. the vowel in words like lost: more central/unrounded in Boston (“ah”/[a]), more back/rounded in New York (“aw”/[ɔ]);

  3. the unstressed vowel in words like father: the r-less variant is apparently less stigmatized in Boston than in New York, and Bloomberg is apparently more r-ful in 2006 than he was in 2002.

One part I didn’t quite get:

“Mayor Bloomberg may now be a little less Boston and a little more New York in his ‘lang-widge’ ” (his interesting pronunciation of ‘language’ – not a Boston feature),” Professor [William A. Kretzschmar Jr. of the University of Georgia] said.

I don’t think I’ve never heard Bloomberg say ‘language’ — and I’m not about to sift through his speeches to see if I can find an example — but ‘lang-widge’ strikes me as an example of what Mark Liberman talks about toward the end of this recent Language Log post: in short, it “appear[s] to do nothing more than represent the ubiquitous pronunciation of [a word] whose spelling is phonetically irregular”. Is it meant to indicate “interesting” [laŋgwɪʤ] vs. “normal” [laŋgwəʤ] or something?

5 thoughts on “It's a long way from Boston to New York

  1. Mr. Kite

    I think it’s a flub-up and was an attempt to capture the characteristic shifting, hardening /g/ typical of those from some parts of New York (especially Lon Gisland).

    Perhaps it should have read “lang-gwidge”.

  2. Daniel C. Hall

    I would have thought just the opposite, actually—that “lang-widge” was intended to represent a [g]-less pronunciation [læŋwɪdʒ] instead of the usual [læŋgwɪdʒ], because if I pronounce “lang” and “widge” independently, there’s no [g]. But unless the Times takes to using IPA (or anything else reasonably systematic), we may never know (unless, of course, we ask Kretzschmar).

  3. Aaron Dinkin

    Makes me twitch whenever someone describes the vowel in words like lost in Boston as “ah”, or as “central” and “unrounded”…. Boston has a back and mostly rounded vowel in lost, same as in pot, which is highly distinct from “ah”. The difference is that New York’s lost is rounder yet, and (more importantly) much higher than Boston’s: “open o” or higher, to Boston’s “turned script a”.

  4. political forum

    I think it’s just his politician’s instinct to try to blend in with his constituents. He doesn’t want to be seen as a non-New Yorker. There really is no uniform new york accent. There’s different accents depending what ethnicity and what borough you come from in New York, including Jewish (as typified by Jackie Mason or Fran Drescher), Irish (like Rosie O’Donnell or Rudy Giuliani), Italian (Robert De Niro or Tony Danza), African-American and Latino accents.

    Bloomberg is probably just enunciating his words more carefully, and thus he loses his Boston accent.


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