New Yorkers speak loudly, tell personal stories, crowd their listeners, wave their hands (a heritage of Italian and Jewish immigrants), and, when they feel friendly, complain to strangers to build solidarity. They make extreme statements—“That’s the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard!”;“That’s one of the worst deals ever made, one of the worst contracts ever signed, ever, in anything!”—feeling strongly is a virtue, and friendly disagreement is read as productive and positive. As the presidential race has heated up, the two high-profile New Yorkers in the 2016 presidential race—the Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, who is from a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, and the Republican real estate mogul Donald Trump, who’s from upmarket Jamaica Estates, Queens—have nudged New York City English into the national conversation.
The New York conversational style is “high-involvement,” wrote Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, in her book Conversational Style; it’s not “high-considerateness” like other American ways of speaking. “The risk of offending by not talking is deemed greater than the risk of offending by talking too much,” she has written. In the course of Tannen’s studies, she has seen no evidence the accent has fallen off, though linguists who study New York City English are hearing its sounds less frequently. “A New York ‘accent’ is much more than how you pronounce words,” Tannen told me over the phone.
According to New York City English, a new book by Michael Newman, professor of linguistics at Queens College (and a Queens native with a grouchy Brooklynese to do Bernie proud), the New York dialect has at least nineteen distinct vowel sounds, more than any other North American vowel system. Its hallmarks include the vowel in “thought” transposed to “coffee” and the dropped “r”, which varies with class. Trump pronounces his inconsistently, while Sanders rarely pronounces a final r, as in the phrase that’s become something of a trademark—“every othah majah country,” he says, referring to their superior health care policies. Trump and Sanders pronounce “hu” at the start of a word the same way, though for Sanders, this tendency comes out in “yooman,” and for Trump, it shows in “yooge.” Their accents, of course, also belie their age: Because of the generation they belong to, Trump and Sanders grew up in a New York where New York City English was more ubiquitous, according to the linguists I spoke to.
Still more expressive than the specific linguistic markers
of the New York City English dialect is the accompanying conversational style;
people with and without it, Tannen has written, can’t understand each other.
Out-of-towners find New Yorkers aggressive, even rude, while to New Yorkers
other interlocutors appear underinvolved or lukewarm. It sounds eerie
when you think of the implications for our next president, but so do all cultural
imperatives when you put them so dramatically. What’s more important: The New
York style is so distinctive—and perhaps so misunderstood—that it partially
explains Trump and Sanders’s success, even as it means that out-of-towners may be
hearing their words in ways other than the candidates intend.
The debates have shown Trump and Sanders to be the best interrupters in the race for the White House. Only they interrupt coolly; the others are whitefish out of water. Jeb Bush came off as awkwardly aggressive when he tried the move this week at the last Republican debate. When Trump responded with a “hold it,” Bush obeyed. Trump had the chutzpah to interrupt both Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul in order to complain that Fiorina was interrupting—though for once, he got boos instead of applause. Next to Trump, Ben Carson spoke as slowly as wheels turn on a gridlocked cab.
At the previous Democratic contest, Martin O’Malley raised his hand and left it up. After Sanders’s comment about Hillary Clinton’s cell phone records, she too tried interrupting, crying, “Thank you, thank you, me too,” but laughed too loudly, as if exhilarated. Sanders raised his hand to offer the comment, and Anderson Cooper called on him—but tellingly, when Larry David spoofed the exchange on Saturday Night Live, he interrupted Kate McKinnon’s Hillary, picking up that we’re accustomed to interruption as the Sanders mode of speech. He’s interrupting even when he’s not interrupting.
The benign interjections peculiar to both Trump and Sanders are particular to a high-involvement New York conversational style. Onstage this week in Milwaukee, Trump was the only one to speak (“Thank you”) as Gerard Baker introduced him, though his mic was off and clearly he did not expect Baker to stop. Recently, Sanders muttered, “That’s right” several times while Charlie Rose was posing a question. It is possible the monosyllables he stammered as Black Lives Matter activists shut down his rally were simply efforts at thoughtfully engaged listening in the New York way. “Interruption is a sign of enthusiasm,” Tannen said, “and if people don’t want to stop, they don’t.”
And then there are the hands. Trump slices his hands or holds out his arms beseechingly, like Cassiopeia, but it’s Sanders whose hands transcribe him word-for-word or syllable-by-syllable. They’re choreographic, tracing small arcs for short words, occasionally literal. He has clasped both to his chest when he says “heart.” He makes no effort to hold his face pleasantly. Neither man’s style is particularly diplomatic.
“The way you present yourself as someone who would become a statesman is, you move with dignity. You want to be solid, or even stolid,” said Charles Hill, a former advisor to Reagan and Kissinger and Diplomat-in-Residence at Yale University, where he teaches Oratory in Statecraft. “Both Sanders and Trump are using their arms and bodies in ways that have a New York reference. They lean forward—as if they’re on a street corner, having an argument with you.”
Trump’s fans, generally, don’t use New York City English or its conversational style. It is likely, then, that they misunderstand his speech in the subtle ways Tannen lays out. They may take him always at his word, a chilling prospect when, for a New York conversationalist, exaggeration and confrontation are just part of the game. Bernie’s fans may appreciate his Brooklynese as stylishly old-fashioned and virtuously working-class, while not reading its subtleties. He’s less one-note than he seems.
“The message is, I’ll tell it like it is, and the New York accent is very congenial to that,” Tannen said over the phone. “It’s probably not a coincidence that they’re both from New York.” Candidates milk their assets. During his monologue on last week’s Saturday Night Live, Trump actually said, “ay yi yi.”
Sanders’s accent is rarely so affected. The linguist William Labov—whose “fourth floor” study examined social stratification in New York City via the “r”s the accent drops—had to hark back to Burt Lancaster to find a New York accent as pleasingly unaffected as Sanders’s: “native, straightforward… unmonetized, straightforward, unselfconscious without being comic or gangsterly.”
“The situation is something like this,” Labov, who is from New Jersey, said in a phone call. “Politicians are different from other people in that their use of the common dialect establishes their relationship with the public.”
Though New York City English has been traditionally viewed as “bombastic and rude,” it may add to Sanders and Trump’s appeal to those many voters “sick of Washington,” Hill said. “It’s entertaining. It’s a year before the election—people make calls on polling questions not on ‘whether I want this guy to be president’ but ‘is this guy expressing the way I feel?’” The New York accent helps to draw people closer, it would seem, as well as to tell it to them straight. These are related.
The last New York City-accented president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, spoke with an airy, patrician accent that is now practically extinct. Nelson Rockefeller, the Governor of New York, Vice President under Gerald Ford, and erstwhile campaigner for the presidency, spoke with a hint of a New York City English closer to Sanders’s and Trump’s. It inflected his vowels.
Penelope Eckert, professor of linguistics at Stanford, was a graduate student in New York at the time Rockefeller ran for office. “It’s a way of showing you’re an approachable New Yorker,” she recalled. A student of hers once told Eckert that her New Jersey accent came out when she answered “stupid questions.” The implication—that Eckert wielded her accent to condescend or mock—troubled her, so she gave the matter some thought. What Eckert concluded is what Trump and Sanders have likely also deduced: It’s a way to be close to people.
This article has been updated to reflect a correction.