You Sound Like You Are From New York

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One of my favorite college classes was Introduction to Linguistics. A particular class stands out in my mind. Our professor put up a picture of this object:

Bucket

People were then asked to find other people who called the object the same thing as them and sit together. Quickly a “bucket” group and a “pail” group emerged.

She put up a picture of a second object:

Faucet or Spigot?

“Spigot” people moved to one part of the room. “Faucet” to another. And “tap” to a different place.

After a few more examples, we have created a map of where people grew up, simply based on the words they used.  I ended up sitting with other Southerners. East Coasters were all together. And then there was the one British guy in our class, all alone in a corner.

Yesterday I had the chance to participate in a webinar led by Professors Sarah Bunin Benor and Steven M. Cohen about a survey they did on American Jewish Language and Identity. There were many fascinating observations, which can be found in the full summary. (You can still take the survey here.)

I was most interested in the question “Have people said you sound like you’re from New York?” Among people who didn’t grow up in New York, Jews (33%) were twice as likely as non-Jews (15%) to say yes. Among that who didn’t have a parent who grew up in New York, Jews were still more likely (25%) than non-Jews (11%).

I fall into that 33%. I grew up in Texas. My family is fifth generation on my father’s side. But my mother immigrated* to Texas from Queens when she was in high school. I always assumed that somehow I had inherited a bit of my mother’s accent.

But now I doubt that. As Benor pointed out studies have found that people link Jewishness with New York. And that when someone says “You sound like you’re from New York” they are actually hearing Hebrew & Yiddish words, certain constructions & pronunciations, or an aggressive speech style. Or in my translation, “You sound like a loud-mouth, obnoxious, bitch.”

I don’t think I sound like a New Yorker at all. To non-Jews I clearly sounded Jewish, but to my parents, my father in particular, I was way too Texan. My sister and I would say we’re “fixin’ ta” as in “We’re fixin’ ta go to the mall.” “We don’t fix things,” my dad would say (ironically, they’ve had a broken washing machine for 10 years). “We’re going to the mall.”

I wonder if telling someone “You sound like you’re from New York,” is really that different from telling someone “You look Jewish.” They are identifying stereotypes, perhaps rooted in some truth, that are often not true measure of identity.

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* After first publishing this blog, my mother emailed me to say I used the word immigrate incorrectly. True, immigration is to another country. I would argue that moving from New York to Texas is moving to a new country. 

Posted on November 19, 2009

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