Sociolinguistics Lunch: John Singler (NYU)

NOV 10, 2017 | 2:00 PM TO 4:00 PM



The Graduate Center
365 Fifth Avenue


November 10, 2017: 2:00 PM-4:00 PM




John Singler (NYU) presents, "Extra, extra! How “Brooklynese” emerged as the term for NYC vernacular"

Abstract: A widely held view among New Yorkers—a view actively promoted by print media in the city— is that there is an NYC-internal geographic component to the city’s vernacular English. Most commonly, it’s located at the level of the borough. In this regard, however, all boroughs are not equal: Brooklynese is the clear champion1 . Why Brooklynese? In this talk, I draw on digital newspapers archives to set out the emergence of the term Brooklynese across the first half of the twentieth century. I also examine the chronology of the linguistic features that are associated with the term. Although I consider several newspapers as well as the New Yorker, my principal sources are the New York Times (founded in 1851) and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (published from 1841 to 1955). The term Brooklynese had as its competitor Manhattanese. In the late nineteenth century, both terms were used primarily to refer to one or more residents of the relevant borough (cf. Walt Whitman’s mention of ‘a Manhattanese’ in “Behold this swarthy face”). However, each term’s use shifted to be primarily a reference to language (‘. . . he drops the imitation society talk that he likes to spout and switches to straight Manhattanese’ (NY Tribune, Aug. 25, 1906). I focus on the impact of two historical events: the consolidation of New York into its present five-borough structure in 1898 (still characterized by some in Brooklyn as “The Great Mistake”) and the success of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team from 1940 to the mid-1950’s. The consolidation brought Manhattan and Brooklyn into the same city. A binary emerged in which— from the perspective of powerful Manhattan social, cultural, political, and economic interests-- Manhattan was superior, Brooklyn inferior. Brooklyn was, in the words of the Times “the borough at the drowsy end of the big bridge” (Aug. 5, 1907). One part of this bifurcation was that stigmatized aspects of vernacular speech were lumped together as “Brooklynese.” Manhattanites were the agents of this characterization. The attribution of stigma to Brooklyn and to Brooklynese was turned upside down in the 1940’s by the rise of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team and, with that rise, popular association of the team with non-standard speech (“10,000 Fans Pack Grand Central To Acclaim Returning Dodgers; Placards Shown With Appropriate Sentiments in Brooklynese,” headline, NY Times, Sept. 27, 1940). The importance of the team to the borough’s image of itself is virtually without equal in American history. Dodger fans enregistered their team—calling them “Dem Bums”—as expressing the borough’s assertion of itself as the anti-Manhattan. Agency had crossed the river. In considering the emergence of Brooklynese, I also consider who its speakers were. Crucially, they appear to have been second-generation Americans. Italian or Yiddish was their modern tongue, but English was their dominant language (Van Coetsem 1988). In contrast, the term Bronxese was applied to the L2 English of Yiddish-speaking immigrants.

Reception to follow in the Linguistics Department. All are welcome to attend.