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There's something curious about New York's Mayor-elect: a Massachusetts accent
Talking the Talk
New York’d new mayor has, of all things, a Massachusetts accent. Oh my gawd!
By Gersh Kuntzman
    Nov. 13 —  Why does the new mayor of New York sound like he’s from Boston?  

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  NOW, DON’T MISINTERPRET this as an attack on Mayor-elect Michael Bloomberg. I have nothing against a self-made billionaire businessman who spends $70 million of his own money to get everyone to call him “Mike.” I mean, it takes that much money to buy an election nowadays when you start an election cycle with a name-recognition of, approximately, zero.

        And it doesn’t bother me that the future mayor of New York prefers the Red Sox to our hometown ballclubs. After eight years of watching a mayor turn City Hall into the Yankees’ downtown satellite office, it’ll be refreshing to remove baseball from the list of duties demanding the mayor’s immediate attention (such as kicking Arafat out of operas, ticketing illegally parked diplomats’ cars and arresting police brutality protestors).
        And I’m not even suggesting that Bloomberg hasn’t fulfilled the residency requirement. Sure, he grew up in Medford, Massachusetts and went to college at a moderately renowned school in nearby Cambridge, but Bloomberg has been living in New York City since the early 1970s. If I want an example of interloping, I need only recall Hillary Clinton’s pin-the-tail-on-the-open-Senate-seat opportunism that made mere carpet-bagging seem benign by comparison.
        So buying elections, improper baseball partisanship and non-native status doesn’t bother me in a mayor. But I draw the line at the Boston accent. If some rich Red Sox fan wants to buy himself an office, be my guest, but he’d better at least sound like a New Yorker.
        Now, before you start sending me angry letters (and, as an aside, why are they always so angry? Do I threaten you with physical violence?), I love the Boston accent. Although the rest of the country seems content to adopt the homogenized Midwestern “standard English,” I have always cherished the Boston accent as one of the north’s last great regional dialects. From David Ogden Stiers’ Brahmin brogue in “M*A*S*H” to Matt Damon’s slurred Southie in “Good Will Hunting,” it’s all music to my ears.
        I just don’t want it in a mayor of New York.
        I first encountered Bloomberg’s accent early this year when he fired his first salvo of commercials, a 60-second biographical ad designed to introduce him to the public as a regular guy who just happened to have $4 billion in assets.
        In the commercial, Bloomberg’s Boston accent had been focus-group refined into something of a generic “I-95 accent”—but it was unmistakably Bostonian when he said words like “fahtha,” as in the father who was a “hard-working accountant for a local dairy” who died when he was in college, or when he said “thirty-five dahlars,” as in the weekly salary he earned parking cars while he attended Harvard. (Listen for yourself at http://www.mikeformayor.org/multimedia.asp)
        I couldn’t put my finger on what was going on, so I called sound expert Ben Rubin, who, like Bloomberg, is a native of the Boston suburbs. Today, Rubin lives in New York and runs a sound design and “audible interface” firm called EAR Studio. If Elle Macpherson is “the body” and Cindy Crawford is “the face,” Ben Rubin is “the ears.” And he told me I was onto something.
        “Bloomberg sounds a little like Spalding Gray, who is from Rhode Island,” Rubin told me. “It’s a subtle accent, but it’s definitely foreign to New York. It’s jarring.”
        I was willing to ignore Bloomberg’s accent until he went and won last week’s election. Now, I can’t disregard it. Wanting to give the mayor-elect another chance, I rushed to one of his first post-victory press conferences in hopes that his strong, commanding voice would change my mind.
        But it only made things worse. Every time he departed from his script, the Boston brogue rose to the surface.
        I rushed a tape of the news conference over to College of Staten Island linguistics professor George Jochnowitz. If Elle Macpherson is “the body” and Ben Rubin is “the ears,” George Jochnowitz is “the larynx.” This is a guy who first identified the increasing use of the letter “r” in New York speech and discovered that New York city kids had added a subtle “h” sound after the “s” in “street.”
        This guy knows accents. And he heard what I heard, too.
        “The way Bloomberg said ‘chairman’ was the classic Bostonian three-syllable pronunciation,” said Jochnowitz, deconstructing Bloomberg’s articulation of the word as “cha-uh-man” rather than the New York “cha-e-man.”
        Jochnowitz was also appalled by the manner in which Bloomberg said the word “lifelong,” which he pronounced as “life-lahng,” not “lifelawng” as a New Yorker would.
        “New Yorkers make a much stronger distinction between the words ‘cot’ and ‘caught.’ Bostonians pronounce the word almost the same.”
        Jochnowitz cautioned that he did not believe that Bloomberg’s accent offered any indication of how he would govern.
        I’d go further. I think he’s going to be a great mayor (although there will certainly be grumbling if he refuses to just write a check the first time the Parks Department reports a $1-million revenue shortfall). Already, in his first week as Mayor-elect, the Republican Bloomberg has met with more Democrats and union leaders than Rudy Giuliani did in eight years in office.
        But someone (that’s me) has to be on record as saying that the Bloomberg accent is a bombshell that will explode at the first sign of disarray in his young administration. Mark these words (which, in this day and age, means “bookmark this Web site”): the minute that crime, unemployment or the price of obscure Portuguese cheeses at Zabar’s goes up, New Yorkers will seize on Bloomberg’s accent as evidence that he is not one of us.
        Former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld thinks I’m out of my mind (and now he’ll probably think twice before returning my calls). I called Weld, who now works as a lawyer in New York as he supposedly bides his time for a New York gubernatorial bid (yeah, like that will happen), because as a guy with an out-of-state accent, he knows exactly what Bloomberg is going through.
        But Weld dismissed my theory on the basis that New York chauvinism is ultimately a “myth.”
        “New York is probably the least provincial city on the face of the earth,” Weld said. “No one is going to care about his accent. If there was ever a city without a chip on its shoulder, it’s New York.”
        What city is this guy tawking about?

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His website is at http://www.gersh.tv
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.

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