On (Jersey) Accents

by special correspondent

(by f & DRM)

We have always wondered where accents come from. What differentiates, say, a Jersey accent from a Brooklyn one? Or a Southern accent from a Boston accent from a Valley Girl’s speech? Different groups of immigrants, a variety of loan words from other languages, and cultural specificity creates distinct language and sound patterns across the country.

However, there is no accent more dear to us than the Jersey accent. Often put up for ridicule in shows like Jersey Shore and the Sopranos, it’s an interesting beast. Not quite the New York accent (come on, ask someone from Brooklyn to say fuggedaboutit, you know you want to!) it’s a more laid-back animal. “Water” is like “wudder” and “Orange” — as pronounced “Ah-RAHNGE” — becomes “Aww-RUNGE”. It’s thoroughly unsophisticated, fits crudeness like a glove, and stands rough around the edges. According to us, it’s the funnest accent in the world, if only because it’s the only appropriate one to use when telling a motherfucker in a Cadillac to do some anatomically impossible things to himself.

Growing up, DRM spent her childhood absorbing the Jersey accent. Her mother was from Paterson and her father grew up in Franklin Lakes. Her North Jersey town was a far cry from the urban epicenters of the state — or, in other words, where the Jersey accent reigns supreme — but her mother’s influence made sure that she had the accent as well. And, when she went on to college at Rutgers, she fit right in.

F, however, is from a wealthy college town in central New Jersey, where the Jersey accent is noticeably absent. Pockets of the state opt out of the Jersey accent. They speak some Midwestern-like mishmash of generic American English. For her, the Jersey accent was the Soprano stereotype from the North Jersey goomba universe nestled in the Meadowlands somewhere.

However, when she went to Rutgers, this accent opened itself to her . It crept up her leg and into her voicebox and stayed there. It was a gradual transformation, a trick of osmosis, but eventually it happened. On holidays when she went home, she realized she was getting chastised for something that had never been a problem before: her accent.

Oh, it was everywhere. It soon thickened her voice, elicited laughs out of her younger brother’s friends. Her mother called her the next best thing to an auto assembly line worker. Her father remarked that her voice came straight from a plumber’s asscrack.

(“That’s not a good thing,” he clarified, “in case you were wondering.”)

Her friends from home weren’t very impressed either. “Get rid of it,” they told her, “it’s not how you really sound.”

How does someone really sound? Is it possible to change your accent? How close to your identity is an accent?

To us, an accent is like a superpower. It transforms your personality, changes the way others interact with you. Certain accents are deemed “posher” or more “genteel” than others. Some are forever the butt of jokes — read: the Jersey accent — and some fall in and out of vogue (the Australian, Bostonian and Irish accents) — and yet others are known for their absence of character.

The famous Mughal king, Akbar loved to challenge his minister Birbal with near-impossible riddles. He brought a scholar equally proficient in seven languages into his court and asked Birbal to smoke out the man’s native tongue. Birbal still found the man out anyhow — what’d be the point of the story otherwise? When the gentleman was asleep, Birbal poured hot oil on his head. The man cursed in the first language that came to him: his native tongue. And that’s how Birbal found that the cunning linguist spoke Gujarati.

We can say if someone dropped hot oil on us, we’d probably say, “Go fuck yourself, you fucking fuck.” Because that’s what we do. The people in our lives may not like it very much, but tough shit. In a world where things are too serious for our liking, we like to kick back and enjoy the savory richness of a voice that sounds like it means business. It will play trunk music with our ass. What’s there not to like about that?

4 Comments to “On (Jersey) Accents”

  1. I don’t know what it is about that school, but you all came out with the silliest accent. Cwafee and wudder. I shall mock you all mercilessly until the end of our days.

    I’ve often wondered if my accent would shift if I lived in a place with an accent similar to my parents’. I incubated to those voices, and I already carry little traces of it.

    In the meantime, I’ll settle for imitating everyone else. 😉

  2. Hm. There are many different kinds of Midwestern accents, so I’m not sure which one you’re talking about when you give the example. :p I have a Missouri accent. Which is certainly Midwestern, but it won’t be the same as an accent from, say, Oklahoma, or Iowa, or Kansas. It will be, but it won’t be. If that makes sense. I don’t know how to accurately explain that. :p Just like there are differences in Southern accents. A South Carolinian probably won’t sound the same as a Georgian.

    Everyone has an accent, but I don’t personally feel they’re very important. I do get irritated, however, when I hear people saying I sound unintelligent because of my accent. Nobody has said this in relation to me, specifically, but I have a friend who said it several times without really thinking about it in relation to someone else. I knew she wasn’t doing it on purpose, so I didn’t really say much. But, it did irk me.

    And of course you can change your accent. As F found out, it happens at times without the person even realizing it. Some people are more susceptible to such a change than others, perhaps due to being subconsciously very aware of the dialects of people around you. Accents are very fluid with the way its possible for them to change, and the differences – sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle – between areas of a similar region. The longer you’re around an accent that you aren’t native to, the more likely you are to pick it up.

  3. Accents are all relative— there is no person who can honestly state they have “no accent.”
    The only way “accents” surface is when a person who speaks “normally” in one place goes to another place, where “normal speak” is different from what this person is used to.

    The hot oil part made me laugh out loud!

    • Exactly! You always manage to be so concise, Roxy, whereas I blabber on and on and on and get repetitive. Hmm…maybe I could write a book on 101 ways to say the same thing over and over and over again. Oh wait…no…Bush did that already, he called it his autobiography. My bad~

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