from Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities:

"I'll think a something. Half a my practice consists of talking to people who are not anxious to talk." Tawk.

Killian leaned forward and said, "Awright. The first thing you gotta understand is, from now on, you gotta keep your mouth shut. You understand? You got nothing to gain, nothing, by talking about this" — tawkin — "to anybody, I don't care who it is. All that's gonna happen is, you're gonna get jerked around some more like you did by these two cops."

"You someplace you can talk?" he asked. Tawk.

People's accents an manners of elocution are Tom Wolfe's favorite toy. Most of them are instantly recognizable, or at least very easy to figure out. For instance, when he shoes that all New Yorkers pronounce "of" as "a" (as in the first quote in this post, "I'll think a something. Half a my practice consists of ...").

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This whole tawking business, on the other hand, is puzzling. In the novel, all law-enforcement officers and lawyers or Irish descent speak that way. The chapter where this is emphasized is titled Tawkin Irish.

Well, yes, many New Yorkers (not just the Irish ... uh ... contingent ...) tend to overemphasize certain sounds, and, yes, the vowel in the word "talking" is one such sound, and I see how the consonant preceding it must strike a non-New-Yorker as explosive, but ... but ...

I looked it up. Each dictionary I consulted ended up assuring me that the vowel in "talk" was exactly the same as the vowel in "hawk," "dawn," and "mawkish."

I don't get the joke. Please explain it to me. What am I missing?

  • Perhaps it's meant to represent the same thing as spellings like "dawg" and "cawfee"? – herisson Jan 25 '16 at 7:05

The farther east you go from Manhattan proceeding over Long Island through Nassau County, the farther right the natives get on the pronunciation scale from "tahk" to "tooawwk." TW is emphasizing the Nooo Yawwk accent.

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  • Apparently this feature is shared with some Philadelphia accents. I mention this because the article has a transcription of the sound, [ɔə]. Language Log comments also give [oə], which is similar. – herisson Jan 25 '16 at 7:15
  • He's not the only one. However, the damn dictionary transcribes it as [tawk]. Further down the page, in the "British Dictionary definitions" section, you'll find the international phonetic alphabet entry: /tɔːk/. If you look up "hawk," you'll find, respectively, [hawk] and /hɔːk/. Lawn Guylenders do tend to insert that "oo" sound in front of some vowels ("s-oo-ong," "s-oo-ort"), but a hardened downtown lawyer who only visits Long Island when he's invited to a colleague's party? ... Hmm .... – Ricky Jan 25 '16 at 7:49
  • @sumelic: Sounds intriguing. I need to start taping them (my Philly friends, that is). – Ricky Jan 25 '16 at 7:58
  • @Ricky: from my understanding, New Yorkers and Philadephians would also pronounce "talk" to rhyme with "hawk." So the dictionary does represent all the relevant sound contrasts. But in all words like this, they use a different sound from the one used in most American dialects. Deadrat's "ooaww" is probably a bit more accurate as an ad-hoc system for representing it, and at least it lets you respell "hawk" as "hooawwk," which isn't possible if we write "talk" as "tawk." – herisson Jan 25 '16 at 8:03
  • @sumelic: So why couldn't Tom Wolfe spell it like that? – Ricky Jan 25 '16 at 8:05

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