Jill Abramson’s Accent

I’m coming home from vacation Saturday and will hopefully have proper post up by Sunday.  In the meantime, I’d like to address something that has been swirling around the press:  the strange idiolect of new NY Times Executive editor Jill Abramson.  Take a listen:

Speech pathologists and phoneticians, knock yourself out: what’s going on with Abramson’s speech?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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28 Responses to Jill Abramson’s Accent

  1. dw says:

    My guess is:
    * she’s not accustomed to doing media interviews
    * she usually speaks much faster than this
    * she over-corrected for her normal rapid speech by
    **speaking about four times more slowly than usual, and
    ** giving undue emphasis to unstressed syllables, with a result that sounds more syllable-timed than stress-timed

  2. Amy Stoller says:

    I’m not a speech pathologist, so my un-medical opinion is that I think dw has pretty much covered it. I doubt any of her speech issues are connected to her broken foot, but if it affected her balance, it’s possible there was a chain reaction affecting her speech.

    I suspect she’s always had the lisp. The drawl may be an effort to control her speech for the interview, or an affectation she picked up in an effort not to sound “too New York” or while at Harvard (or both). But it could also be the way everyone in her family speaks. We lack sufficient data to do anything other than speculate on too little evidence. Lots of things can influence speech patterns.

  3. marc b. leavitt says:

    She has a typical Manhattan Jewish accent. I’ve heard it a hundred times over the years. It’s not the only Yiddish-influenced accent in New York, but it’s very common. To be clear, when I say Yiddish-influenced, I’m talking about an accent that developed over generations starting with the influx of middle and eastern Europeans Jews. The slowness of her delivery may be based on her wish to articulate clearly, but the accent would not vary based on speed.

  4. Amy Stoller says:

    “She has a typical Manhattan Jewish accent. I’ve heard it a hundred times over the years.” I beg to differ. I hear nothing typically Manhattan Jewish about her speech. Upper East Side maybe, though even there I rather doubt it.

  5. marc b. leavitt says:

    That was a slip of the keyboard. I meant to specify “New York.”

    • Amy Stoller says:

      I wonder if we’re hearing the same speech pattern – or whether we simply have different associations. As a third-generation New Yorker (Jewish), I just don’t hear anything typically “New York Jewish” about her speech pattern. It’s not like I haven’t been exposed to New York Jewish accents of several varieties. But perhaps you could say the same.

      • Marc Leavitt says:

        I’m also a third generation Jewish person; raised in Central New Jersey, went to school in New York and worked in New York. I’ve known a number of people who spoke with her inflections and cadence. Within the New York Metropolitan area there are a variety of Jewish-influenced accents. I can’t pin it to Brooklyn, the Bronx, North Jersey, Westchester or Long Island, but when I heard the clip it was immediatel;ty recognizable to me, as opposed to other Metro ethnic accents.

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    In a way, she talks like a politician, in that she doesn’t leave any dead spaces between sentences (which makes it harder to interrupt her w/o coming across as rude).

    • Carson Salter says:

      Charles, I think you’re right. It’s a case of a professional mannerism becoming wildly over-developed. I’d be interested in knowing other cases of that. Vocal self-caricature through professional dedication.

      • dw says:

        You think she actually talks like that normally at work?

        I find it very difficult to imagine her commanding the respect of the New York Times newsroom speaking this way — but then I’m not a New York Times journalist.

  7. Carson Salter says:

    one other note (non-expert): She drags her voice at the end of each phrase to connect to the first syllable of the next phrase… possibly adopted for public speaking and teaching, a strategy to eliminate pauses (and hold the focus of a board room). It also casts down, which is something I think you see sometimes in (upper eastsiders, yes, and) those who are in leadership positions. A tone of thoughtful, regretful advice, “i’m sorry to say this, but…”

    Think of the boss from Office Space. Yeeeaah.

  8. Laura Hitt says:

    My 2 cents – when I heard this interview a few weeks ago, the first thing I thought of was Lawrence Summers…their intonation patterns and slow draw through the vowels and end of phrases is surprisingly similar to his speech pattern. I remember commenting on it when I first heard her in this interview. It’s very striking to me. I have no idea why – unless they’re good friends. It seems very particular. But certainly wouldn’t locate it as a Yiddish influence…definitely more *upper* east side affectation, not lower! But I’m far from an expert per se.

  9. Ellen K. says:

    The one and only thing that stands out to me is that some syllables are lengthened compared to her normal rate of speech, and her voice tone gets a little odd at those times. When she’s not doing that, all I hear is talks-normal. (I’m not particularly sensitive to accent differences.) Did that stand out to other people? I’m thinking some of the previous comments relate to that, but I can’t tell for sure.

  10. Charles Sullivan says:

    A interesting idiolect by a reporter is that of Lyse Doucet (BBC radio). I can pick up the Canadian, but it’s not quite like many (or any) Canadians I’ve ever heard before.

  11. Immediately I notice monotone melody, low (restricted) pitch range and unusually slowed rate, with even-more-slowed final syllables that drop into a bit of glottal fry. All of this becomes more normal as the conversation continues, leading me to think that at outset she’s just over-controlling some nervousness. Facial expression starts similarly flat, becomes more animated as her pitch gets more varied and pace picks up. Maybe she typically talks very fast & was advised to slow down, got too-draggy at first but then recovered? I also hear a slightly distorted s/th at times. I mean Ms Abramson absolutely no personal disrespect, do find human voice/speech endlessly fascinating.

  12. CaitieCat says:

    Lyse Doucet is a Canadian from New Brunswick, so you’re hearing the Atlantic-Canadian (or “Down East”) accent there. Marked reference to Scots and Irish accents are features of the dialect family that covers that region; Gaelic is spoken as a second language in a significant number of places within the region, and as with many places, the more rural, the more conservative (as in, retaining more features of Scots and Irish influences) the accent.

  13. Forward says:

    “She was kind of bourgeois hip, if you know what I mean,” said Kaplan. “She dressed well; she talked, like, Jill talk, Jill speak.”

    “Jill talk,” a sort of slow, intellectual drawl, is an enduring puzzle. The accent is very New York, but at the same time a bit peculiar. It could be a Central Park West accent, if such a thing exists. Abramson jokingly called it a Fieldston accent, though O’Connor has it, too, and she attended a different private school.

    Wilentz had the best explanation: “Bob Dylan affected all of us, and a lot of us talked a little like Bob Dylan. The speech pattern is a little bit ironic and a little bit cynical sounding, a little bit tough and hard-bitten.”

    Read more: http://www.forward.com/articles/139013/#ixzz1TeAqiMzB

  14. Shannon says:

    There is a young woman who is a bit of a knitting celebrity (I realise this sounds funny to someone on the outside). She is born and raised in Edinburgh which doesn’t tend to have the harsh Scottish accent people think of, but something has really gone funny with her accent over the last couple of years as she’s spent more time in the US working (she still lives and works from Edinburgh but attends a lot of trade shows in the US). Listening to her I feel almost like she’s an ESL person who learned to speak English from the television — yet she is a native English speaker and seems to have learned to speak American English from the film Clueless. I have a very hard time listening to her because everything about the way she speaks is so bizarre – have a listen http://blip.tv/LetsKnit2gether/lk2g-076-ysolda-teague-interview-3827504 – from time to time you can hear her native Scottish accent come through.

  15. JC Harris says:

    I think it’s an air of pretension. It’s the interesting amalgam of New York dialects… Part Roaring Twentieis, Part theatre school ‘Dahling… how mahvelous to see you!’ and part Jewish American Princess. I find it -extremely- grating.

  16. AnitaK. says:

    My son who is 4 years old sounds so much like this woman. I have no idea why and it’s incredible how similar to her it sounds. Not so many “ums” but the way she elongates the final word in her sentences. I wonder if there is some sort of pattern.

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  21. Ted says:

    I hear bits of old money… Roosevelt, maybe Eleanor. But with such an amalgam of other New York. I’m fascinated but it drives me nuts.