“Princesses,” Reality TV and Disassociation

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Much as I hate to admit it, I enjoy reality TV. (Although I can’t stomach the less savory Real Housewives offshoots). Many programs have a regional bent (“Divorcees of Des Moines!”), and I find them sociolinguistically fascinating for this reason. It’s not so much that these shows reveal a portrait of how people in certain regions speak, but rather, how people in those regions want to speak.

Take, for instance, Bravo’s recent Princesses: Long Island, a tawdry reality soap about 20-somethings in Nassau County, New York. You might expect exaggerated “cawfee tawk” type accents from the cast, but most of the young women seem to actively avoid stereotypical Long-Islandisms.

This was obvious during a scene in which a young woman bickers with her dad. Her father, with a strong New York accent, pronounces the word ball in classic Brooklyn fashion: bʊəɬ. When his daughter responds, however, she pronounces ball more along the lines of General American English: bɒɬ. A generational divide encapsulated by one word.

These young women seem to disassociate themselves strongly from New York English: Not only do most of them have strongly rhotic accents, but they also have a “hard” retroflex /r/ at the ends of words like car and pork. Nobody says Long Island as if it were “Long Goy Land;” in fact, words like “kite” seem to usually have the (again) more General American . The tense-lax split between words like “can” (of soup) and “can” (you do me a favor) is infrequent. The open “ay” (æɪ) which makes words like “day” sound like “die” (to other Americans) is often eschewed for the tighter diphthong .

Obviously, many younger New Yorkers have consciously or unconsciously moved away from the broad accents of lore. But what I wonder here is how much of this modification is a generational thing, and how much of it is due to the cameras. I noticed a telling moment in which one of the “Princesses” is spending time with her family, and we briefly hear her younger (maybe 12-year-old?) brother speak. He noticeably sports a stronger dialect, which suggests there may be some self-conscious modification going on for the benefit of America’s television viewers.

Nobody wants to seem like a stereotype, even when they bring cameras into their personal lives. So how much is affectation for the camera, and how much represents actual generational shifts?

*”Princesses” is likely a reference to “JAP,” a common Long Island acronym referring to “Jewish American Princesses.”

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

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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17 Responses to “Princesses,” Reality TV and Disassociation

  1. dw says:

    It’s pretty common for a 12-year-old to have a more strongly regionally- or socioeconomically-marked accent than a twenty-something.

    • I think it depends on the community. My impression is that people I grew up with who stayed in the area have stronger accents than they had at twelve. That’s possibly because I’m from a college town with many transplants where one’s accent would logically grow stronger the less time they spend with their “non-local” family.

      On the other hand, I can see the opposite being the case in a community with fewer transplants; a 20-something would probably spend more time with “outsiders” (via work, university, etc.) than a 12-year-old. I’m not entirely sure how Long Island stacks up in this regard, so it’s an interesting question.

  2. Fred Meyer says:

    I just watched this brief clip from the show for kicks and I do hear some of those features (and others) in those girls’ speech. I hear:
    * a raised vowel in “called” (0:08)
    * a strongly lowered vowel in the 2nd syllable of “OK” [ɤ’kæɪ] (0:12 and elsewhere).

    But also:
    * the girl on the left does have a pretty open vowel in “all” [ɒɬ] (1:32)
    * she also has a close vowel like [eɪ] or [e] in “place” and “came” (0:47-0:48)

    Also note how the girl on the right says “meet me” (as [miˑt me̠i]) at the beginning. It seems like they may have an allophonic split similar to the one that has been remarked upon in Philadelphia, where the vowel in “date” is closer than the one in “day” and the vowel in “beat” is closer than the one in “bee”. However, in these girls’ Long Island speech it sounds like other vowels might have a similar allophonic split. Compare how Girl on the Right says “no” [nɐʊ] with how she says “explosion” [ɪ̈kˈsplɤʊʒən] (2:15) and how she says “blue” [blɵʊ] (0:51) with how she says “truly” [truːli] (0:52).

    Another variable that gets more attention from linguists in Philadelphia than in the NYC area for some reason is the raising (and fronting) of the vowel in “kite.” To me it sounds like both girls have this feature in their speech too.

    • @Fred,

      That’s a great analysis. Funnily enough, I am actually writing a post at the moment about “day/date” split, which is definitely not just a Philly thing; I’ve heard it among Long Islanders, New Jersey-ites, and Westchester County residents. (Philly still, in my mind, takes the cake, though: the /e/ in “date” can actually verge on [i], to the extent that I once thought a Philadelphian said “sleeve driver” when she meant “slave driver”).

      I should mention that the degree to which these ladies distance themselves from “Longislandese” varies. One of them (who is identified as being from the more working-class “South Shore”) still sounds very much from her region. Another young woman, however (the shorter one with brown hair) seems to have some peculiar non-localisms. For instance, she uses [o] in open-syllabled GOAT vowels such as “slow.” I’ve found [o] to be a common allophone among Long Islanders, but open diphthongs are more typical for open syllables (such as the [nɐʊ] you mentioned above). The rest of the cast lies somewhere in between the two.

    • Fred Meyer says:

      @ Ben,

      It’s interesting to me that they seem to have a Cockney-esque vowel shift, but unlike in Cockney, it doesn’t apply in every phonetic environment.

      • I know! I think it’s mostly confined to the Philly/NJ/NYC areas. It’s almost as if FLEECE moves towards FACE, which then moves in two directions.

        Another thing I’ve found pretty fascinating is that, at least around Philly, this split doesn’t seem informed by morpheme boundaries; I’ve heard “days” pronounced [deˑz] but “day” pronounced [dæɪ]. So it seems different than, say, Belfast, where this factors into open/closed syllable distinctions.

      • Fred Meyer says:

        I don’t want to keep going on and on about that YT vid, but another interesting thing I noticed about Ashlee’s speech upon watching it again is that she sometimes has downgliding and/or ingliding realizations of /i:/ (or /iy/ if you prefer) in closed syllables. Some examples are “I mean [miɛn]” (0:41) and “very mean [miɘn]” (0:57). The vowel in “seen” (0:53) sounds like it might have a slight inglide too.

    • Aussprache says:

      I heard ALL @ 1:32 as [ ɑɬ] (w/an unrounded vowel that is!) and not as [ɒɬ ],
      which is in line with Merriam Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary:
      http://www.learnersdictionary.com/search/all

      and
      http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/research/gsound/Eng/Database/Phonetics/Englishes/ByWord/Word_001_all.htm

  3. Fred Meyer says:

    As for your question, though, I don’t know. I still hear New York/Long Island features in their speech, so if they are trying to modify their accents to be more like GenAm then they haven’t been totally successful. I could also see the modification going in the other direction, though, à la Jersey Shore. People in New Jersey don’t actually talk like them, right?

  4. Tom says:

    As to the question about whether the accents are being purposefully suppressed for the cameras, I say that’s very likely. I’ve seen public figures modify their accents to suit the situation over and over again, such as George W. Bush using a Texas drawl at the ranch vs. giving a State Of The Union address in more or less GenAm; or Paul McCartney speaking about animal rights activism in something like RP for an international audience vs. slipping into his Liverpudlian Scouse roots on a British chat show.

    I think anyone who wants publicity will try to modify their accent for their perceived audience, reality “stars” included. If they miss the mark, though, it can be glaringly obvious and unintentionally hilarious.

  5. m.m. says:

    id agree that in this case, it is an affect of being observed ie the cameras. in this case reduction cause princesses dont speak with broad accents :b
    also, her “no” does sound more open, but it is not at all central enough for [ɐ] to my perception

    ive always been curious about the use of a very open [eɪ] in the states, ive never seen it pinpointed to anywhere or discussed anywhere to much extent, but every so often on tv ill hear someone, almost always female, utter it and it perks up my ears

    as for the Fleece/Face movements, ive read about the Face one, but i could never really wrap my head around it

  6. awer says:

    did you use /ɬ/ for /ɫ/? :P

  7. Pingback: The Day/Date Split | Dialect Blog

  8. Inchoative says:

    “Nobody wants to seem like a stereotype, even when they bring cameras into their personal lives.”

    I have a feeling that as America lurches its way toward a stunted form of postmodernism, there’s a recognition that not only are dialects performative, but performativity itself is performative. In other words, they don’t want to seem like stereotypes (Princesses) except when they do (Jersey Shore). People make a decision whether to try to assimilate a foreign cultural norm – i.e., foreign to their upbringing – or conversely to signal their rejection of such assimilation. I take as an example my sister-in-law and her brother, both of a semi-blue collar part of inner Long Island. He had the more prestigious education and works on Wall St. in finance; he sports a strong Brooklyn (to my ears) brogue. His sister, who seemed to preoccupy herself from an early age with marrying up as her route to success (ahem) and barely graduated from a 3rd tier college, has a studied accent-free American dialect. She sounds like she went to Princeton, but it’s actually the brother who has an Ivy League degree. In other words their accents don’t reflect an actual habitus but a determination to construct a different reading of their real habitus.

  9. Nathan Brown says:

    I think there’s definitely a generational shift here. I went to college with a lot of people from Long Island. (They’d be in their late 20s/early 30s now.) The majority of them were rhotic, and their pronunciation of words like “caught” and “coffee” was inconsistent. Sure, they had certain vowel features that some people would pick up on as East Coast or New York City area (I remember one linguistics class where I was trying to explain the marry/merry merger to a classroom full of downstaters who couldn’t understand how those words could ever been pronounced the same), but few of them had accents that screamed New York as soon as they opened their mouths.

    The guys seemed to have more noticeable accents than the girls, usually. I always figured this was because, to outsiders, a New York accent can sound kind of tough, a quality many young men aspire to.

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