New Jersey accents

It’s hard to explain to people that there isn’t any “New Jersey accent”. A lot of times I’ll meet expats here in Tokyo, and they are from God knows where–anywhere. But especially if they are American, they just have the toughest time understanding that there isn’t “the” New Jersey accent, even as badly as they want to hear it.

I try to make this really clear to people. But sometimes, it doesn’t get through. Above is a regional accent map. I think it comes from William Labov, the well-regarded professor of linguistics and researcher who just happens to be at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.

If you understand American history, you know that the English speakers travelled from east to west. So they settled the Atlantic coastline, and then they moved westward over the last couple centuries.

The people in New England couldn’t directly move west, because that was Canada. The Appalachians and Indians made travelling west difficult for the early Southern settlers. About the only convenient place for Westward Expansion was through Pennsylvania. It was better settled sooner than other states in the young Republic, and it had a river, the Ohio, which could easily transport people west. (“Better settled” is a way of saying that the native American Indians weren’t as large a threat in western Pennsylvania after a while.)

So the American accent that was typical of the folks in Pennsylvania traveled west and became associated, over time, with the nation as whole. Rather than as a “regional” accent.

Where does New Jersey come in?

Well, for most of its existence, the people of New Jersey were centered around six major cities. And the rest was villages and farmland. So despite what people see of the modern New Jersey, which is one giant spread-out suburb, it shouldn’t be too hard to believe that the people who were spread out in the farm country boroughs of years ago also sounded like the people from farm-country eastern Pennsylvania. That is, they had a Midland accent, too.

Contemporary linguistics graduate students and others on the net shorthand the description of the Midland accent to say that “it starts in Pennsylvania”. But honestly, it starts in central New Jersey.

I think the anti-Jersey bias, the idea that there is one New Jersey accent and that one was prominently featured on the comedy show Saturday Night Live in the early ’80’s is screwing up the science a little . . .

For a small state, I count at least four distinct accents there. Not counting people who grew up somewhere else. There is a South Jersey (maybe Sailth Jersey) accent which is little different than what you hear in Philadelphia on the Pennsylvania side. There is a North Jersey accent in the nowadays 201 telephone area code. It sounds a little bit like the people are from New York, but they aren’t. Then there’s something a little distinct about the folks who live up in the northwest corner, maybe Sussex and northern Passaic counties.

You can go 25 or 30 miles (in any direction) outside of the Somerville area, and people start doing funky things with their vowels, or with the consonant “r”. Taking a New Jersey Transit train between Newark and Trenton back-in-the-day (1980’s for me), the fact that I was in a different part of the state was pretty clear. Small things, like the long “o” vowel sound that becomes “oe” around Philadelphia.

They play around with “L”, too. Sometimes it disappears.

I am surprised no one has bothered to put out anything about the linguistic diversity just within one small, but crowded, state.

I like to hear everybody’s different accents.