from the archives

You and Your Big Mouth: How the Honks and Wonks Reveal the Phonetic Truth About Status

Tom Wolfe on the accents (elite and otherwise) of New York City.

Photo: Hugo Yu
Photo: Hugo Yu

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in two parts in the April 8 and 15, 1968, issues of New York. We’re republishing it here, along with most of Tom Wolfe’s writing for the magazine, to accompany the September 2023 release of Richard Dewey’s documentary Radical Wolfe. Read our essay about the film and Wolfe’s time at New York here, and Wolfe’s own memoir of the magazine’s early years here.

A Test

The subject should read the following passage out loud. He should not study it first but simply begin reading out loud:

“I always looked forward to going to Loew’s and having a frankfurter after the movie. But it was winter and in this case the electricity in the advertising sign over the entire length of the counter was short-­circuited and splashing these sparks, and I had to linger for the longest time asking myself the question: ‘Is this 25-cent treat, this frankfurter, worth the chance of fry­ing my hands on this manic counter?’ I remember that for the moment I did nothing.”

If the subject was raised in New York, he has just revealed certain intimate facts about his family background, his current class and status and his social ambitions. For example, if he pronounced always as if it were owies; or forward as if it rhymed with lowered; or frankfurter as if It were spelled frankfooter; or electricity as if it were electrizziddy; or for the moment as footer moment — then he is in all proba­bility permanently fixed in a “New York accent,” despite all attempts at education or cultivation, past or future … never to cross over into the magical world of the honks! Ahhh … so many millions, oblivi­ous to that sheerly dividing line …

“Dja do da chem-yet?”
Dja do da chem-yet? 

— this being the voice of a freshman on the campus of CCNY at 139th St. and Convent Avenue the other day asking the question: “Have you done the chemistry assignment yet?” The irony of it is that here is a boy who will probably do da chem and God knows how many other assign­ments extremely well and score about a 3.5 academic average over four years and then go to law school at NYU and get his LL.B — and then for some reason he can’t quite figure out, he never does land the great glistening job he was thinking of at Sullivan & Cromwell or Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Instead, he ends up in … the neighborhood, on the south side of North­ern Boulevard in Bayside, Queens, in an office he shares with a real estate man, an old friend of his from here in Bayside — ­which some of the local wiseacres call Brayside, because of all the “Brooklyn” and “Bronx” accents you hear here in Queens now —

Whaddya mean it’s his voice? He’s up­graded the da with the by now, hasn’t he? And hasn’t he replaced the r’s he’s been dropping all these years — well, a few of them, anyway: “This is the first house we evuh owned. We have a gahden an my wife is the gahdneh … “

… here in Brayside …

The same day, in the little exotic knick­knacks boutique on the ground floor of Henri Bendel, on 57th Street just west of Fifth: a nice New York girl home from St. Timothy’s, St. Tim’s, the boarding school in Maryland. She and a girlfriend of hers are walking around town checking boys, among other things. It’s true! They can tell just by looking at him whether a boy goes to an Eastern prep school or not. Not only that, they can tell which prep school, usually, St. Paul’s or Hotchkiss or Groton or Exeter or Andover, or what­ever; just by checking his hair and his clothes. And certainly if they can get just one sentence out of him —

— like this gorgeous boy here, a tall milk-fed stud in a Brooks yellow shirt and tasseled loafers fumbling over a Cameroons egret-skin hassock with his tweedy-thatchy Prince Charles hanging over his brow and — He’s Exeter, or pos­sibly Andover. That is obvious immedi­ately from the tie. His tie is tied properly at the throat. but the ends are slung over his left shoulder, after the fashion. And their eyes meet, and then his eyes shift to her shoes, naturally, and then he looks into her eyes again, into her soul, as it were, and says:

“Those are real Guccis, aren’t they?”

Bliss! It’s all there! Past, present, fu­ture! Certified! The Guccis, of course, being her loafers, bought at Gucci’s, 699 Fifth Avenue, with the authentic Gucci gold chain across the tongue and not any of the countless imitations of the Gucci loafer. A shorthand! A very metonymy! For the whole Eastern board­ing school thing, but more than that — the honk! He has it, the Eastern boy’s board­ing school honk, lifting every vowel­ — Those are real Guccis, aren’t they? — up over the roof of his palate and sticking them into his nose and honking them out without moving his lower jaw. And there in one sentence he has said it all, announced that he belongs in the world of the New York honks, of the honks who rule and possess all and who every day sound the secret honk of New York wealth and posi­tion; the nasal knighthood of the Bobby Kennedys, the Robert Dowlings, Hun­tington Hartfords, Nelson Rockefellers, Thomas Hovings, Averell Harrimans­ — for in New York the world is sheerly but secretly divided into the honks and the wonksDja do da chem yet? — and this fumbling milk-fed Exeter stud will carry a C-plus straight to Wall Street or mid-­Manhattan, for he is one of us, you under­stand —

Very ironic — the way New Yorkers at every class level delighted for years in My Fair Lady on stage and screen. My Fair Lady, of course, was the musical version of Shaw’s play, Pygmalion, about a lin­guistics professor, Henry Higgins, turning a Cockney flower seller into a lady of So­ciety by upgrading her accent. That silly, stuffy English class system! — whereupon we all settled back and just enjoyed the Cinderella love story. It was just as well. It is probably a good thing that no Henry Higgins has come along to wake up New York to the phonetic truth about class and status in this city …

I have just been talking to a man who could do it if he chose to, however, Pro­fessor Marshall D. Berger of CCNY. Berger is one of the country’s leading geo­graphical linguists, one of those extraordinary people, like Henry Lee Smith of the old radio days, who can listen to a man for 30 seconds and tell what part of what state he was raised in. Berger is a big man, tall, husky, casual. He is 47 years old and has lived in New York since he was 13 and his family moved from Buffalo to Liberty Avenue in the East New York section of Brooklyn, where the kids all thought it was odd to the point of weird that he said things like core-respondence instead of cah-respondence and referred to the well-known game of go’f as gawlf. He wrote an honors thesis at CCNY in 1941 on “The Sources of New York Speech,” and then a doctoral dissertation at Columbia on “American-English Pro­nunciations of Russian-born immigrants.” And so for the past 27 years lie has been doomed by his own brilliance to listen, day in and day out, to New Yorkers un­consciously confessing their ancestry, their status, their social yearnings, every time they open their struggling lips.

“This is a very sensitive area you’re asking me about,” he tells me. “The first thing you’ll notice is that people in New York always invent euphemisms when they get on the subject of speech. They don’t want to talk about ethnic back­ground or class. In fact, people, it seems to me, are much more candid about their sex life than their status. Class — there’s the truly taboo subject. So they invent euphemisms. They talk about a ‘Brook­lyn’ accent or a ‘Bronx’ accent, when what they’re really talking about are working class and lower middle class accents found all over the city. Years ago, when Brook­lyn was still a big farm, they talked about the ‘Bowery’ accent.”

Berger’s own voice sounds to me like Radio Announcer Rugged, if you know that sound. In any case —

“Even the newspapers, at this late date, observe the taboo. I remember the Post’s biographical sketch of a local college pres­ident. ‘His speech betrays his Bronx ori­gins,’ they wrote. They were talking about ‘lower class’ and I suppose the readers get the point, but everyone observes the taboo.”

“The same goes for ‘New York accent.’ Nothing pleases most New Yorkers more than to be told that they’ve ‘lost their New York accent.’ This is ironic, on the face of it, since New York is one of the great cos­mopolitan centers of the world. But what they’re thinking about, of course, is class. ‘I’ve lost my lower class accent,’ they’re thinking. Incidentally, people who tell you ‘I’ve lost this or that accent’ or ‘I really don’t have any accent anymore’ are almost invariably fooling themselves. What they’ve done in most cases is change a couple of obvious vowels or consonants — they may have changed their pronunciation of ex­ample from ex-EHM-ple, which is lower class or lower middle class, to ex-AM-ple, or something of the sort — but they’ve sel­dom changed their basic pattern. Even broadcasters.

The glorious New York accent!

In ’is town deh’s nuh-uhn doin at da foist of da week, so I was lookin at a likka avatise­ment an I bought a bah-uhl an relaxed.

All this glorious dropping of r’s and g’s and d’s and muffing of the voiceless lin­guadental fricative (turning the th sound into d) and reducing vowels until they almost disappear — the usual explanation has been the waves of immigrants to New York in the 1890s and early 1900s. New York, of course, had had waves of im­migrants before. But they were chiefly northern Europeans, Irish, German, Dutch, English, and they were middle as well as lower class. The new immigrants were chiefly from eastern and southern Europe, and they were lower class; Italians, Ukrai­nians, Poles, Russians, Greeks, Eastern European Jews, speaking Italian, Greek, Yiddish, Russian and other Slavic tongues. Part of the ‘New York accent’ that de­veloped was a blend of the new speech patterns with English words.

For example, of the new tongues only Greek had the th sound. The result was millions of New Yorkers saying wid for with and dis for this. Or: in Yiddish a t in the middle of a word, like winter, was pro­nounced much more emphatically than it is in English. To this day the New Yorker who says win-ta or fundamen-tal is usu­ally someone from a home where Yiddish was spoken. Likewise the heavily accented g, as in sin-ga for singer and Lon Gy-land for Long Island. Other innovations were in rhythm. Some of the most flamboyant came from Southern Italian and Sicilian lower class speech, with the old … So I says to my brudd’n’law, ‘Awriiide, so whad­dya wan me to do,’ I says to him, ‘whaddya whaddya or sump’m?’ 

These were all foreign flavors coming into New York English, but many of the elements of the “New York accent” had been here for years before the 1890 wave of immigrants; notably, such things as dis for this and foist for first. Berger’s theory hits on a far more subtle point. Namely, street masculinity. Here were millions of working class people massed into lower Manhattan, and their sons fell into the street life. On the street the big thing was physical competition, even if it was only stickball or, today, rock ’em games of basketball on a concrete slab shooting for a basket with a metal back­board and a rim with no net on it … In any case, the emphasis was always on the large muscles.

For a start, the street thing led to rapid speech in which words are swallowed whole, r’s are dropped, vowels are reduced to the vanishing point and even some hard consonants disappear. A three-syllable word like memory gets reduced to one-­and-a-half or less: m’m’r. Bottle becomes bah-uhl, little becomes lih-uhl. A pronun­ciation like lih-uhl is what is known as a glottal stop, in which the double-t is replaced by what is in fact a miniature cough. It is common in New York City, although in England, among the lower classes, the glottal stop sometimes re­places p’s and k’s as well as t’s. Street masculinity has also led New Yorkers to carry their tongues low in their mouths like dockworkers’ forearms. The result is some heavy handling of many consonants: T’s and d’s get dropped or mushed around. Most people’s speech patterns are set between the ages of 5 and 15, and they are not likely to revamp them in any thorough way after that without some­thing on the order of dramatic training. Often not even that will do it. A boy growing up on the street may unconsci­ously scorn the kind of delicate muscle play an upper class boy learns in articulating words. The fancy work with the tip of the tongue in pronouncing portraiture, for example, may strike him as effete, even epicene. It seems to me that when it comes to prep school honks like Averell Harriman, or Thomas Hoving — well, it doesn’t matter how many worlds they have conquered or how old they are. As soon as they open their mouths, a bell goes off in the brains of most local-bred New York males: sissy. Here are a coupla kids who woulda got mashed in the street life. Mayor Lindsay (St. Paul’s) suffers slightly from this disability; also Bobby Kennedy (Milton Academy). Kennedy has taken the edge off his Bugs Bunny delicacy, of course, with public displays of masculinity of various sorts.

Women generally try much harder than men in New York to escape from the rock-­bottom working class accents, but they are often unaware of where the true … honk­-wonk divide lies. They tug and pull on their accents, but often only get them into a form that the upper orders can laugh at in musical comedies. There is the musical comedy working girl, for example, who is always saying

Oh, Mr. Steiiiiiin, I had such a foiiiiin toiiiiime, pronouncing the i as if she has wrapped it around a Clorox bottle. In real life she is not a lower class girl at all, but lower middle class.

The lower middle class girl who says toiiiime may also be aware, instinctively, that the muscle-bound tongue accounts for much of the lower class sound. So she begins using her tongue in a vigorous way in pronouncing all sorts of things — only she overdoes it. She shoves her words all over the place but still doesn’t hit them cleanly. This is the common phenomenon of the beautiful girl — “but she ruined it as soon as she opened her mouth.” Here she is with her Twiggy eyes, Eve Nelson curly look, a wool jersey mini from Plymouth’s, patent leather pseudo-Guccis from A.S. Beck — and a huge rosy lingual blob roiling around between her ortho­dontic teeth.

The oi sound in toiiiiime, by the way, is not to be confused with the so-called “Brooklyn” oi sound comedians always used to mimic: “Da oily boid gets da woim,” “She read da New Yoik Woild,” “She lives on Toity-toid Street.” These are all examples of dropping r’s and substituting oi for the er sound. Today you are only likely to, hear it from older working class people, such as some of the old cab drivers. This is one lower class sound that dates back well before 1890 and is not even a peculiarly New York pronuncia­tion. The same sound — it is actually closer to ui than oi, more like fuist than foist­ — can be heard today in two Southern port cities, Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans, among both upper and lower class people. A century ago upper class New Yorkers used the same pronunciation, only with a slightly flutier intonation. Sort of the way Berger’s old party pronounced “Twenty­-thuid Street.” About half a century ago upper class New Yorkers began changing their pronunciation of first from a flutey fuist to a Boston or English fuhst.

This is all r-dropping, as I say, and it is one of the most subtle and vital matters in phonetic social climbing in New York. This is where middle class strivers get caught out — as usual, I suppose. The New Yorker who has risen above wid and exehmple and even toiiime and aspires to true bourgeois status will next start to re­place all the r’s he or his family has been dropping all his life.

The first pahty I went to was in my senya yearr — and so forth — not realizing that in the upper orders he envies everybody is busy dropping r’s like mad, in the ancient English mode.

Many New Yorkers have taken con­scious pains to upgrade their accents so­cially and confidently believe that they now have the neutral accent of “a radio announcer.” Three pronunciations almost invariably give them away: owies for always (lower class l dropping); fo’ud for forward (dropping the r and the w); frankfooter for frankfurter and footer mo­ment for for the moment (lower class r dropping).

“The fact is,” Berger tells me, “that a person who tries to change one or two ele­ments in his speech pattern may end up in worse shape than he thought he was to be­gin with. His original pattern may not be prestigious, but it may be very good in terms of its internal arrangements, and he may succeed only in upsetting the equilib­rium. Frankly, I like to hear people like Vito Battista and Jimmy Breslin talk. They have working class accents and they don’t care who knows it. They’re very confident, that’s the main thing. ‘Dis is da way I tawk an dis is da way I’m gonna tawk, an you betta lissen.’ A person’s speech pat­tern is bound up with so many things, his personality, his role, his ambitions, that you can’t deal with it in isolation or simply in terms of some ‘ideal’.”

Yes … but! … suppose your ideal is to get your daughter’s picture on the first
page of the Wedlock Section of the Sun­day Times, and not in one of those scrimey little one-paragraphers at the bottom of the page, either — you know those little one-paragraphers, the ones hog-to-jowl up against the Arnold Constable ad with a little headlinette over the paragraph saying:


Suppose you’re after the pole position, up at the top of the page, with a big three-­column picture all downy silk with back-­lighting rising up behind her head like a choir of angels are back there singing and glowing, and a true headline proclaiming:

Bethrothal Announced

This and other matters in the world of the honk, such as the Spotted Bostonian and the Locust Valley Lockjaw, and the Dah-ling, I would like to discuss in the next installment. But I can offer one hint now. One option is to do what Mrs. Bou­vier did with her daughter Jacqueline. Namely, pack her off to a Virginia board­ing school, from whence she can return to New York bearing what the press chooses to call a “little girl voice” but which is known in the secret honk world as the “Southern 45-degree Upturn,” in which your daughter turns her mouth up 45 de­grees at either end, then her eyeballs, and says:

Ah you rilly an ahkitect?
Ah you rilly a docta?
Ah you rilly a Senata?

And travel fuhst class forever after.

Another Test

Photo: Hugo Yu

The subject should read the following sentence out loud. He should not study it first but should, rather, simply start read­ing: “Mary is having a merry Christmas in Florida but she is sorry her vacation is ending soon.”

The subject, if he is American and white, has just revealed what part of the country he was raised in. For example, if he pronounced “merry” as if it rhymed with “cherry” and “sorry” as if it were spelled “sahrry” and “Florida” as “Flah­rida,” he was raised in New York City or Hudson County, New Jersey (Hoboken). If he pronounced “merry” as if it were spelled “mairy” and “sorry” as “sawrry” and ”Florida” as ”Flawrida,” he is from — ­Pittsburgh. This is an example of ”lexi­cal incidence.” Pretty deadly business, this lexical incidence. One has only to think of all the aspiring matrons who have come to New York seeking the upper reaches of the social order … confident that they have mastered all the tones of the languid New York Social Female accent … only to have Pittsburgh or Chicago … Midwest! the Balkans of America … reeking from their lexical incidence … see the fatback Bulgar toads parade about in Bergdorf clothes …

The broad a has very little social cachet in New York. Quite the opposite, in fact. The broad a is part of a pattern known as Upper Class Schrafft’s. They’re wonderful women, these old babes of the Upper Class Schrafft’s world. As near as I can make out, they are the wives or widows of men like … a chief accountant for an “occasional furniture” wholesaler — Harry Valtin the Kidney-Kurve Koffee-Table King! — or the like, and they were born in South Akron but they have lived in New York 30 years and one thing you have to keep reminding people of in New York is … well, your quality … And they start about 11 a.m. preparing their faces with EstroDreme Hormonal liquid makeup for Mature Moderns and by 12:30 they’re into their three-piece peach wool suits from Best & Co. with fur trim around the collar and the cuffs and a hat with an enormous puffed-up crown of cream-colored velvet sitting up on top of their apricot hair like a wedge of lasagna. By 1 p.m. they are sunk down into a chair and amid the wall-to-wall and the plate glass in the board room of a midtown brokerage house. They take notes when the Automatex quotation comes jiggling and simpering across the Big Board, by way of keeping up appear­ances. Despite which they are known to the hired help as Board Room Bums. But by 3 p.m. they can — Rapture! — begin to assemble at Schrafft’s at 58th Street and Madison Avenue over cheeseburgers or milkshakes, but mainly sundaes with towers of ice cream and nuts and sauces and fudge such as the outside world has never dreamed of, crinkling the liquid base around their eyes in a thousand thought­ful ways and saying to one another:

Ackshew-ly, I think Automatex is rahther pahst its peak — all the while eye­ing the great alp of ice cream, the perfect steamy circle of cheeseburger, for the secret art of the midafternoon in Schrafft’s, the pacing and the Final Shape.

Oh, ab-slootly, those computer sort-of-things cahn’t possibly lahst — the pacing, as I say, and the final shape. For it is not enough merely to consume the sundae, like an animal. No; one must pace it along with the others at the table so that they don’t have some left to look forward to after one has finished one’s own. And more important, one’s last bite — that Final Shape — must be, in fact, a very replica, a miniature, of the original sundae. They’re all sitting in there at Schrafft’s at 3 p.m., a great sea of glorious old girls, nursing their sundaes and cheeseburgers down to the perfect Final Shape, as in some Taoist paradigm of macrocosm and microcosm. But wait a minute — one old babe at the table has just ordered a chopped steak:

No, I cahn’t have tomahtoes or egg plahnt. And the waitress, who has taken all this in, is saying:

Well, do you want french fried potah­toes? Or Julienne potahtoes? Or mashed potahtoes? Or boiled potahtoes? Or baked potahtoes? Or potahtoes au gratin? Or new potahtoes? Or potahto chips? Or shoestring potahtoes? Or potahto salad? Or hash-brown potahtoes?

Potahtoes? Is this mockery — or is the poor dear attempting to add grace notes to her voice? But it couldn’t possibly be mockery, not here. The waitresses here are the most understanding in all of New York, even to the point of knowing, tac­itly, about the Final Shape. So that when one’s cheeseburger is two-thirds eaten and it is obvious that one has already con­sumed so much of the cheese that there will not be enough left for the Final Shape, one has only to ask her for more cheese and she will take one’s cheeseburger, two­thirds eaten, back and have a slab of cheese broiled onto the remains — bliss!

Meanwhile, the true social heavies among New York’s old babes will have gathered about 1 p.m. for the Status Lunch, and the accents will be quite differ­ent. The Status Lunch is a peculiarly New York institution in this country, although the same thing goes on in a less manic way in Paris and London. The Status Lunch is where women who have reached the upper social orders gather during the week, so that they may … well, simply celebrate their status. They may be at the top through family background or marriage or other good fortune. In any case they are mostly in their late 30s or in their 40s or early 50s, starving themselves to near perfection in order to retain … the look, with just a few piano wires showing in their necks and forearms and the backs of their hands, from where the body packing is deterio­rating. Or maybe they have begun to let themselves go into that glorious creamy camembert look in which the flesh on the shoulders and upper back and the backs of their arms looks like it could be shaped with a butter knife. They are Pucci’d and Gucci’d up to their temporal fossas, Pucci in the dress, Gucci in the shoes and hand­bags — the Pucci-Gucci girls! — yes. They start pulling into Status Lunch restaurants in the East and West 50s, such as La Grenouille, Lutece, Orsini’s, about 1 p.m. and make a great point of calling the maître d’ by his first name, which at La Grenouille is Paul, then peer into that ochre golden mirrored gloom to case the important tables, which are along the walls in the front room, by way of weighing the social weight of today’s gathering, as it were. Then they suck in their cheeks — near perfection! — and begin the entrance, looking straight ahead, as if they couldn’t be more oblivious of who else is there, but waiting, hopefully, for the voice —

Dah-ling dah-ling dah-ling.

There it is! — the dah-ling voice, a lan­guid weak baritone, not a man’s voice, you understand, but a woman’s, The New York Social Baritone, like that of a 48-year-old male dwarf who just woke up after smoking three packs of Camels the day before, and then the social kisses, right out in the middle of the restaurant, with everybody locking heads, wincing slightly from the concentration on not actually pressing the lips, which would smudge the lipstick, or maybe even the powder cover­ing the electrolysis lines above the lips, with the Social Baritone dah-ling voices beginning to bray softly in each other’s ears, like an ensemble of cellos — we are all here! This voice cannot be achieved without some 10 or 15 years of smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky or gin, which literally smoke-cures and pickles the vocal cords and changes them from soprano to the golden richness of bari­tone. It takes, on the average, at least 13,000 cigarettes over a 10-year period. In pronunciation, the dah-ling voice seeks to set itself off from both the urgency (what’s going to hit the fan next?) of the lower-class female voice and the usual efficiency (must pronounce everything correctly) of the middle-class female voice with a languor and a nasal honk, connot­ing ease, leisure, insouciance. Two tech­niques are the most vital: dropping r’s, as in dahling, and pronouncing most accented vowels with a sigh thrown in, particularly the a’s and o’s, as in —

Dahling, I caaaaan’t. I just did the Mehhhht and you know, the sets were stunnnnnning, Myron le Poove I think he is, but it was the most booooooring-sawt-­of-thing — with the vowels coming out of the nose in gasps as if she is going to run out of gas at any moment.

And yet! She has worked on this voice for 10 years, producing her deep rich pre-­cancerous vocal cords, but it gives off the deadly odor: parvenu. The dahling voice, heard so often at Status Lunches and country weekends and dinner parties where two wine glasses are used, is almost invariably that of the striver who has come upon the upper-class honk voice too late in life. She has picked up a number of key principles: the nasality, the languor, the oiliness, the r-dropping. But she does not understand the underlying principle, which is historical. Her attention is fixed upon New York, and as a result her voice takes on a New York theatrical manner, a staginess, in the Tallulah Bankhead mode, which is show-business upper class, not honk upper class. The certified honk up­per-class woman in New York has her at­tention fixed, phonetically although un­consciously, on Boston and the Rich­mond-Charleston social axis of the South.

The secret here, as among New York male honks, is the boarding school. The outstanding girls’ boarding schools are oriented, socially, toward the 19th-century upper-class traditions of Boston and the South, which, until after World War I, had far more social clout than the upper class world of New York. Miss Hall’s, Miss Porter’s, Westover and Dana Hall are all girls’ boarding schools where an old Bos­ton upper-class tradition dominates, just as Foxcroft (Jackie Kennedy’s school), Madeira, Chatham Hall, Garrison Forest and St. Catherine’s, are still schools where the Richmond-Charleston tradition domi­nates. New York girls bring back the Bos­ton or Southern sound in a somewhat crude form, but nevertheless it is not a New York sound. It is neither a street sound nor a theatrical sound nor an Eng­lish sound. Its components are nasality, languor, oiliness, r-dropping — but with shorter, clearer, more open vowels than the dahling voice. If the girl has gone to a Southern school, like Jackie Kennedy, she will tend to have a soft, childish voice. If she has gone to a “Boston” school, the speech will be much brisker and yet still languid and oily, as if lubricated ball bearings were pouring out of both nostrils.

In the 19th century, the New York up­per classes were much more directly in­fluenced by Boston and the South. Boston overshadowed New York in many phases of business, finance and law and was un­questionably New York’s social superior in the area of Culture and the Arts. The New York upper classes had close ties with the Southern upper classes because of the shipping trade, Southern planters came to New York continually for financing, and packet boats loaded with cotton came to New York on the way to England. About 1940, linguists at CCNY made re­cordings of the voices of old New Yorkers, people in their 70s and 80s, most of them upper middle class, in order to get an idea of what speech patterns were like in New York in the 19th century. They tended to speak in a medley of Boston and Southern accents. One old party reminisced about an old structure on 23rd Street as “the old struk-cha on Twenty-thuid Street,” with struk-cha a combination of the clipped Boston accent of struk and the Boston -dropping of cha; and Twenty-thuid a case of Southern-style upper class r-dropping, substituting a diphthong vowel sound, ui, for the standard er sound in third. Socially, New York was considered an ex­citing but crude town, and New York’s upper classes felt the sense of inferiority and preferred to sound like they came from some better spot. Even today some honks still use the Southern upper-class pronunciation of thuid for third, although most have shifted over the past half-cen­tury to a more Bostonian thuhd. They still drop the r in any case.

Boys as well as girls, of course, learn the honk voice in prep school, and the same principle applies: the voice should suggest­ a languor that will separate one from the lower orders. The lower jaw is moved much less than in ordinary speech and the words are lifted up over the palate and secreted through the nose rather than merely blurted out of the mouth. The rigidity of the jaw may resemble an afflic­tion to a person who has never watched someone speak this way before. In fact, the E.S.A. (Eastern Socially Attractive) accent that is often heard on the north shore of Long Island in communities such as Huntington and Oyster Bay is known as Locust Valley Lockjaw. The same voice is known in Riverdale as Spotted Bostonian. Socially ambitious people in Riverdale often try to keep their voices up by spend­ing their summers in the select vacation communities of the Boston upper orders on the Maine shore.

Honk voices may fall anywhere in a range from Boston-Honk to New York–­Honk. Leaning toward the Boston-Honk would be Bobby Kennedy (Milton Acad­emy), Averell Harriman (Groton), the late Christian Herter (St. Paul’s), and the late John F. Kennedy (Choate). The worst liabilities of the honk voice to a politician, quite aside from the class overtones, are the monotony and the delicacy and weak­ness brought about by this sort of voice’s emphasis on languor and refinement. Bobby Kennedy, like his late brother, has great difficulty in conventional oratory from a rostrum. His voice was trained in delicacy rather than strength and tends to turn shrill at the very moment when the heavy chord should be hit. He always sounds like a 17-year-old valedictorian with the goslings. In the case of Harriman and Herter, it was the nerve-gas monotony of the honk voice that caused them trouble as much as anything else.

The perfect New York honk voice is Huntington Hartford’s (St. Paul’s). Other notable New York honks are Nelson Rockefeller and Robert Dowling, the real estate and investment tycoon. Both Rocke­feller and Dowling have the nasality of the honk voice but not nearly the delicacy of the same voice as practiced by Bobby Ken­nedy or even Mayor Lindsay (St. Paul’s). The explanation, most likely, is that both Rockefeller and Dowling went to prep school in the city, Rockefeller at the Lin­coln School and Dowling at Cutler. Rockefeller has gradually coarsened his voice for his public appearances. It is a kind of honk with a knish jammed in it, although he uses much more a conven­tional soft honk in private conversation. One of the ironies of the 1962 race for governor was that Rockefeller’s upper­-class voice with a knish in it was so much more effective among the lower­-class masses in New York than that of his upper-middle-class opponent, Robert Morgenthau. As a result of his time at Deerfield Academy, Morgenthau’s voice had taken on a kind of honk subtlety and delicacy that made him, not Rockefeller, sound like the Fauntleroy in the plot.

Lindsay has come down off the honk accent somewhat by inserting r’s where they would ordinarily be dropped, making his speech sound almost middle class at points. He also refers to St. Paul’s as his “high school” from time to time, as if it were nothing more than a kind of Horace Mann or DeWitt Clinton unaccountably set out in Concord, New Hampshire. This is a laugh and a half to all old “Paulies,” who are generally fond of St. Paul’s repu­tation as the most snobbish school in America.

Even Amy Vanderbilt has been rough­ing up her female honk accent by adding middle class r’s, perhaps in an unconscious rub-off from the various bourgeois com­mercial interests with which she is in­volved. In general, the public spotlight tends to make honks nervous about their voices, whether they are politicians or performers or merely celebrities. Very few have the self-assurance to just keep pour­ing it on, the way Roosevelt did:

I hate wooouugggggggghawwwwwwwww­wwgggggghhhhhhhh — meaning war.

Boys today at St. Paul’s, Groton, Mid­dlesex, Hotchkiss, Deerfield, St. Mark’s, St. George’s, Exeter, Andover and the rest of them are strangely goosey about it themselves. They are apparently hung up on the masculinity thing, as they might put it, rather preferring to have both the social certification of the languid, delicate honk voice and the ruggedness and virility of various street voices. The upshot has been that they have kept the honk voice but picked up the spade-dope argot of Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side and other lower-middle-class bohemias, studding the most improbable conversa­tions with the inarticulate litany of “like-I mean-you-know-man” intoned in a kind of Bugs Bunny Bobby Kennedy honk spew of lubricated B-B’s:

Laiike, nyew nyeoow, man, Ai mean, Fisha’s Island is a groove and a gas com­paaaiiihed to Deeah Island and, like, now, Ai mean, Wildwood, Nyew Juhsey, is prackly a mind-blowagggh …

And the whole honk world sinks, wonk­ing, into a vast dummy Welt-smeared nostalgia for the mud.

“Honk” is a term of Eastern prep school derivation, connoting both the nasal quality of the upper class voice and its presumably authoritative sound, commanding obedience, like the horn of a large 1936 Packard. It is not to be confused with “honkie,” the current Negro slang word for “white man,” which is apparently a variation on a still older slang word, “hunky,” originally a term of opprobrium for Hungarian immigrants to the U.S. “Wonk” is an Eastern prep-school term referring to all those who do not have the “honk” voice, i.e., all who are non-aristocratic. There is some conjecture that the term is derived in the natural Anglophile bias of Eastern social life from the English adjective “wonky,” meaning unsteady, shaky, feeble, awry, off. In current use, however, “wonk” is a vague, all-inclusive term, closely akin to the terms “wog” and “wop,” which are sometimes used at Eastern prep schools to refer to all the rest of humanity.
You and Your Big Mouth: Tom Wolfe on the New York Accent