1 AM Saturday Morning 12 October 2012 Nunhead Heights.

‘When you come from Noo Yawk, you tawk like diss.’

I paid $3600 to the late speech guru Sam Chwat in 1984 to get rid of my New York accent. If you know me you’re thinking he did a piss poor job but you should have heard me before.

‘Dree for dree’. That is how I would have pronounced my Nunhead bus – the 343 to London Bridge and New Cross Gate – had I not discovered the great Sam Chwat.

I took the lessons so I could sell advertising space to the paper manufacturer in Appleton, Wisconsin and furniture manufacturer in Zeeland, Michigan. The New York accent is perfect if you want someone in mid-America to take you for cop or cabbie or criminal but if you want them to trust you you’d better sound like George Clooney. I was trying for Walter Cronkite, the newsman.

Old school New Yorkers of a certain class and education didn’t pronounce the TH sound. It is a dental fricative – meaning you have to vibrate your tongue through your teeth – and not generally spoken around the world. The Spanish and the Greeks have similar sounds but most languages don’t. 

The French say ‘sree’. The Germans ‘zree’, the Irish say ‘tree’ and people from South London say ‘free’.  In Northern England they don’t say ‘free’. They say ‘tree’ from the Irish influx.

In Nunhead, the common pronunciation of the 343 bus is ‘free for free bus’.

Tell me if I am wrong. I’m not a journalist nor am I linguist and I am not good with accents as I don’t like to listen to other people.

The change in pronunciation away from old school English bothers me.

Runway Three? Runway Free? Or even Runway Tree?

You’d want your pilot or air traffic controller to know and hear the difference. Runway Three is not ‘free’ as there is a ‘tree’ on it. If it is free and there is a tree on the runway…

‘Is this the free bus or the free bus?’ ‘Free, I fink.’

At least my New Yorkese ‘dree’ is just a sound and not another word. That’s how I justify it.

I shouldn’t care but I do.

I care because my mother was so unreliable that I searched for the constant in the world. I should do an entire post about this. Please remind me.

Of course, there is nothing constant in this world. All change is unstoppable. The basic teaching of Buddhism, according to Dr. Suzuki, is transiency. Everything changes.

The New York accent has morphed during my lifetime. ‘Dems and does’ – ‘thems and thoses’ – has moved out to the Jersey Shore with the old Italian, Irish and Russians.

The new New Yorkers talk all like Rosie Perez or J.Lo and shit, as Puerto Ricans and southern blacks moved in, and the middle class returned to New York from across America, and they’re using the TH sound again. Maybe in a few years you won’t be hearing ‘dems or does’ at all. I’ll rage against that, too.

There is change going on as England. It is being inundated with people who cannot pronounce the TH as it used to be pronounced. The Poles, Nigerian, French, and Somalis don’t have that sound in their languages.

The question is: Tree or Free? Or will ‘Three’ make a comeback because it is needed to stop planes landing on unfree runways with trees on them?

But more important: Will I learn how to stop fighting every fing that changes?

PS: I didn’t really have to pay the $3600. My health insurance company footed the bill. If you want to know why health insurance is so high, look no further than this.

@lewisschaffer – twitter feed

Listen to Lewis Schaffer on the Radio Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer every Monday evening at 10:30PM on www.resonancefm.com and 104.4fm London. Or listen to the show’s podcasts at bit.ly/NunheadAmericanRadio

See Lewis Schaffer live every Tuesday and Wednesday: Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, The Source Below, 11 Lower John Street, London W1F 9TY. Come on down. Free admission. Or reserve at bit.ly/londonfreeshow

4 thoughts on “Speak the Queen’s English, this American says. Say ‘three’ not ‘free’ or ‘tree’

Leave a Reply