City Girl Squawk: It’s Like So Bad- It. Really. Sucks?

“I laaaaahv a diiiiivey baaaaaahr,” said a girl with a voice that could crack the ice in her vodka tonic. It was her third drink. She was sitting with a friend at Duke’s (the “divey bar”) on 19th Street off Park Avenue South, wearing a periwinkle scarf around her neck and zebra-print shoes on her feet. She was in her late 20’s, had thick, dark eyebrows and straight, shiny brown hair worn in a long ponytail. She looked like a million other girls in New York: attractive but not pretty, stringy but not skinny, smart but not all that intelligent.

“People’re li- yike, ‘Oh my Gaaaaahd. You luh- iiiiive abu- huuuuv Fawer-teeeeenth Shtreeeeet?’”

More than the pearls or the diamond-stud earrings, what really identified this New Yorker was her voice: those long, whiney vowels; that touch of an early-morning grumble; that lazy, whistling “s” and glottal stop that hushes the “t,” even in such cherished words as “bachelorette.” (Try it her way: Pronounce the imaginary word “bachelorecque”; then subtract only—careful, only!—the “k” sound, leaving your mouth open on the “e.”)

Is it a new dialect? A new accent? Or is it The Affect? Whatever it is, a distinct group of young women in the American Northeast are speaking with warped syllables that are a linguistic love song to their own exclusive milieu.

So meet Kelly and Kristen, Jenna and Jessica, Serena and Stephanie: They may sound something like the whining sorority girls you steered clear of in college. But they just may also be the latest innovators of the English language. They can turn any item on a menu into an ancient Greek’s ritual lament ( Stooooohhhleee owwrindge and taaaahnick!). They can separate emphasis from meaning, transforming the most straight-faced declarations into squeaky questions (“I haiiiiight haaaahr soooh maaaahch?”). They speak in sprawling, hyperbolic anecdotes, packed with pronouns—“he’s like” and “I’m like” and “she goes” and “he goes” and “I was all” and “he was all,” and so on.

To many members of phonetically polite society, the siren whirl of their voices makes them the Eliza Doolittles of the early 21st century.

“Some people think of it as a young-girls shift,” said Bert Vaux, a linguistics professor at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. “The main features are taking place in many, many parts of the country.”

From the San Fernando Valley, where some think the accent has its origins in the infamous Valley Girl, to the soap stores of Soho, young women are communicating differently. But unlike their Cockney counterpart, they don’t peddle wilted flowers in the London markets. They have college diplomas from Georgetown and Penn, and respectable addresses in Kips Bay and wherever else laundry machines in doorman buildings spin Theory pants and Michael Stars shirts in a black and pastel blur. They sell advertising space and plan events in New York City. They practice law ( uhhhhm, ob-juhk- tion?), trade stocks ( baiiiigh? seh-uhhhl?), and eat at swanky restaurants ( sew guuuuuhhhd.) This Affect, however, is not inherited from parents, though it’s an effective tool for extracting money and presents from them. It’s not even picked up in the playground—except in its more posh precincts. It’s caught from other proudly upper-middle-class girls who love nothing more than to linger on a vowel.

“Besides geography, very often accents are tied to ethnicity and very often with class,” said John V. Singler, a sociolinguistics professor at New York University after listening to recordings of the Affect. He emphasized that his was not a conclusive, scientific study. “There was more pitch range than usual. Usually the extremes of pitch change for emphasis, and this wasn’t the case. In terms of the amount of pitch variation, in ordinary sentences and not in places of emphasis—I hadn’t noticed that before.”

A more familiar aspect of the Affect is a high, rising intonation contour, more commonly referred to as “uptalk”—the seemingly contagious practice of lifting the end of every phrase to create the effect of a question.

“It sounds like a pain in the neck,” said William Labov, a University of Pennsylvania linguist and author of the new $620 The Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change.

Why and when people started talking in interrogatives has puzzled people across the country for decades. Some linguists argue that it originated in Australia and traveled via soap opera; professors in New Zealand proudly counter that we owe this pleasure to the Kiwis.

But the important thing, argues Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, is that the group that came up with it “was perceived as cool, cutting-edge, desirable, distinctive.” He said that one possibility with uptalk is that it “ensures that your listener is really listening, really engaged. But then again, everybody in history would have been using it. It’s also consistent with a conspicuous egalitarianism: I’m not lecturing or pontificating—I’m seeking your approval.”

Whatever its origins and purpose, it has now apparently morphed into yet another, perhaps more virulent, strain.

“Offensiveness is in the ear of the beholder. It’s offensive to people who don’t want to see this happen,” said Walt Wolfram, head of the English department at N.C. State University and the former president of the Linguistic Society of America.

Indeed, sensibility has little influence on the course of language. History shows that languages and dialects advance not because they have better vowels and consonants and diphthongs, but because the armies marching across isoglosses have better weapons, the traders have cheaper wares and the doctors better cures.

In short, Latin prevailed because of Caesar, not Cicero. And uptalk—and the New York version of it—is advancing on the tongues of the young career women who are constantly out on the town, armed with cocktails and a seemingly inexhaustible gift of gab.

“It’s clearly spreading,” said Mr. Wolfram.

THERE ARE LOTS OF PEOPLE WHO COME in with this,” said speech therapist Sam Chwat, a modern-day Henry Higgins.

While many of the Affected appear to have no idea they sound as they do, surrounded as they are by cliques that speak their sub-dialect of American English, some are anxious to shake the stigma of stupidity, juvenilia and shallowness many listeners attach to their voices.

On the afternoon of March 17, Mr. Chwat (pronounced shwah; see “bachelorette”) was in his cluttered New York Speech Improvement Services office on West 16th Street, where he gives therapy to women afflicted with the Affect. He sat at a wood desk, in front of a giant plastic ear and surrounded by ceiling-high piles of dictionaries and grammar books, including his own series: “Speak Up! Accent Elimination Program.” Framed photographs of Robert De Niro, Julia Roberts and many other famous people that Mr. Chwat has helped to learn or lose accents hung from the wall. (Less-sterling successes included Roberto Benigni and Christopher Lambert.)

Mr. Chwat said the reformed include news anchors, soap-opera stars and actresses poised to become leading ladies. Though he refused to name names, he offered the generic profile of a woman in her late 20’s or early 30’s who tends to be single, highly self-conscious, fashionable, educated and very—but very—verbal. They complain that their accent, which once identified them with a pack of likeminded friends, was proving to be a disability in the business world. After being lampooned by the water cooler, or getting scolded by bosses for not properly promoting a respectable image of their agency, the women couldn’t bear to listen to their own voices on the answering machine.

“The communicative cosmetic is at odds with who they want to be,” said Mr. Chwat, who speaks with a trace of a New York accent. “The voice complimented them when they were teenagers, but it doesn’t work any longer.”

Mr. Chwat’s Affect clientele consists mostly of Northeasterners, but other experts said that the distinctive patterns and patois could be heard around the country.

Mr. Vaux, who conducted a survey of American dialects while teaching at Harvard, said that while the voice heard increasingly in New York was distinctive, it was not particular to the region.

Trying to pinpoint what made it unique, Mr. Vaux crossed off nasality, which he says is what humans always mistakenly identify as different in foreign speech. He overlooked “like,” for which he said the speakers of Sanskrit also had a penchant. While he also emphasized that his was not a rigorous scientific assessment of the new speech, he noted that the accent involved speaking with a higher average position of the tongue dorsum and perhaps a slightly different configuration of the laryngeal muscles, yielding a slightly creakier voice than is normal in other accents.

It is not surprising that women are spearheading the change in dialect. Many linguists said that women tend to be innovators of language. One widely held theory is that women are most sensitive to social capital and are the gatekeepers of the language, scolding children when they pronounce words incorrectly. The time may not be far off when mothers will be reprimanding their children for not inserting a “like” before an adjective.

While that prospect is disheartening for English purists, the fact is that the language has always been constantly evolving. Even today, Mr. Labov argues that we are in the midst of the “northern city shift,” in which about 34 million people in the inland big cities of the northern United States, from Chicago to Rochester, are speaking a dialect increasingly different from the rest of the country. ( Bosses become busses, block becomes black.)

But the clearest example of that evolution is the Great Vowel Shift, which between the early 15th and late 17th centuries completely changed the way people pronounced words. Vowels moved to higher positions in the mouth, and high vowels melded into diphthongs. (Our spellings in part reflect pre-shift pronunciations, which is why English is so hard to read phonetically.)

That massive change probably reflected social upheavals of the era, when the rising middle classes began infiltrating the gentry. Some look at the Affect speakers permeating through American universities and then corporations and see something similar happening now.

“My feeling is that it represents a real language change in progress,” said Mr. Wolfram. “Some of it may level out, and part of it will be around until it changes again.”

While it can be excruciating to listen to, while it can taint the speaker as a simpleton and nullify the art of argument, the Affect is actually the sign of a vibrant language—at least for the eager Higginses of our time.

“I don’t have a problem with it,” said Mr. Singler, of hearing the accent in his classrooms. “It’s gravy.”

City Girl Squawk: It’s Like So Bad- It. Really. Sucks?