New York City English
New York City English is a regional dialect of the English language that is spoken by many people in New York City and much of its surrounding metropolitan area. Pioneer variationist sociolinguist William Labov describes it as the most recognizable variety of North American English.
The English spoken in northern New Jersey and the English spoken in all but the east end of Long Island  are typically considered varieties or sub-dialects of New York City English, while Hudson Valley English is distinct from, yet has much in common with, New York City English. The dialect of Philadelphia has some distinctive similarities with New York City (such as a raised /ɔ/ vowel, as in coffee, and a phonemic split in /æ/, as in mad); but they differ in other respects and are considered different dialect regions. In contrast, in central and western New York State, Inland Northern American English predominates.
- 1 History and usage
- 2 Macrosocial extensions
- 3 Linguistic features
- 4 Notable speakers
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 External links
History and usage
The origins of New York City English are diverse, and the source of many features is probably not recoverable. Labov has pointed out that the short-A split is found in southern England as mentioned above. He also claims that the vocalization and subsequent loss of (R) was copied from the prestigious London pronunciation, and so it started among the upper classes in New York and later spread to other socioeconomic classes but now only applied to the socioeconomic scale. This non-rhotic (R-less) aristocratic pronunciation can be heard, for instance, in recordings of Franklin D. Roosevelt. After WWII, the R-ful pronunciation (rhotic) becomes the prestige norm, and what was once the upper class pronunciation became a vernacular one, with the loss of Britain’s imperial status, and because of the predominance of the mainstream American dialect named General American.
Instead of London accent, the prestige New York sociolect is closely related to rhotic accents of other British English dialects, particularly Scottish English, Irish English, Mid Ulster English, and rhotic accents of England (particularly found in the West Country (south and west of a line from near Shrewsbury to around Portsmouth), the Corby area, most of Lancashire (north and west of the centre of Manchester), some parts of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and in the areas that border Scotland). However, the common association of the New York accent with the working and middle class has, since the latter half of the 20th century, led many upper class New Yorkers to refrain from speaking with a New York accent.
Other vernacular pronunciations, such as the dental (D)s and (T)s may come from contact with languages such as Italian and Yiddish. Grammatical structures, such as the lack of inversion in indirect questions, have the flavor of contact with an immigrant language. As stated above, many words common in New York are of immigrant roots.
Beyond New York
As a result of social and commercial contact between the two cities, and the influx of immigrants from the same countries, the traditional dialect of New Orleans, Louisiana, known locally as Yat, bears distinctive similarities with the New York dialect, including palatalization of the /ɜr/ vowel, a similar split in the short-a system, and fortition of /θ/. Albany, New York, and northern New Jersey, also display influence from the New York City dialect.
New York City English is closely confined to the geographically small but densely populated New York City dialect region, which consists of the city's five Boroughs, Western Long Island although the border there is not clearly established, the lower Hudson Valley, and several nearby cities in northeastern New Jersey, e.g., Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City, Bayonne, and Newark. However, the terms “New York English” and “New York dialect” are, strictly speaking, misnomers. The classic New York dialect is centered on middle and working class European Americans, and this ethnic cluster now accounts for less than half of the city's population. Now, the most secure strongholds of the New York dialect are arguably the suburban areas of Nassau County, western Suffolk County, Westchester County, Rockland County, northern and southwestern Queens, southern Brooklyn, and Staten Island, although many strong New York dialect speakers remain in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. Finally, despite common references to a "Bronx accent" or a "Brooklyn accent", no published study has found any feature that varies internally beyond local names. Impressions that the dialect varies geographically may be a byproduct of class and/or ethnic variation.
The variations of New York City English are a result of the layering of ethnic speech starting with the native Lenape tribe and the influence from the waves of immigrants that settled in the city, from the earliest settlement by the Dutch and English, followed in the 1800s by the Irish and western Europeans (typically of French, German, and Scandinavian descent). Over time these collective influences combined to give New York its distinctive accent. Up until the earlier 20th century, many Eastern European Jewish and Italian immigrants, as well as some later immigrants, arrived and further affected the region's speech. Sociolinguistic research, which is ongoing, suggests some differentiation between these last groups' speech may exist. For example, William Labov found differences in the rate and degree of the tensing and raising of (oh) and (aeh) of Italian American versus Jewish American New Yorkers. Jewish Americans were more likely than other groups to use the closest variants of (oh) and Italian Americans were more likely than other groups to use the closest variants of (aeh). In the NPR interview linked below, Labov talks about Irish origin features being the most stigmatized. Still, Labov argues that these differences are relatively minor, more of degree than kind. All European American groups share the relevant features.
One area that is likely to reveal robust patterns is usage among Orthodox Jews. Such features include fully released final stops and certain Yiddish contact features, such as topicalizations of direct objects (e.g., constructions such as Esther, she saw! or A dozen knishes, you bought!). There is also substantial use of Yiddish and particularly Hebrew words. It could be argued that such features are not characteristic of New York dialect because they exist among Orthodox Jews in other dialect regions. Still, in combination with other New York dialect features they are characteristic of a specific local ethno-religious community. There is no research, however, establishing these facts in the New York dialect literature.
Many African American New Yorkers speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE), though with some New York City English features. Many Latinos speak another distinct ethnolect, New York Latino English, characterized by a varying mix of traditional New York dialect and AAVE features along with features of Spanish origin.
Social class factors
Many professional-class New Yorkers from high socioeconomic backgrounds often speak with less conspicuous accents; in particular, many use rhotic pronunciations instead of the non-rhotic pronunciations, while maintaining some less stigmatized features such as the low back chain shift and the short-a split (see below).
Similarly, the children of professional migrants from other parts of the U.S. usually do not have many, if any, New York dialect features. As these two populations come to dominate the southern half of Manhattan and neighboring parts of Brooklyn, the dialect is in retreat in some of the more gentrified parts of the city. Many New Yorkers from affluent socioeconomic backgrounds are barely linguistically recognizable as New Yorkers except in their pronunciation of the broad A in "water" and other Northeastern characteristics. Nevertheless, many New Yorkers, particularly from the middle and working class, maintain a clear New York accent.
The pronunciation system of New York City English, popularly known as a New York accent, is heard in New York City, Long Island, and northern New Jersey.
See the article International Phonetic Alphabet for explanations of the phonetic symbols used, as indicated between square brackets [ ]. These represent actual pronunciations. The symbols in curved parentheses () are variables, in this case historical word classes that have different realizations between and within dialects. This system was developed by William Labov. A link to a site with an example text read in various accents, including New York, can be found under external links.
New York dialect is predominantly characterized by the following sounds and speech patterns:
- The low back chain shift: The /ɔ/ vowel sound of words like talk, law, cross, and coffee and the often homophonous /ɔr/ in core and more are tensed and usually raised more than in General American. Labov (1966) describes this pattern as varying on a scale from [ɔ] to [ʊ]. An inglide typically accompanies higher variants giving [oə] or [ʊə]. /ɑ/ in father and /ɑr/ in car are backed, diphthongized, and sometimes rounded to [ɑə] or [ɒə]. The result is that cart in New York sounds similar to cot in Boston or caught in linguistically conservative General American. In addition, a subset of words with /ɒ/ as in lot feature a lengthened and diphthongized variant, [ɑə]. This variant may appear before a word final voiced stop, /dʒ/, or /m/ (e.g., cob, cod, cog, lodge, bomb). It also occurs variably before voiced fricatives (e.g., bother), /ʃ/ (e.g., wash), and in the words on, John, and doll (Wells 1982: 514).
- The short-a split: There is a class of words, with a historical short-a vowel, including plan, class, and bad, where the historical /æ/ is raised and tensed to an ingliding diphthong of the type [eə] or even [ɪə]. This class is similar to, but larger than, the BATH lexical set, in which Received Pronunciation uses the so-called broad A. Other words, such as plaque, clatter, and bat, retain a lax, low-front [æ], with the result that bad and bat have different vowels. A strongly related (but slightly different) split has occurred in the dialect of Philadelphia. Although the lax and the tense reflexes of /æ/ are separate phonemes in these dialects, their distribution is largely predictable. See Phonemic /æ/ tensing in the Mid-Atlantic region or click "show" below for more details.
- /oʊ/ as in goat does not undergo fronting; instead, it remains [oʊ]. This groups New York with the "North" class of dialects rather than the "Midland", in which /oʊ/ is fronted. Relatedly, /uː/ as in goose is not fronted and remains a back vowel [uː] or [ʊu]. This lack of fronting of /oʊ/ and /uː/ also distinguishes New York from nearby Philadelphia. Some speakers have a separate phoneme /ɪu/ in words such as tune, news, duke (historically a separate class). The phonemic status of this vowel is marginal. For example, Labov (1966) reports that New Yorkers may contrast [duː] do with [dɪu] dew though they may also have [dɪu] do. Still, dew is always [dɪu] and never [duː].
- Diphthongs: The nucleus of the /aɪ/ diphthong is a back and sometimes rounded vowel [ɑ] or [ɒ] (right as [ɹɑɪt]) and the nucleus of the /aʊ/ diphthong is a front vowel [æ] (rout as [ɹæʊt]). The sociolinguistic evidence (Labov 1966) suggests that both of these developments are active changes. The fronted nucleus in /aʊ/ and the backed nucleus in /aɪ/ are more common among younger speakers, women, and the working and lower middle classes.
- Pre-R distinctions: New York accents lack most of the mergers before medial /r/ common in other varieties of North American English:
- The vowels in marry [ˈmæɹi], merry [ˈmɛɹi], and Mary [ˈmeɹi] ~ [ˈmɛəɹi] show either a two- or three-way contrast.
- The vowels in furry [ˈfəɹi] and hurry [ˈhʌɹi] are distinct.
- Words like orange, horrible, Florida and forest are pronounced [ˈɑɹəndʒ] and [ˈfɑɹəst] with the same stressed vowel as part, not with the same vowel as port as in much of the rest of the United States.
- Merger of /ɔɪ/ and /ɜr/ (sometimes called the coil–curl merger): One of the stereotypes of New York speech is the use of a front-rising diphthong in words with /ɜr/ (e.g., nurse). This stereotype is popularly represented in stock phrases like "toity-toid" for thirty-third. The phonetic reality of this variant is actually [ɜɪ]. This variant may also appear in words with /ɔɪ/ (e.g., choice), resulting in words like verse and voice as near-homophones when spoken quickly (approximately, [vɜɪs] ~ [vɔɪs]). The diphthongal variant for /ɜr/ has historically been highly stigmatized and ridiculed. Labov's data from the mid-1960s indicated the form was recessive then. Only two of his 51 speakers under age 20 used the form as compared with those over age 50 of whom 23 out of 30 used the form. Items with /ɔɪ/ may occur with /ɜr/ (e.g., /ˈtɜrlət/ toilet), apparently as a result of hypercorrection. Younger New Yorkers (born since about 1950) are likely to use a rhotic [əɹ] (like in General American) for the diaphoneme /ɜr/ (as in bird), even if they use non-rhotic pronunciations of beard, bared, bard, board, boor, and butter.
While the following consonantal features are central to the common stereotype of a "New York accent", they are not entirely ubiquitous in New York. By contrast, the vocalic (vowel) variations in pronunciation as described above are far more typical of New York area speakers than the consonantal features listed below, which carry a much greater stigma than do the dialect's vocalic variations:
- R-lessness: The traditional New York–area accent is non-rhotic; in other words, the sound [ɹ] does not appear at the end of a syllable or immediately before a consonant. Thus, there is no [ɹ] in words like park [pʰɒək] (with vowel backed and rounded due to the low-back chain shift), butter [ˈbʌɾə], or here [hɪə]. This feature is slowly losing ground, as discussed above, especially on the outskirts of the Greater New York City dialect region, such as in northeastern New Jersey. Non-rhoticity now happens sometimes in New Yorkers with otherwise rhotic speech if Rs are located in unaccented syllables particularly in pre-vocalic position. Non-rhotic speakers usually exhibit a linking or intrusive R, similar to other non-rhotic dialect speakers.
- Vocalization of /l/: L-vocalization is common in New York though it is perhaps not as pervasive as in other dialects. Like its fellow liquid /r/, it may be vocalized when it does not appear before a vowel (e.g., [sɛo] sell, [mɪok] milk).
- Alveolars: The alveolar consonants /t/, /d/, /n/, and /l/ may be articulated with the tongue blade rather than the tip. Wells (1982) indicates that this articulation may, in some cases, also involve affrication, producing [tˢ] and [dᶻ]. Also /t/ and /d/ are often pronounced with the tongue touching the teeth rather than the alveolar ridge (just above the teeth), as is typical in most varieties of English. With /t/, glottalization is reported to be more common in New York speech than in other American dialects, appearing, for example, before syllabic /l/ (e.g., bottle [ˈbɑʔɫ̩]).
- dh/th-fortition: As in many other dialects, the interdental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ are often realized as stops [t] and [d] or affricates [tθ] and [dð]. Labov (1966) found this alternation to vary by class with the non-fricative forms appearing more regularly in lower and working class speech. Unlike the reported changes with /r/, the variation with /θ/ and /ð/ appears to be stable.
- Intrusive G: In addition to the ubiquitous alternation of [ŋ] and [n] in -ing endings, the speech of some New Yorkers shows [ŋɡ] as a variant of /ŋ/. This variant is another salient stereotype of the New York accent and is commonly mocked with "Long Island" being pronounced [ɫɔəŋˈɡɑɪɫɪ̈nd] (rather than General American's [ɫɒŋˈäɪɫɪ̈nd]) popularly written Lawn Guyland.
- Reduction of /hj/ to /j/: New Yorkers typically do not allow /j/ to be preceded by /h/; this gives pronunciations like /ˈjumən/ and /judʒ/ for human and huge.
- Indirect questions. Word order of the original question is preserved in indirect questions, at least those introduced by wh-words, for example: He wanted to know when will he come instead of He wanted to know when he will come; or, She asked why don't you want any instead of the standard She asked why you don't want any.
There are numerous words used mainly in New York, mostly associated with immigrant languages. For instance, a "stoop" (from the Dutch word "stoep"), is the front steps of a building entrance. A curious split in usage, reflective of the city's racial differences, involves the word punk. In the Black and Latino communities, the word tends to be used as a synonym for weak, someone unwilling or unable to defend himself or perhaps loser. That usage appears to descend from the AAVE meaning of male receptive participant in anal sex, a meaning which, in turn, may be largely lost among youth. Thus, a newspaper article that refers to, say, some arrested muggers as punks can have two different meanings to two different readers.
New Yorkers stand "on line", whereas most other American-English speakers stand "in line". Small convenience stores are called bodegas, from the Spanish term originally meaning "a wine storehouse" via the Puerto Rican Spanish term for "small store; corner store", or delis, which is the short form for delicatessen.
The following famous people or fictional characters are often heard in public as speaking with features typical of a New York accent. Most, but not all, are native New Yorkers. Their pronunciation and vocabulary can be useful guides to the subtleties of speaking New York.
- Bella Abzug
- Danny Aiello
- Alan Alda
- Woody Allen
- The Bowery Boys
- Mel Brooks
- Archie and Edith Bunker
- Bugs Bunny
- James Caan
- Sid Caesar
- James Cagney
- Mariah Carey
- George Carlin
- Andrew Dice Clay
- Howard Cosell
- Mario Cuomo
- Tony Curtis
- Rodney Dangerfield
- Tony Danza
- Dead End Kids
- Robert De Niro
- Vin Diesel
- Kevin Dobson
- Fran Drescher
- Jimmy Durante
- John Garfield
- Rudolph Giuliani
- Whoopi Goldberg
- Gilbert Gottfried
- Buddy Hackett
- Judd Hirsch
- The Honeymooners cast
- Wendy Kaufman
- Harvey Keitel
- Ed Koch
- Burt Lancaster
- Cyndi Lauper
- John Leguizamo
- Vince Lombardi
- Bernard Madoff
- Terry Malloy
- Barry Manilow
- Garry Marshall
- Penny Marshall
- The Marx Brothers; prominently Groucho Marx
- Jackie Mason
- Walter Matthau
- Debi Mazar
- Mob Wives cast
- Rhoda Morgenstern
- Frank Mullen
- Chris Mullin
- Rosie O'Donnell
- Al Pacino
- Joe Paterno
- Rosie Perez
- Rhea Perlman
- Joe Pesci
- Bernadette Peters
- Regis Philbin
- Colin Quinn
- George Raft
- Charles Rangel
- Michael Rapaport
- Paul Reiser
- Leah Remini
- Linda Richman
- Don Rickles
- Thelma Ritter
- Joan Rivers
- Nelson Rockefeller
- Ray Romano
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Maxie Rosenbloom
- Michael Savage
- Telly Savalas
- Bernie Sanders
- Vin Scully
- Seinfeld cast
- Phil Silvers
- Frank Sinatra
- Al Smith
- The Sopranos cast
- Arnold Stang
- Barbara Stanwyck
- Howard Stern
- Barbra Streisand
- The Three Stooges
- Marisa Tomei
- John Travolta
- Donald Trump
- Christopher Walken
- Eli Wallach
- Denzel Washington
- Barry Wellman
- Mae West
- Lenny Wilkens
- Yat dialect
- North American English regional phonology#Northeastern dialects
- Regional vocabularies of American English
- New Jersey dialect
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