New York City English
New York City English, or Metropolitan New York English, is a regional dialect of American English spoken by many people in New York City and much of its surrounding metropolitan area. Described by sociolinguist William Labov as the most recognizable dialect in North America, the dialect is known through its association in the media with many public figures and fictional characters. Its features are most densely concentrated in New York City proper and its immediate suburbs (whose residents often commute to New York City), but they also extend somewhat to the wider metropolitan area and the New York City diaspora in other regions. The dialect is widely known for a number of both conservative and innovative pronunciation features, such as a lack of the cot–caught, Mary–marry–merry, and hurry–furry mergers; r-dropping (except before a vowel); a high, gliding /ɔː/ vowel (in words like talk and caught); and a split of the "short a" vowel /æ/ into two separate sounds.
- 1 History
- 2 Pronunciation
- 3 Vocabulary and grammar
- 4 Conversational styles
- 5 Notable speakers
- 6 Geographic boundaries
- 7 Variability
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Bibliography
- 12 External links
The origins of New York City English are diverse, and the sources of many features are probably not recoverable. New York City English, largely with the same major pronunciation system popularly recognized today, was first reproduced in literature and also scientifically documented in the 1890s. It was then, and still mostly is, associated with ethnically diverse European-American native-English speakers. New York City English likely evolved from an older English variety that encompassed much of the larger Mid-Atlantic region, including the Delaware Valley (whose unique dialect today centers around Philadelphia and Baltimore), since the New York City dialect and the Delaware Valley dialectal offshoots all still share certain key features originating nowhere else the United States, such as a high /ɔː/ vowel with a glide (sometimes called the aww vowel) as well as a phonemic split of the short a vowel, /æ/ (making gas and gap, for example, have different vowels sounds), though the New York City variant of this split remains distinct from the Delaware Valley variants. Linguist William Labov has pointed out that a similarly-structured but distinct-sounding short-a split, often called the trap–bath split, is found today in the southern half of England, including London, and that both this short-a split and the distinctive one now heard in the New York City and Delaware Valley dialects may therefore have a common ancestor originating in the 1800s.[a]
The more linguistically conservative features of New York City English remained from the prestigious social status of English colonists in the city after it became an urban economic power in the 1700s, with the city's financial elites maintaining close ties with the British Empire even after the Revolutionary War. According to Labov, New York speakers' loss of the r sound after vowels (which, incidentally, is not found in the nearby Delaware Valley) is an imitation of the prestigious British pronunciation, consistently starting among the upper classes in New York City in the 1800s before spreading to other socioeconomic classes. This non-rhotic (r-dropping) aristocratic pronunciation can be heard, for instance, in recordings of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After World War II, perceptions reversed, and the r-ful (rhotic) pronunciation became the prestige norm throughout the whole United States; what was once the upper-class pronunciation then became perceived as more of a vernacular one, due to the loss of Britain's imperial status, the mainstreaming of a more rhotic American accent that originated away from the British-influenced East Coast, and widespread postwar migrations of rhotic speakers directly to New York from other regions of the country. Today, most New York City English is variably rhotic, a remnant of the older non-rhotic pronunciation.
Other vernacular pronunciations, such as the dental d and t, as well as th-stopping, may come from contact with languages such as Italian and Yiddish as brought into New York City by its huge immigration waves of the past century and before. 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 the city are of immigrant roots.
Although some of New York City English's features are receding among younger generations of speakers, Labov concludes that, in terms of any major recent developments, the New York accent appears to be stable.
Influence on other dialects
Philadelphians born in the twentieth century exhibit a short-a split system that some linguists regard as a simplification of the similar New York City short-a system; therefore, New York City English is a possible influence on Philadelphia English. The Philadelphia dialect is now retreating away from many of the traditional features it once shared in common with New York City.
Due to an influx of immigrants from New York City and neighboring New Jersey to Florida, some residents of southern Florida now speak with an accent reminiscent of New York City English. Additionally, 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 the (moribund) coil–curl merger, raising of // to [ɔə], a similar split in the short-a system, and th-stopping. Therefore, older New York City English presumably influenced dialect evolution in the white working class of New Orleans (and possibly vice versa), as well as in Cincinnati, Ohio and Albany, New York, whose older speakers today may still exhibit a short-a split system that appears to be an expanded or generalized variant of the New York City short-a system. Unsurprisingly, some New York City dialect features also appear in New York Latino English.
Though William Labov argues that the New York accent is generally stable at the moment, some recent studies have revealed a trend of recession in certain features of the accent, especially among younger speakers from middle-class or higher backgrounds. Documented loss of New York City accent features includes the loss of: the coil–curl merger (now almost completely extinct), non-rhoticity, and the extremely raised long vowel [ɔː] (as in talk, cough, or law). Researchers proposed that the motivation behind these recessive trends is the stigmatization against the typical New York accent since the mid-1900s as being associated with a poorer or working-class background, often also corresponding with particular ethnic identities. While earlier projects detected trends of emphasizing New York accents as part of a process of social identification, recent researches attribute the loss of typical accent features to in-group ethnic distancing. In other words, many of the young generations of ethnic groups who formerly were the most representative speakers of the accent are currently avoiding its features in order to not stand out socially and/or ethnically.
The pronunciation of New York City English, most popularly acknowledged by the term "New York accent", is readily noticed and stereotyped, garnering considerable attention in American culture. Some well-known phonological features include its traditional dropping of r, a split short-a system (in which, for example, the a in passive is not assonant to the a in passing), a high gliding vowel in words like talk, thought, all, etc. (and thus an absence of the cot-caught merger), and the stigmatized (and largely now-extinct) coil–curl merger.
Vocabulary and grammar
There are some words used mainly in Greater New York City. For instance, a "stoop" (from the Dutch word "stoep") is the front steps of a building. In the black and Latino communities, the word punk tends to be used as a synonym for weak, someone unwilling or unable to defend himself or perhaps loser, though it appears to descend from an outdated AAVE meaning of male receptive participant in anal sex.
New Yorkers tend to say they stand "on line," whereas most other American-English speakers tend to stand "in line." Small convenience stores are, in recent decades, often 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 of delicatessens.
New York speakers have some unique conversational styles. Linguistic professor Deborah Tannen notes in a New York Times article it has "an emphasis to involve the other person, rather than being considerate. It would be asking questions as a show of interest in the other person, whereas in other parts of [the] country, people don't ask because it might put the person on the spot." New Yorkers "stand closer, talk louder, and leave shorter pauses between exchanges," Tannen said. "I call it 'cooperative overlap'. It's a way of showing interest and enthusiasm, but it's often mistaken for interrupting by people from elsewhere in the country." On the other hand, linguist William Labov demurs, "there's nothing known to linguists about 'normal New York City conversation'"
The accent has a strong presence in media; pioneer variationist sociolinguist William Labov describes it as the most recognizable variety of North American English. 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
- Iris Apfel
- 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
- Andrew Cuomo
- Mario Cuomo
- Tony Curtis
- Rodney Dangerfield
- Tony Danza
- Dead End Kids
- Billy Donovan
- Robert De Niro
- Alan Dershowitz
- Vin Diesel
- Kevin Dobson
- Fran Drescher
- Jimmy Durante
- Richard Feynman
- Mike Francesa
- John Garfield
- Rudolph Giuliani
- Whoopi Goldberg
- Gilbert Gottfried
- Buddy Hackett
- Judd Hirsch
- The Honeymooners cast
- Billy Joel
- 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
- Meowth from Pokémon
- 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
- Harley 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
- Adam Sandler
- Michael Savage
- Telly Savalas
- Bernie Sanders
- Vin Scully
- Seinfeld cast
- Judge Judy Sheindlin
- Phil Silvers
- Al Smith
- The Sopranos cast
- Arnold Stang
- Barbara Stanwyck
- Howard Stern
- Barbra Streisand
- The Three Stooges, with the exception of Larry Fine, who had a Philadelphia accent
- Marisa Tomei
- John Travolta
- Donald Trump
- Christopher Walken
- Eli Wallach
- Denzel Washington
- Barry Wellman
- Mae West
- Lenny Wilkens
- Janet Yellen
New York State
New York City English is confined to a geographically small but densely populated area, including all five boroughs of New York City, but not all of New York State; an entirely separate dialect predominates in central and western New York State, especially along the Great Lakes. However, New York City English does extend beyond the city proper, including in western Long Island (although the boundaries there are not clearly established). Moreover, the English of the Hudson Valley forms a continuum of speakers who gather more features of New York City English the closer they are in geographic relation to the city itself; some of the dialect's features may be heard as far north as the city of Albany.
The northeast quarter of New Jersey, prominently Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic counties, including the cities Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City, Bayonne, and Newark, plus Middlesex and Monmouth Counties, are all within the New York City metropolitan area and thus also home to the major features of New York City English. With the exception of New York City's immediate neighbors like Jersey City and Newark, the New York metropolitan dialect as spoken in New Jersey is rhotic (or fully r-pronouncing), so that, whereas a Brooklynite might pronounce "over there" something like "ovah theah/deah" [oʊvə ˈd̪ɛə], an Elizabeth native might say "over there/dare" [oʊvɚ ˈd̪ɛɚ]. The Atlas of North American English by William Labov et al. shows that the New York City short-a pattern has diffused to many r-pronouncing communities in northern New Jersey like Rutherford (Labov's birthplace) and North Plainfield. However, in these communities, the function word constraint is lost and the open syllable constraint is variable. Regarding vocabulary, New York City shibboleths like hero (for a submarine sandwich) are less used than the more widespread sub or submarine, but it is sometimes found.
The following is a list of notable lifelong native speakers of the rhotic New York City English of northeastern New Jersey:
- Jon Bon Jovi 
- Danny DeVito 
- Mike Francessa
- James Gandolfini
- Ed Harris
- William Labov 
- Ray Liotta 
- Joe Pesci 
- Bruce Springsteen
- Connie Francis
And these are non-rhotic speakers from New Jersey.
Despite common references to a "Bronx accent" or a "Brooklyn accent," no published study has found any feature that varies internally within the dialect due to any sort of geographic differences. Impressions that the dialect varies geographically may be a byproduct of class and/or ethnic variation.
The classic New York dialect is centered on middle- and working-class White Americans, and this ethnic cluster now accounts for less than half of the city's population, within which there is even some degree of 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 immigration acts of 1920 and 1924 that restricted southern and eastern European immigration, 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 // (often, [ɔə~oə]) and the split // (often, [ɛə~eə]) of Italian American versus Jewish American New Yorkers. Jewish Americans were more likely than other groups to use the closest variants of /ɔː/ (meaning towards [ʊə]) and Italian Americans were more likely than other groups to use the closest variants of /æ/ (meaning towards [ɪə]). In the NPR interview linked below,[clarification needed] 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 Latino Americans speak another distinct ethnolect, New York Latino English, characterized by a varying mix of traditional New York dialect and African American vernacular features, along with some features of Spanish origin. Middle Eastern Americans, especially those of Syrian descent, speak their own version of the accent.
- Labov, Ash & Boberg (2006), p. 173: "In NYC and the Mid-Atlantic region, short-a is split into a tense and lax class. There is reason to believe that the tense class /æh/ descends from the British /ah/ or 'broad-a' class."
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