New York City English
New York City English is a regional dialect of the English language 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.
- 1 Geographic boundaries
- 2 History
- 3 Linguistic features
- 4 Macrosocial variability
- 5 Notable speakers
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 External links
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 including 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. The New York metropolitan dialect as spoken in New Jersey is firmly rhotic, so that, whereas a Brooklynite might pronounce "over there" like "ovah deh" [oʊvə ˈd̪ɛə], a North Jerseyan might say "over dare" [oʊvɚ ˈd̪ɛɚ]. Also, New Jersey lacks a phonemic short-a split in some places, though 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, the short-a system in these communities often loses the function word constraint and/or the open syllable constraint of the NYC system. 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.
Notable lifelong native speakers
The following is a list of notable lifelong native speakers of the rhotic New York City English of northeastern New Jersey:
- Jon Bon Jovi — "thick New Jersey accent"
- Danny DeVito — "broad Jersey accent"
- James Gandolfini — "thick, utterly believable Jersey accent"
- Ed Harris
- William Labov — "I was born in Rutherford New Jersey, a small town just far enough outside of New York City so that […] I pronounce all my final r's without thinking about it, and I'm perfectly happy with the way my vowels fall out in words like mad and more"
- Ray Liotta — "lullaby Jersey accent"
- Joe Pesci — "see Newark-born Joe Pesci [and others…] for great New York City area accents"
- Bruce Springsteen
- Connie Francis
- Chris Christie
The origins of New York City English are diverse, and the source of many features is probably not recoverable. New York City English, largely with the same 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 members of the lower-middle and working class. New York City English likely evolved from an older variety that encompassed the Mid-Atlantic region (whose unique modern-day dialect centers around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Baltimore, Maryland), since the New York City dialect and the Mid-Atlantic dialectal offshoots still all share certain key features that originated nowhere else the United States, such as a high /ɔː/ vowel with a glide (as in coffee sounding like cawffee) and a phonemic split of the short a /æ/ (making gas and gap, for example, have different vowels sounds), though the New York City variant of this split remains unique. In general, New York City English has much in common with, though differs in several other respects from, nearby Philadelphia English, whose pronunciation features continue evolving at a rapid pace away from New York City-like features, starting sometime after 1900 but before World War II (though some of these more innovative Philadelphia features have, since World War II, become subject to "generalization" or even complete reversal).
Labov has pointed out that a similarly-structured but distinct-sounding short-a split, often called the trap–bath split, is found today in southern England, and that its inciting condition may have also been an ancestor of the short-a split now heard in the New York City and Mid-Atlantic dialects. According to Labov, the vocalization and subsequent loss of the R sound after vowels found in New York City (but not found in the Mid-Atlantic dialect region) is an imitation of the prestigious London pronunciation, and so it started among the upper classes in New York before spreading to other socioeconomic classes. This non-rhotic (R-dropping) aristocratic pronunciation can be heard, for instance, in recordings of Franklin D. Roosevelt. After WWII, perceptions reversed and the R-ful (rhotic) pronunciation became the prestige norm throughout the U.S. and what was once the upper-class pronunciation then became perceived as more of a vernacular one, with the loss of Britain's imperial status, and because of the predominance of the more mainstream American rhotic accent. Today, most New York City English is variably rhotic rather than non-rhotic, since non-rhotic speakers are typically stigmatized and/or associated with the lower middle or working class. This more recent socio-cultural association has, in fact, since the latter half of the 20th century, led many upper- and middle-class New Yorkers to refrain from speaking with a New York accent altogether and to always pronounce all R sounds.
Other vernacular pronunciations, such as the dental d and t, 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.
Influence on other dialects
New York City English influenced Philadelphia English, since, for example, Philadelphia speakers exhibit an evidently simplified subset of the original, more complex short-a system of New York City. Due to an influx of immigrants from New York and New Jersey to southern Florida, some in that region 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 working-class speakers of New Orleans (and possibly vice-versa), as well as of Cincinnati, Ohio, whose older speakers today have 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.
The pronunciation system of New York City English, popularly known as a New York accent, is heard in New York City, western Long Island, and northeastern New Jersey. See the article International Phonetic Alphabet for explanations of the phonetic symbols used, as indicated between square brackets [ ]. The New York metropolitan dialect is predominantly characterized by the following sounds and speech patterns:
- Cot–caught distinction: 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, varying on a scale from [ɔ] to [ʊ] (Labov 1966), while typically accompanied by an inglide that produces variants like [oə] or [ʊə]. These sounds are kept strongly distinct from the /ɑ~ɒ/ in words like lot, mock, wash, and bra; therefore, cot is something like [kʰɑt] and caught is something like [kʰoət].
- Father–bother variability: The vowels // in father and // as in bother are typically merged, as in most of the U.S., remaining backed as [ɑ]. However, a subset of words with /ɑ/ as in lot feature a lengthened and diphthongized variant, [ɑə] or even the rounded [ɒə]. This variant may appear before a word final voiced stop, /dʒ/, or /m/ (e.g., cob, cod, cog, lodge, bomb). It also may variably occur before voiced fricatives (e.g., bother), /ʃ/ (e.g., wash), and in the words on, gone,John, and doll (Wells 1982: 514).
- Short-a split system: New York City English uses a complicated short-a split system, in which all words with the "short a" can be split into two separate classes on the basis of the sound of this vowel; thus, for example, words like badge, class, lag, mad, and pan are pronounced with an entirely different vowel than words like bat, clap, lack, map, and patch. In the former set of words, historical /æ/ is raised and tensed to an ingliding gliding vowel of the type [ɛə~eə] or even [ɪə]. The latter set of words, meanwhile, retains a lax, low-front, typical [æ] sound. A strongly related (but slightly different) split has occurred in the Philadelphia and Baltimore dialects. Although the lax and the tense reflexes of /æ/ are separate phonemes in these dialects, their distribution is largely predictable. Click "show" below for specific details of this short-a system.
- Conservative /oʊ/ and /u/: /oʊ/ as in goat does not undergo fronting; instead, it remains [oʊ] and may even have a lowered starting point. This groups New York with the "North" class of dialects rather than the "Midland", in which /oʊ/ is fronted. Relatedly, /u/ as in goose is not fronted and remains a back vowel [uː] or [ʊu]. This lack of fronting of /oʊ/ and /u/ 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].
- Backed /aɪ/ and fronted /aʊ/: The nucleus of the /aɪ/ diphthong is traditionally a back and sometimes rounded vowel [ä~ɑ] or [ɒ] (ride as [ɹɑɪd]), while the nucleus of the /aʊ/ diphthong is a front vowel [æ~a] (out as [æʊt~aʊt]). 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 that occur with vowels before an /r/, which are otherwise common in other varieties of North American English:
- Mary–marry–merry three-way distinction: The vowels in words like marry [ˈmæɹi], merry [ˈmɛɹi], and Mary [ˈmeɹi] ~ [ˈmɛəɹi] do not merge, instead showing either a two- or even 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.
- Back vowel chain shift before /r/: //~//, as in Tory or bore, merges with a tongue movement upward in the mouth to //, as in tour or boor. This is followed by the possibility of //, as in tarry or bar, also moving also upward (with rounding) towards /ɒr/}~//. In non-rhotic New York speech, this means that born can be [bʊən] and barn can be [bɒən]. However, unlike the firmness of this shift in Philadelphia English, the entire process is still transitioning and variable in New York City English. The result of the shift is that cart in New York sounds similar to cot/caught in Boston or caught in linguistically conservative General American, with its round-lipped vowel.
- Coil–curl merger: One of the stereotypes of New York speech, though actually only heard in New York speakers born before World War II, 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 [əɪ~ɜɪ]; thus, [ˈt̪əɪɾi ˈt̪əɪd]. 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, [vəɪs]). 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 an r-colored vowel (e.g., /ˈtʰɝlət/ 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:
- Non-rhoticity (or 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]. However, modern New York City English is variably rhotic for the most part, since non-rhoticity 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. 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).
- Laminal alveolar consonants: 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]).
- Th-fortition: As in many other dialects, the interdental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ are often realized as dental or alveolar stop consonants, famously like [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 Greater New York City, 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.[clarification needed]
New Yorkers stand "on line," whereas most other American-English speakers 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 delicatessen.
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 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 // (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, 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, such as a three-way distinction between Mary, marry, and merry. Many Latinos 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 of Syrian descent speak their own version of the accent.
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 strong cot–caught distinction 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 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
- 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
- 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
- Adam Sandler
- 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; 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
- Yat dialect
- North American English regional phonology#Northeastern dialects
- Regional vocabularies of American English
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- (Labov et al. 2006)
- Labov, William. 2010. Principles of Linguistic Change, V. 3: Cognitive and Cultural Factors. Cambridge/NY Cambridge University Press. Chapter 15, footnote 13. p.390 
- Bakht, Maryam (2010) Lexical variation and the negotiation of linguistic style in a Long Island middle school unpublished doctoral dissertation NYU
- Olivo, Ann Marie (2013) The Strong Island Sound: Sociolinguistic Evidence for Emerging American Ethnicities. unpublished doctoral dissertation, Rice University
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- Morales, Tatiana (September 27, 2005). "Backstage With Bon Jovi: 'Have A Nice Day' Tour Officially Kicks Off In November". CBS News. Retrieved January 26, 2009.
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- Phillips, Andrew (January 16, 2003). "INTERVIEW: Goodfellas Ray Liotta: and how I learned that you should never steal from a wise guy". GW Hatchet. Retrieved July 28, 2008.
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- "Why the classic Noo Yawk accent is fading away". New York Post. June 2, 2010. Retrieved April 13, 2013.
- Labov 1972
- Ash, Sharon (2002). "The Distribution of a Phonemic Split in the Mid-Atlantic Region: Yet More on Short a." University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics. University of Pennsylvania. p. 1
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- Gordon, Matthew (2004) "New York, Philadelphia and other Northern Cities" in Kortmann, Bernd & Schneider, Edgar W. (Eds.) A Handbook of Varieties of English: Volume 1: Phonology Walter de Gruyter ISBN 3-11-017532-0 p. 288
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- Gordon, Matthew (2004) "New York, Philadelphia and other Northern Cities" in Kortmann, Bernd & Schneider, Edgar W. (Eds.) A Handbook of Varieties of English: Volume 1: Phonology Walter de Gruyter ISBN 3-11-017532-0 pp. 292, 285 , 287
- Labov et al., p. 234
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- Labov (2006:124)
- Gordon, Matthew (2004) "New York, Philadelphia and other Northern Cities" in Kortmann, Bernd & Schneider, Edgar W. (Eds.) A Handbook of Varieties of English: Volume 1: Phonology Walter de Gruyter ISBN 3-11-017532-0 pp. 286-287
- Gordon, Matthew (2004) "New York, Philadelphia and other Northern Cities" in Kortmann, Bernd & Schneider, Edgar W. (Eds.) A Handbook of Varieties of English: Volume 1: Phonology Walter de Gruyter ISBN 3110175320 p. 289
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- Labov (1966:36–37)
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- Krugman, Paul. "Lawn Guyland Is America's Future". Retrieved December 11, 2010.
- Spears, Arthur African American language: Ideology and so-called obscenity in Salikoko Mufwene, John Rickford, Guy Bailey and John Baugh (Eds.) African American English: Structure, History, and Use. London: Routledge. pp. 226–250
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- "challenge". Nyc24.jrn.columbia.edu. Retrieved November 26, 2013.
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- Slomanson, Peter & Newman, Michael (2004) English Worldwide, 25: (2) pp.199–216.
- Faison, Seth (September 12, 1995). "A Well-Known Hat Bobs at Women's Conference". New York Times. Retrieved July 1, 2008.
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