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New York City English

"New York English" redirects here. For other uses, see New York English (disambiguation).

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]

The English spoken in northern New Jersey and the English spoken in all but the east end of Long Island [2][3][4] are typically considered varieties or subdialects of New York City English, whereas Hudson Valley English is distinct from, yet strongly influenced by, New York City English.[5] 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 to originate in different dialect regions, with Philadelphia English being considered part of the Mid-Atlantic American English family. In contrast to the New York City dialect, an entirely separate dialect predominates in central and western New York State, especially along the Great Lakes.[5]

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.[page needed] He also claims that the vocalization and subsequent loss of the R sound 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. This non-rhotic (R-dropping) aristocratic pronunciation can be heard, for instance, in recordings of Franklin D. Roosevelt. After WWII, the R-ful (rhotic) pronunciation became 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 rhotic, mainstream General American accent.[6] Today, most traditional New York speech is variably rhotic rather than non-rhotic, since non-rhotic speakers are typically associated with the lower middle or working class. This more recent socio-cultural association has, 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.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9]

Macrosocial extensions

Geographic factors

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,[10] the lower Hudson Valley, and several nearby cities in northeastern New Jersey, e.g., Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City, Bayonne, and Newark.[11] 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.[12] Impressions that the dialect varies geographically may be a byproduct of class and/or ethnic variation.

Ethnic factors

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.[13] 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 /ɔː/ (often, [ɔə~oə]) and the split /æ/ (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]).[14] 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,[15] 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 AAVE features along with features of Spanish origin.[15][16] Middle Eastern Americans, especially of Syrian descent speak their own version of the accent.

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.[7] 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.[7] Nevertheless, many New Yorkers, particularly from the middle and working class, maintain a clear New York accent.[7]

Linguistic features


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.[17]

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].[19] /ɑ/ in father and /ɑr/ in car are backed, diphthongized, and sometimes rounded to [ɑə] or [ɒə].[20] 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 /ɑ/ as in lot feature a lengthened and diphthongized variant, [ɑə] or [ɒə]. 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, gone,John, and doll (Wells 1982: 514).[19]
  • The short-a split: 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 About this sound pan are pronounced with an entirely different vowel than words like bat, clap, lack, map, and About this sound 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.
  • /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].[23]
  • 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.[24][25]
  • 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.[26]
    • 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.[26]