The New York dialect
of the English language
is spoken by most European Americans
, and some non-European Americans, who were raised in New York City
and much of its metropolitan area including the lower Hudson Valley
, Long Island
, and parts of New Jersey
bordering the Hudson River
. It is one of the most recognizable accents within American English
The English spoken in northern New Jersey is distinct from the New York City dialect, though the New York dialect is spoken in some parts of New Jersey nearest to New York. Similarly, a variety of unrelated dialects are spoken in those parts of New York State outside the metropolitan area. (Labov et al. 2006)
The New York dialect is closely confined to the geographically small but densely populated New York City dialect region, which consists of the city's five Boroughs
, the western half of Long Island
, southern Westchester County
and the cities of Newark
and Jersey City
in New Jersey. 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. Nevertheless, the White Flight
that reduced their numbers in the city has led to expansion of the dialect in the outlying areas to which they moved. Now, the most secure strongholds of the New York dialect are arguably the suburban areas of Nassau County
, western Suffolk County
, Westchester County
, northeastern and southwestern Queens
, and Staten Island
, although many strong New York dialect speakers remain in urban sections of Queens
, the Bronx
, and Manhattan
. Finally, it is worth noting that 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.
Ethnic and racial factors
The variations of the New York accent are a result of the layering of ethnic speech 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 Midwesterners (typically of French, German, Irish, Scandinavian, and Scottish descent). Over time these collective influences combined to give New York its distinctive accent.
From the turn of the century until about 1930, predominantly Italian and Eastern European Jewish immigrants, but also later Irish and others, 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. 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, sometimes referred to as Yeshivish, for the parochial high schools members of this community attend. 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.
African American New Yorkers often speak African American Vernacular English (AAVE), though with some New York dialect features, as do most children of Black Caribbean immigrants. 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
Not all European American New Yorkers are New York dialect speakers. Many upper-middle class New Yorkers from educated backgrounds often speak with less conspicuous accents; in particular, many, though hardly all, use rhotic pronunciations
instead of the less prestigious non-rhotic pronunciations while maintaining some less stigmatized features such as the low back chain shift
and the short a split
Similarly, the children of professional migrants from other parts of the US frequently do not have many New York dialect features, and as these two populations come to dominate the southern half of Manhattan and neighboring parts of Brooklyn, the dialect is retreating from their neighborhoods. Many teens attending expensive private prep schools are barely linguistically recognizable as New Yorkers. Nevertheless, many New Yorkers, particularly those of Southern and Eastern European descent from the middle- and working-class maintain this dialect.
The origins of the dialect 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 only later moved down the socioeconomic scale. This aristocratic r-lessness can be heard, for instance, in recordings of Franklin Roosevelt
. After WWII, the r-ful pronunciation became the prestige norm, and what was once the upper class pronunciation became a vernacular one.
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 immigrant 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 /ɝ/ vowel, a similar split in the "short a" system, and fortition of /θ/. (See below for more information on these features.) Albany, New York
and, to a lesser extent, Cincinnati, Ohio
also display influence from the New York City dialect.
Some Jewish-Americans, both Ashkenazic and Sephardic, throughout the United States have some features of a New York accent. This is the case even among some Jewish-Americans who have never lived in New York or New Jersey. This phenomenon is somewhat parallel to the spread of African American Vernacular English to the rest of the United States from its original location in the American South. Similarly, many Mafia films, most of them set in the 1940s, show many characters speaking English with a New York accent.
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. This vowel is typically above [ɔ], the corresponding vowel in General American; in the most extreme New York accents, it is even higher and possesses an inglide: [ʊə]. /ɑ/ in father and /ɑr/ in car are tensed and move to a position abandoned by /ɔ/. The result is that car is often similar to core in parts of New England. Some words not originally from this word class, such as God, on and Bob join the /ɑ/ group.
- 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 related (but slightly different) split has occurred in the dialect of Philadelphia.
- Diphthongs The nucleus of the /aɪ/ diphthong is a back vowel [ɑ] (right as [ɹɑɪt]) and the nucleus of the /aʊ/ diphthong is a front vowel [æ] (rout as [ɹæʊt]).
- pre-r distinctions New York accents lack most of the mergers before medial /r/ that many other modern American accents possess:
- The vowels in marry /mæri/, merry /mɛri/, and Mary are distinct.
- The vowels in furry /fɝi/ and hurry /hʌri/ are distinct.
- Words like orange, horrible, Florida and forest are pronounced /ɑrəndʒ/ and /fɑrəst/ with the same stressed vowel as pot, not with the same vowel as port as in much of the rest of the United States.
- The General American /ɝ/ and /ɔɪ/ : In the most old-fashioned and extreme New York–area accents, the vowel sounds of words like girl and of words like oil both become a diphthong [ɜɪ]. (This pronunciation was also common in the American South but is dying out there). This is often misperceived by speakers of other accents as a "reversal" of the "er" and "oy" sounds, so that girl is pronounced "goil" and oil is pronounced "erl"; this leads to the caricature of New Yorkers saying things like "Joizey" (Jersey) and "terlet" (toilet). This particular speech pattern is no longer very prevalent; the character Archie Bunker from the 1970s show All in the Family was a good example of a speaker who had this feature. Younger New Yorkers (born since about 1950) are likely to use a rhotic [ɝ] in bird even if they use non-rhotic pronunciations of beard, bared, bard, board, boor, and butter. Similarly, the line-loin merger is sporadically heard in New York.
While the following consonantal features are central to the common stereotype of a "New York accent", they are not nearly as ubiquitous in New York as many might assume. 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 [pɔːk] (with vowel raised due to the low-back chain shift), butter [bʌɾə], or here [hiə]. This feature is slowly losing ground, as discussed above. Non-rhoticity now happens sometimes in New Yorkers with otherwise rhotic speech if r 's are located in unaccented syllables particularly in pre-vocalic position. Non-rhotic speakers usually exhibit an intrusive or linking r, similar to other non-rhotic dialect speakers.
- Dark (l) onsets This feature has rarely been commented on but it is robust. A dark variant of (l) is used before vowels like the (l) used in most English after vowels. In other words, in New York dialect, the (l) is made before vowels with the tongue bunched towards the back of the mouth as it is after vowels. In much US English, the prevowel version has a light variant, with the tongue bunched more towards the front. In effect, this means that the beginning sound of lull and level approximates the final one.
- Dentalization (t) and (d) are often pronounced with the tongue tip touching the teeth rather than the alveolar ridge (just above the teeth), as is typical in most varieties of English. Also, these sounds become affricates (sounds with a burst and then a substantial frication, like [tʃ] (the sound frequently represented orthographically by ) before r.
- (dh/th) fortition Some speakers replace the dental fricatives with dental variants of stops , so that words like thing and this sound similar to "ting" and "dis". This feature is highly stigmatized and is becoming less and less frequent. However affricate pronunciations are common.
- Intrusive g. In most varieties of English, the velar nasal [ŋ], written as <ng> is pronounced as [ŋ] rather than [ŋɡ]. However, in strong versions of New York dialect, the [ɡ] is variably pronounced before a vowel as a velar stop. This leads to the stereotype of ‘’Long Island’’ being pronounced as [lʊɘŋˈɡɑɪ.lɘnd] popularly written, Lawn Guyland.
- 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 Dutch
), 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 African American 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. Although this loser
sense is expanding to younger White American and perhaps Asian American speakers with considerable contact with AAVE culture, an older usage, in which the term means youthful delinquent
is probably still more common. Thus a newspaper article that refers to, say, some arrested muggers as punks
can have two different meanings to two different readers. Of course, the term also unambiguously means the follower of a particular musical and fashion peer cultural style (i.e. Punk rock
One curious example of New York English is that New Yorkers stand "on line", whereas most other American English speakers stand "in line". Some New Yorkers may say that they made a mistake "on accident," as opposed to "by accident". This feature is very common in all New York dialect speakers, even among those who do not use many of the dialect's older, more stigmatized features.
Small convenience stores are widely referred to as "bodegas," a Spanish term literally meaning "a liquor storehouse or a convenience store; corner store." A woman's purse is often referred to as a pocketbook. Older New Yorkers refer to jeans as dungarees.
See Regional vocabularies of American English
Notable speakers with a 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. Many can be heard speaking on YouTube or similar audio or visual sites.
- Varieties of English: New York City phonology from the University of Arizona's Language Samples Project
- William Labov's webpage There are links to many sites related to dialects, including references to his early work on New York dialect and the Atlas of North American English.
- A paper by Labov on dialect diversity, including information on NY dialect phonology.
- The New York Latino English Project The site of the New York Latino English project, which studies the native English spoken by New York Latinos.
- A site with samples of speech in various dialects, including New York.
- AM New York's feature on the New York accent (cites several experts)
- Labov, William (1982) The social stratification of English in New York City Center for Applied Linguistics ISBN 0-87281-149-2
- Labov, William (1973) Sociolinguistic Patterns U. of Pennsylvania Press ISBN 0-8122-1052-2*
- Labov, William (1994) Principles of Linguistic Change: Volume 1: Internal Factors Blackwell ISBN 0-631-17914-3
- Labov, William (2001) Principles of Linguistic Change: Volume 2: Social Factors Blackwell ISBN 0-631-17916-X
- Labov, William (2007) "Transmission and Diffusion", Language June 2007
- Labov, William, Sharon Ash, & Charles Boberg (2006) Atlas of North American English DeGruyter ISBN 3-11-016746-8
- Newman, Michael (2005) "New York Talk" in American Voices Walt Wolfram and Ben Ward (eds). p.82-87 Blackwell ISBN 1-4051-2109-2
- Slomanson, Peter & Michael Newman (2004) “Peer Group Identification and Variation in New York Latino English Laterals” English Worldwide, 25 (2) pp. 199-216 (http://www.benjamins.com/cgi-bin/t_seriesview.cgi?series=EWW)
- Wolfram, Walt & Nancy Schilling Estes (2006) American English 2nd edition Blackwell ISBN 1-4051-1265-4
- Wolfram, Walt & Ward, Ben (2005) American Voices: How Dialects Differ from Coast to Coast Blackwell ISBN 1-4051-2109-2