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 origins of many of New York City English's diverse 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. The dialect likely evolved from an older English variety that encompassed much of the larger Mid-Atlantic region, including the Delaware Valley (whose own distinct dialect centers around Philadelphia and Baltimore), since all of this larger region's dialects still share certain key features, including a high/ɔ/ 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)—New York City's split not identical though to Philadelphia's. Linguist William Labov has pointed out that a similarly-structured (though differently pronounced) split is found today in both the standard and London-area accents of England, indicating the likely origin of the New York split.[a]
New York City became an urban economic power in the eighteenth century, 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 (incidentally, not found in the nearby Delaware Valley) is thus an imitation of the prestigious British feature, consistently starting among the upper classes in New York City in the nineteenth century before spreading to other socioeconomic classes. After World War II, social perceptions reversed, and the r-preserving (rhotic) pronunciation became the prestige norm throughout the whole United States. Thus, what was once an upper-class feature only remained strong among vernacular speakers, due to the loss of Britain's imperial status, the national embracing of non-East Coast features, 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 features of the dialect, such as the dental d and t, as well as th-stopping, likely come from contact with foreign languages, particularly Italian and Yiddish, brought into New York City through its huge immigration waves of Europeans during and before the early twentieth century. Grammatical structures, such as the lack of inversion in indirect questions, similarly suggest contact with immigrant languages, plus several words common in the city are derived from such foreign languages.
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 very similar New York City short-a split. Younger Philadelphians, however, are retreating from many of the traditional features shared in common with New York City.
Due to an influx of immigrants from New York City and neighboring New Jersey to southern Florida, some resident southern Floridians now speak with an accent reminiscent of a New York accent. Additionally, as a result of social and commercial contact between the two cities and the influx of immigrants from the same countries, the traditional accent of New Orleans, Louisiana, known locally as "Yat", bears distinctive similarities with the New York accent, including the (moribund) coil–curl merger, raising of /ɔ/ to [ɔə], a similar split in the short-a system, and th-stopping. Therefore, older New York City English also presumably influenced dialect evolution in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Albany, New York, whose older speakers in particular 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. Certain New York City dialect features also appear in New York Latino English.
Though William Labov argued in 2010 that the New York accent is basically 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 [ɔ] (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.
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 African-American English 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 have, in recent decades, often been called bodegas, from the Spanish term originally meaning "a wine storehouse" via the Puerto Rican Spanish term for "small store; corner store"; by extension, "bodega cats" is the term for the cats that inhabit such establishments. These small stores may also be called delis, which is the short form of delicatessens.
New York speakers have some unique conversational styles. Linguistics 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'".
Many fictional characters in popular films and television shows have used New York City English, whether or not the actors portraying them are native speakers of the dialect. Some examples are listed below.
^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."
^Morén, Bruce (2000). Distinctiveness, Coercion and Sonority: A Unified Theory of Weight. Routledge. p. 203.
^ abLabov, William (2006) . The Social Stratification of English in New York City (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 18. ISBN0-521-82122-3.
^Mencken, H. L. (1919; reprinted 2012). American Language, 4th Edition. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 367
^Spears, Arthur (1998). "African American language: Ideology and so-called obscenity". In Mufwene, Salikoko; Rickford, John; Bailey, Guy; Baugh, John (eds.). African American English: Structure, History, and Use. London: Routledge. pp. 226–250. ISBN0-415-11733-X.
^Barry Wellman, "I was a Teenage Network Analyst: The Route from The Bronx to the Information Highway". Connections 17, 2 (October 1994): 28–45; Barry Wellman, "Through Life from the Bronx to Cyberspace". Aristeia, Fall, 2005: 24.
^Labov, William. 2010. Principles of Linguistic Change, V. 3: Cognitive and Cultural Factors. Cambridge/NY Cambridge University Press. Chapter 15, footnote 13. p.390 "Archived copy". Archived from the original on June 14, 2010. Retrieved June 18, 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
^Bakht, Maryam (2010). Lexical Variation and the Negotiation of Linguistic Style in a Long Island Middle School (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). New York University. OCLC776818137. ProQuest816707533.
^Olivo, Ann Marie (2013). The Strong Island Sound: Sociolinguistic Evidence for Emerging American Ethnicities (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Rice University. hdl:1911/77390. OCLC953579514.
Babbitt, Eugene H. (1896). "The English of the lower classes in New York City and vicinity". Dialect Notes. 1: 457–464.
Becker, Kara & Amy Wing Mei Wong. 2009. The short-a system of New York City English: An update. 'University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics. Volume 15, Issue 2 Article 3. pp: 10–20. [repository.upenn.edu]
Becker, Kara & Elizabeth Coggshall. 2010. The vowel phonologies of white and African American New York Residents. In Malcah Yaeger-Dror and *Erik R. Thomas (eds.) African American English Speakers And Their Participation In Local Sound Changes: A Comparative Study. American Speech Volume Supplement 94, Number 1. Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press. pp: 101–128
Becker, Kara & Elizabeth L. Coggshall. 2009. The Sociolinguistics of Ethnicity in New York City, 2009, Language and Linguistic Compass, 3(3): 751–766.4
Becker, Kara (2009). "/r/ and the construction of place identity on New York City's Lower East Side". Journal of Sociolinguistics. 13 (5): 634–658. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9841.2009.00426.x.
Becker, Kara. 2010. Regional Dialect Features on the Lower East Side of New York City: Sociophonetics, Ethnicity, and Identity. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, NYU.
Bonfiglio, Thomas Paul. 2002. Race and the Rise of Standard American. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 214–225.
Cutler, Cece (1999). "Yorkville crossing: White teens, hip hop and African American English". Journal of Sociolinguistics. 3 (4): 428–442. doi:10.1111/1467-9481.00089.
Cutler, Cece. 2007. Hip-hop language in sociolinguistics and beyond. Language and Linguistics Compass, 1(5):519–538.
Cutler, Cece. 2008 Brooklyn Style: hip-hop markers and racial affiliation among European immigrants. International Journal of Bilingualism, 12(1–2), 7–24.
Gordon, Matthew (2004). Kortmann, Bernd; Schneider, Edgar W. (eds.). New York, Philadelphia and other Northern Cities. Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN978-3110175325.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
Hubell, Allan F. 1972. The Pronunciation of English in New York City. NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Kurath, Hans and Raven I. McDavid. 1961. The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Labov, William, Paul Cohen, Clarence Robins, and John Lewis. 1968. A study of the Non-Standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican Speakers in New York City, V. 1: Phonological and Grammatical Analysis. Washington, DC: Office of Education, Bureau of Research/ERIC.
Labov, William, Paul Cohen, Clarence Robins, and John Lewis. 1968. A study of the Non-Standard English of Negro and Puerto Rican Speakers in New York City', V. 2: The Use of Language in the Speech Community. Washington, DC: Office of Education, Bureau of Research/ERIC.