New York accent
The sound system of New York City English is popularly known as a New York accent. The New York metropolitan accent is one of the most recognizable accents of the United States, largely due to its popular stereotypes and portrayal in radio, film, and television. Several other common names exist for the accent based on specific location, such as a Bronx accent, Long Island accent, or Brooklyn accent, despite linguistic research failing to support such fine-grained designations. The following is an overview of the phonological structures and variations within the accent.
|Pure vowels (Monophthongs)|
|English diaphoneme||New York City realization||Example words|
|/æ/||[æ] listen||act, pal, trap|
|[ɛə~eə~ɪə] listen||bath, mad, pass|
|/ɑː/||[ɑ~ɑ̈] listen||blah, father|
|/ɒ/||bother, lot, wasp|
|[ɔə~oə~ʊə]||dog, loss, cloth|
|/ɔː/||all, bought, taught, saw|
|/ɛ/||[ɛ]||dress, met, bread|
|/ə/||[ə]||about, syrup, arena|
|/ɪ/||[ɪ~ɪ̈]||hit, skim, tip|
|/iː/||[i~ɪi]||beam, chic, fleet|
|/ʊ/||[ʊ]||book, put, should|
|/uː/||[u] or [ʊu~ɤʊ~ɤu]||food, glue, new|
|/aɪ/||[ɑɪ~ɒɪ~äɪ] listen||ride, shine, try|
|[äɪ] listen||bright, dice, pike|
|/aʊ/||[a̟ʊ~æʊ]||now, ouch, scout|
|/eɪ/||[eɪ~ɛɪ] listen||lake, paid, rein|
|/ɔɪ/||[ɔɪ~oɪ]||boy, choice, moist|
|/oʊ/||[ɔʊ~ʌʊ]||goat, oh, show|
|Vowels followed by /r/|
(rhotic: [ɒɹ~ɑɹ]; older: [ɑ̈ə])
|barn, car, park|
|/ɪər/||[ɪə~iə] listen (rhotic: [ɪɹ~iɹ])||fear, peer, tier|
|/ɛər/||[ɛə~eə] (rhotic: [ɛɹ~eɹ])||bare, bear, there|
|/ɜːr/||[ɝ] listen (older: [əɪ])||burn, first, herd|
|/ər/||[ə] (rhotic: [ɚ])||doctor, martyr, pervade|
|/ɔːr/||[ɔə~oɐ] (rhotic: [ɔɹ~oɹ])||hoarse, horse, poor |
score, tour, war
|/jʊər/||[juə~juɐ] (rhotic: [juɹ])||cure, Europe, pure|
- Cot–caught distinction: The /ɔ/ vowel sound (in 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], while typically accompanied by an inglide that produces variants like [oə] or [ʊə]. These sounds are kept strongly distinct from the /ɑ/ in words like father, palm, wash, and bra; therefore, cot is something like [kʰɑ̈t] and caught is something like [kʰoət].
- Father–bother variability: Linguistically conservative speakers retain three separate low back vowels: LOT [ɒ(ə)], PALM [ɑ], and THOUGHT [oə], thus with words like father and bother not rhyming, as they do for most other Americans. Among such conservative speakers, descendants of Middle English short o with final voiced consonants, /dʒ/, or /m/ (e.g., cob, cod, cog, lodge, bomb), and some Middle English short a words, such as wash, take on the rounded LOT sound. However, Labov et al report that which words fall into the LOT class and which words fall into the PALM class may vary from speaker to speaker. Aside from such speakers with this relic feature, however, a majority of Metro New Yorkers exhibit the father–bother merger.
- 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 diphthong of the type [ɛə~eə] or even [ɪə]. Meanwhile, the latter set of words retains a lax, low-front, more typical [æ] sound. A strongly related (but slightly different) split also occurs in Philadelphia and Baltimore accents.
/æ/ raising in North American English Following
New York City,
Philadelphia General US,
fan, lamb, stand [ɛə][A][B] [ɛə] [ɛə] [ɛə~ɛjə] [ɛə] [ɛə] Prevocalic
[æ] /ŋ/ frank, language [ɛː~eɪ] [æ] [æ~æɛə] [ɛː~ɛj] [eː~ej] Non-prevocalic
bag, drag [ɛə][A] [æ][C] [æ] Prevocalic /ɡ/ dragon, magazine [æ] Non-prevocalic
/b, d, ʃ/
grab, flash, sad [ɛə][A] [æ] [ɛə] Non-prevocalic
/f, θ, s/
ask, bath, half,
[ɛə][A] Otherwise as, back, happy,
- In New York City and Philadelphia, most function words (am, can, had, etc.) and some learned or less common words (alas, carafe, lad, etc.) have [æ].
- In Philadelphia, the irregular verbs began, ran, and swam have [æ].
- In Philadelphia, bad, mad, and glad alone in this context have [ɛə].
- In New York City, certain lexical exceptions exist (like avenue being tense) and variability is common before /dʒ/ and /z/ as in imagine, magic, and jazz.
In New Orleans, [ɛə] additionally occurs before /v/ and /z/.
- Conservative /oʊ/ and /u/: /oʊ/ as in goat usually does not undergo fronting; instead, it remains [oʊ] and may even have a lowered starting point. Relatedly, /u/ as in GOOSE is not fronted and remains a back vowel [u] or [ʊu], although it may be more fronted following a coronal consonant, such as in loose, too, and zoom. This general lack of fronting of /oʊ/ and /u/ also distinguishes New York City 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 Metro-NYC New Yorkers may contrast [du] do with [dɪu] dew though they may also have [dɪu] do. Also, Labov et al. report yod-dropping also to have diffused as a characteristic for other speakers of New York City English (in which the vowel in dew is pronounced very far back in the mouth).
- Backed /aɪ/ and fronted /aʊ/: The nucleus of the /aɪ/ diphthong is traditionally a back and sometimes rounded vowel [ɑ̈~ɑ] or [ɒ] (mean value [ɑ̟]) (ride as [ɹɑɪd]), while the nucleus of the /aʊ/ diphthong is a front vowel [æ~a] (the mean value is open front [a]) (out as [æʊt~aʊt]). The sociolinguistic evidence 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. There is typically a Mary–marry–merry three-way distinction, in which the vowels in words like marry [ˈmæɹi], merry [ˈmɛɹi], and Mary [ˈmeɹi] ~ [ˈmɛəɹi] do not merge. The vowels in furry [ˈfɝi] and hurry [ˈhʌɹi] are distinct. Also, words like orange, horrible, Florida and forest are pronounced with /ɒ/ or /ɑ/, the same stressed vowel as part, not with the same vowel as port as in much of the rest of the United States. In the table below, the New York accent distinctively falls under "some East-Coast and Southern American" accents:
// and prevocalic // by dialectDistribution of Received
some Southern US,
some New England
Canada Only borrow, sorrow, sorry, (to)morrow // // // or // // Forest, Florida, historic, moral, porridge, etc. // Forum, memorial, oral, storage, story, etc. // //
- Back vowel chain shift before /r/: /ɔr/, as in Tory, bore, or shore merges with a tongue movement upward in the mouth to /ʊər/, as in tour, boor, or sure. This is followed by the possibility of /ɑr/, as in tarry or bar, also moving upward (with rounding) towards /ɒr/~/ɔr/. In non-rhotic New York City 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.
- Coil–curl merger: One of the New York City speech stereotypes is the use of a front-rising diphthong in words with /ɜr/ (or the NURSE vowel). This stereotype is popularly represented in stock phrases like "toity-toid" for thirty-third. The phonetic reality of this variant is actually unrounded [əɪ]; thus, [ˈt̪əɪɾi ˈt̪əɪd]. This vowel was also used for the vowel /ɔɪ/. Labov's data from the mid-1960s indicated this highly stigmatized form was recessive even 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 r-less form. Younger Metro New Yorkers (born since about 1950) are consequently likely to use a rhotic [ɝ] (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. Labov considers that the phoneme "lingers on in a modified form". In other words, Labov is saying that the // in New York City is slightly raised compared to other dialects. Despite the near-extinction of this feature, Newman (2014) found [əɪ] variably in one of his participants born in the late 1980s. Related to the non-rhotic variant, a form of intrusive r was also once reported for CHOICE words so that /ɔɪ/ may occur with an r-colored vowel (e.g., [ˈt̪ɝɫɨt] toilet), apparently as a result of hypercorrection.
While the following consonantal features are central to the common stereotype of a "New York City accent", they are not entirely ubiquitous in New York City. By contrast, the vocalic (vowel) variations in pronunciation as described above are far more typical of New York City 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 metropolitan New York 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 the vowel rounded due to the low-back chain shift, though [pʰɑ̈ək] in earlier twentieth-century speakers), butter [ˈbʌɾə], or here [hɪə]. However, modern New York City English is variably rhotic for the most part. The New York City accent also varies between pronounced and silenced [ɹ] in similar phonetic environment, even in the same word when repeated. Non-rhotic speakers usually exhibit a linking or intrusive R, similar to other non-rhotic dialect speakers.
- Rhoticity: In more modern times, the post-vocal /r/ has become more prominent. When Metro New Yorkers are more conscious of what they are saying, the /r/ is more evident in their speech. In terms of social stratification, the lower class tends to use rhoticity less than the upper and middle New York City classes. Also, rhoticity is noticeably based on age since younger generations will pronounce /r/ at the end of their sentences (coda position).
- 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 sometimes appear in a wider range of contexts in New York City speech than in other American dialects, appearing, for example, before syllabic /l/ (e.g., bottle [ˈbɑ̈ʔɫ̩]). At the same time, before a pause, a released final stop is often more common than a glottal stop in New York City accents than in General American ones; for example, bat as [bæt̪] rather than [bæʔ].
- The universal usage of "dark L", [ɫ], common throughout the U.S., is also typical of the New York City accent. Newman (2014) reports /l/ even in initial position to be relatively dark for all accents of the city except the accents of Latinos. However, in the mid-twentieth century, both dark and "not quite so 'dark'" variants of /l/ are reported. The latter occurs initially or in initial consonant clusters, pronounced with the point or blade of the tongue against the alveolar ridge, though this variant is not as "clear" as in British Received Pronunciation.
- Also, /l/ is reported as commonly becoming postalveolar before /j/, making a word like William for some speakers [ˈwɪʎjɨm] or even [ˈwɪjɨm].
- Vocalization of /l/: L-vocalization is common in New York City though it is perhaps not as pervasive as in some other dialects. Like its fellow liquid /r/, it may be vocalized when it appears finally or before a consonant (e.g., [sɛo] sell, [mɪok] milk).
- Th-stopping: 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. Historical dialect documents suggest th-stopping probably originated from the massive influence of immigrant German, Italian, Irish, and Yiddish speakers to the city starting in the mid-19th century.
- Reduction of /hj/ to /j/: Metro New Yorkers typically do not allow /h/ to precede /j/; this gives pronunciations like yuman /ˈjumən/ and yooge /judʒ/ for human and huge.
Social and geographic variation
Despite common references to a "Bronx accent", "Brooklyn accent", "Long Island accent", etc. no published study has pinpointed any specific features that vary internally within the dialect due to any specific geographic differences. Impressions that the dialect varies geographically are likely a byproduct of class or ethnic variation, and even some of these assumptions are losing credibility in light of accent convergences among the current younger generations of various ethnic backgrounds. Speakers from Queens born in the 1990s and later are showing a cot–caught merger more than in other boroughs, though this too is likely class- or ethnic-based (or perhaps even part of a larger trend in the whole city) rather than location-based. Increasing levels of the cot–caught merger among these Queens natives also appeared correlated with the fact of their majority foreign parentage. A lowering of New York City's traditionally raised caught vowel is similarly taking place among younger residents of Manhattan's Lower East Side. This is seen most intensely among Western European (and Jewish) New Yorkers, fairly intensely among Latino and Asian New Yorkers, but not among African-American New Yorkers. Therefore, this reverses a trend documented amongst Western European Lower East Siders in the 20th century.
The classic New York City 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, within which there are degrees of ethnic variation. The variations of New York City English are a result of the waves of immigrants that settled in the city, from the earliest settlement by the Dutch and English, followed in the 19th century by the Irish and western Europeans (typically of French, German, and Scandinavian descent). Over time these collective influences combined to give New York City its distinctive accent.
Up until the immigration acts of 1920 and 1924 that restricted Asian as well as 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 that some differentiation between these last groups' speech may exist. For example, William Labov found that Jewish-American Metro New Yorkers were more likely than other groups to use the closest variants of /ɔ/ (meaning towards [ʊə]) and perhaps fully released final stops (for example, pronunciation of sent as [sɛnt] rather than the more General American [sɛnt̚] or [sɛnʔ]), while Italian-American Metro New Yorkers were more likely than other groups to use the closest variants of /æ/ (meaning towards [ɪə]). Labov also discusses Irish originating features being the most stigmatized. Still, Labov argues that these differences are relatively minor, more of degree than kind. All noted Euro-American groups share the relevant features.
One area likely to reveal robust patterns is New York City English among Orthodox Jews, overlapping with Yeshiva English, which can exist outside of the New York City metropolitan area as well. Such features include certain Yiddish grammatical contact features, such as topicalizations of direct objects (e.g., constructions such as Esther, she saw! or A dozen knishes, you bought!) or the general replacement of /ŋ/ with /ŋɡ/, as stereotyped in the eye-dialect phrase "Lawn Guyland" for "Long Island" ([lɔəŋˈɡɑɪɫɨnd] rather than General American's [lɔŋˈaɪɫɨnd]), strongly used among Lubavitcher Jews, but a stereotype for the New York City accent in general. There is also substantial use of Yiddish and particularly Hebrew words.
African American Metro New Yorkers typically speak a New York variant of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), sharing the New York City accent's raised /ɔ/ vowel. Many Latino New Yorkers speak a distinctly local ethnolect, New York Latino English, characterized by a varying mix of New York City English and AAVE features, along with some Spanish contact features. Asian American New Yorkers are not shown by studies to have any phonetic features that are overwhelmingly distinct. Anglo-American or Euro-American New Yorkers alone have been traditionally documented as using a phonetic split of /aɪ/ as follows: [äɪ] before voiceless consonants but [ɑːɪ] elsewhere.
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