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New York City English

New York City English

New York City English, or Metropolitan New York English,[2] 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 dialect is widely known for its pronunciation system, the New York accent, which comprises a number of both conservative and innovative features. Major features of the accent include a high, gliding /ɔ/ vowel (in words like talk and caught); a split of the "short a" vowel /æ/ into two separate sounds; variable dropping of r sounds; and a lack of the cot–caught, Mary–marry–merry, and hurry–furry mergers.

New York City English
RegionNew York City
EthnicityNew Yorkers
Writing system
  • Latin (English alphabet)
  • American Braille
Language codes
ISO 639-3


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.[3] 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.[1]

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.[4] 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,[5] and widespread postwar migrations of rhotic speakers directly to New York from other regions of the country.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8] Younger Philadelphians, however, are retreating from many of the traditional features shared in common with New York City.[9]

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,[10] 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.

Recent developments

Though William Labov argued in 2010 that the New York accent is basically stable at the moment,[11] 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.[12]


The pronunciation of New York City English, most popularly acknowledged by the term "New York accent", is readily noticed and stereotyped, garnering considerable attention in American culture.[13] Some well-known phonological features include its traditional dropping of r, a short-a split system (in which, for example, the a in gas is not assonant to the a in gap), a high gliding vowel in words like talk, thought, all, etc. (and thus an absence of the cot-caught merger),[13] absence of the Mary-marry-merry merger, and the stigmatized (and largely now-extinct) coil–curl merger.[14]

Vocabulary and grammar

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.[15]

New Yorkers tend to say they stand on line, whereas most other American-English speakers tend to stand in line.[16] 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 delicatessens.

Conversational styles

New York speakers have some unique conversational styles. Linguistic 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'".[17]

Notable speakers

The accent has a strong presence in media; pioneer variationist sociolinguist William Labov describes it as the most recognizable variety of North American English.[18] The following famous people are native New York speakers, demonstrating typical features of the accent.

Fictional characters

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.

Geographic boundaries

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.[156] However, New York City English does extend beyond the city proper, including in western Long Island (although the boundaries there are not clearly established).[157][158][159] 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;[156] some of the dialect's features may be heard as far north as the city of Albany.[160]

New Jersey

The northeast quarter of New Jersey, prominently Bergen, Hudson, and Essex counties, including the cities Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City, Bayonne, and Newark,[161] 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. With the exception of New York City's immediate neighbors like Jersey City and Newark,[4] the New York metropolitan dialect as spoken in New Jersey is rhotic (or fully r-pronouncing), so that, whereas a Brooklynite might pronounce "over there" something like "ovah theah/deah" [oʊvə ˈd̪ɛə], an Elizabeth native might say "over there/dare" [oʊvɚ ˈd̪ɛɚ]. 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, in these communities, the function word constraint is lost and the open syllable constraint is variable.[162]

Notable speakers

The following is a list of notable lifelong native speakers of the rhotic New York City English of northeastern New Jersey:

And these are non-rhotic speakers from New Jersey.

See also

  • American English regional vocabulary

  • New Orleans English

  • North American English regional phonology


Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgLabov, William; Ash, Sharon; Boberg, Charles (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton-de Gruyter. ISBN 978-3-11-016746-7., 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."
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgMorén, Bruce (2000). Distinctiveness, Coercion and Sonority: A Unified Theory of Weight. Routledge. p. 203.
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Citation Linkbooks.google.comMencken, H. L. (1919; reprinted 2012). American Language, 4th Edition. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 367
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgLabov (1966/2006)
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Citation Link//www.jstor.org/stable/815156Sȩn, Ann L. (1979). "English in the Big Apple: Historical Backgrounds of New York City Speech". The English Journal. 68 (8): 52–55. doi:10.2307/815156. JSTOR 815156.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgLabov 1972
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Citation Linkweb.archive.orgAsh, Sharon (2002). "The Distribution of a Phonemic Split in the Mid-Atlantic Region: Yet More on Short a Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine." University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics. University of Pennsylvania. p. 1
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgLabov, W. & Rosenfelder, I. & Fruehwald, J.(2013). One Hundred Years of Sound Change in Philadelphia: Linear Incrementation, Reversal, and Reanalysis. Language, 89(1), p. 61.
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Citation Linkwww.npr.org"The Many Accents of New Orleans". NPR.org. Retrieved May 22, 2019.
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Citation Linkweb.archive.orgLabov, William (2010). The Politics of Language Change: Dialect Divergence in America Archived October 6, 2016, at the Wayback Machine. The University of Virginia Press. Pre-publication draft. p. 53.
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Citation Linkweb.archive.orgBecker, K. (2014). http://www.reed.edu/linguistics/becker/Becker_2014_BOUGHT.pdf Archived October 13, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, Language in Society, Vol. 43, No. 4, (Apr. 2014), pp. 395–420.
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgArthur Spears, "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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Citation Linkweb.archive.orgDoll, Jen. "The Semantics of Voting: You Say 'On Line,' I Say 'In Line'". theatlantic.com. Archived from the original on February 19, 2017. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgJohn Leland, "Was it 'normal New York City conversation'?" New York Times, June 9, 2017
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