New York City English

New York City English
Region New York City
Ethnicity Various, see: Demographics of New York City
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog newy1234
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New York City English, or Metropolitan New York English,[1] 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,[2] 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.


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 scientifically documented in the 1890s.[3] It was then, and still mostly is, associated with ethnically diverse European-American native-English speakers. The entire Mid-Atlantic United States, including both New York City and the Delaware Valley (whose own distinct dialect centers around Philadelphia and Baltimore) shares 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 even in the southern accents of England; thus, a single common origin of this split may trace back to colonial-era England.[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 City speakers' loss of the r sound after vowels (incidentally, not found in the nearby Delaware Valley) began as a nineteenth-century imitation of the prestigious British feature, consistently starting among the upper classes in New York City before spreading to other socioeconomic classes.[4] After World War II, social perceptions reversed and r-preserving (rhotic) pronunciations became the new American prestige standard, rejecting East Coast and British accent features,[5] while postwar migrations transferred rhotic speakers directly to New York City from other regions of the country. The result is that non-rhoticity, which was once a high-status feature and later a city-wide feature, has been diminishing and now, since the mid-twentieth century onward, largely remains only among lower-status New Yorkers.[6] Today, New York City metropolitan accents are often rhotic or variably rhotic.

Other features of the dialect, such as the dental pronunciations of d and t, and related 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 the mid-to-late nineteenth 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 New Orleans, Louisiana and New York City,[10] the traditional accent of New Orleans, 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. Similarly, dialect similarities suggest that older New York City English also influenced Cincinnati, Ohio and the Capital Region of New York, whose older speakers in particular may still exhibit a short-a split system that linguists suggest is an expanded or generalized variant of the New York City short-a system. Certain New York City dialect features also understandably appear in New York City Latino English.

Recent developments

Though William Labov argued in 2010 that the New York City 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 City 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 City 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 except before vowels, a short-a split system (in which, for example, the a in gas is not assonant to the a in gap), a high gliding /ɔ/ 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 highly 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]

Metro New Yorkers tend to say they stand on line, whereas most other New York and American-English speakers tend to stand in line.[16] Small convenience stores have, in recent decades, particularly in New York City though not on Long Island generally, 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.[17] These small stores may also be called delis, which is the short form of delicatessens.

Conversational styles

New York City 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." Metro 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'".[18]

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.[2] The following famous people are native New York City 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

Across New York an entirely separate dialect predominates in Central and Western New York, especially along the Great Lakes.[158]

New York City English is thus confined to a geographically small but densely populated area, including all five boroughs of New York City, with a fuzzy boundary with Long Island English.[159][160][161] 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 to the city itself;[162] some of the dialect's features may be heard as far north as the Capital Region city of Albany.[163]

New Jersey

The northeast quarter of New Jersey, prominently Bergen, Hudson, and Essex counties, including the cities Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City, Bayonne, and Newark,[164] 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 City 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.[165]

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

Frank Sinatra is an older example of a non-rhotic speaker from New Jersey.

See also