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The New York Accent – One Dialect or Many

By Molly O’Brien

The New York Accent is viewed as one of the most celebrated and notorious accents on the globe.

People from all over seem to recognize some of its elements, denoted by a couple linguistically proven features.

Perhaps, one of the most famous examples of the New York accent is Dustin Hoffman’s “I’m walkin’ here!” from the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy.

The famous line “I’m Walking Here” was actually an improvisation from Dustin Hoffman who was actually born in Los Angeles CA.

But what makes the New York accent so distinct?

Some popular words New Yorkers say differently than the rest of the world include:
Water = Waw-da
Chocolate = Chaw-clet
Call = Cawl
Dog = Dawg
New Yorker = New Yawka.
Smart = Smart
Orange = Aw-range
Forty= Fawty

Linguists will say that what makes the New York accent is two-fold: the deletion of the “r” sound, and the fronting of the vowel, or the pronunciation of the vowel closer to the lips rather than the back of the throat and the deletion of the r. These are both more akin to British English.

William Labov is a prominent American linguist known for founding modern sociolinguistics, or the study of language as it intersects with a person’s social identity and society at large.

One of his more famous discoveries was the variation in the pronunciation of ‘r’ in New York dialects.

In 1966, Labov conducted a study in three department stores in New York City – Saks, Macy’s and S. Klein, each shopped by people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. He simply would ask employees of each store, questions such as, “Excuse me, what floor is this?” or “Could you tell me where I can find men’s ties?”

They all responded the same, as Labov anticipated: “fourth floor” – and yet there was variation in the way in which these words pronounced depending on the store he was in, Labov found.

According to Labov, the upper class world of Saks was likely to maintain the “r” sound” in their response, “fourth floor”, while those who worked at Macy’s and S. Klein omitted the “r sound”. He also found that younger folks were more likely to delete the “r” sound in their speech, as opposed to those who were older.

The presence of the “r” sound, or lack thereof as you’d find in British and New York English, is what is known as rhoticity. Languages can be rhotic or non-rhotic.

Whether a language is rhotic or non rhotic is just one type of fascinating variation in natural languages, and it is the linguist’s job to scientifically identify the differences in speech so as to make discoveries just like Labov did in New York City in the 1960s.

Of course, New York City is made of five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island.

Vowel fronting refers to a shift forward in the place of articulation of a vowel in the mouth. This is commonly found in not only the New York accent of American English but in the Southern accent of British English as well.

Labov found that vowels are not only fronted, but they’re made longer by New Yorkers as well.

Brian Donohue of New Jersey’s Star Ledger conducted a study on the regional accents of the neighboring state New Jersey based on research by Daniel E. Coye of Thomas Edison State College. In his televised expose, Donohue asks, “Do we have our own accent or do we speak like New York or Philadelphia do?”

He examines work by Coye which states the “fronted-O” found in Northern New Jersey can also be found in many Southern parts of the State. However, pronunciations of words like, chocolate, were split more evenly. Those Chaw-colate. Sub vs Hoagie. Daniel Coye from Thomas Edison State College

Donohue found that the New York accent extends as far south as about Cherry Hill. He also determined that what causes all of the variation in New Hersey is migration patterns. For example he says, Staten Islanders moving to New Jersey.

Politically, New Jersey is the Southern most state that identifies as the North. For example, while most agree the Mason Dixon Line ran just south of New Jersey, through Delaware, the first black self-governed community for was in New Jersey.

Could a political unity explain the reason New Jersey accents sound more like New York than the South?

Another discovery was made by Bruce Morén, a linguist from University of Tromso, Norway, on the Staten Island dialect specifically. ​​Professor Morén found so many exceptions to Labov’s rule of New York accents that he concluded that it does not apply to Staten Island native speakers and that their accents were even closer to Chicaco. For example, he found that Staten Islanders pronounce words with even longer vowels than the average New Yorker, and Staten Islanders tend to put the emphasis on the first syllable of a word.

What’s also surprisngly true is that Staten Islanders will go so far as to add an “r” sound at the end of syllables with elongated a’s. For example, “law” becomes “lawr” and “strawberry” because “strawrberry.”

Migration, also, has certainly played a key role in shaping the New York accent at large.

Some argue, including William Labov, that the New York accent extends as far east as Long Island, NY, as far north as Upstate New York, as far south as New Jersey and as far east as Chicago.

Nishad Datta, an activist from Queens, says “I’m from Hollis, but went to school in Jamaica in Queens and also lived in Flushing and Jackson Heights over the years, but I was born in Chicago. I’ve noticed that New York accents seem to be closer to other, newer forms of English speaking accents, with Rs and other consonants being omitted in everyday use.”

Gloria Mattera, a second generation Italian American from Brooklym and Green Party political organizer says she thinks Brooklyn has the strongest accent. Mattera states, “I think there is some variation even within the boroughs.”

Rory Lutz, comedian and phone repairman was born in NYC, says the city’s accents are changing due to migration.
“The city is different now,” Lutz tells Silly Linguistics. “It seems that most people here are from other areas. So yeah they don’t speak like we do. There’s less aggression in the tones. NYC has always gotten a bad rep for being mean. But the truth is we’re very considerate. Just very busy.

He also says, “NYC has different slang for every boro. It’s always changing. I low key love it.”

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