New York City: Accent of Champions!

Tenements, New York City

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I like to think of myself as good at accents. I say this in all humbleness. Objectively speaking, I’d say my Cockney, Manchester, and Dublin are quite nuanced for an American. I can even do the more obscure accents, like working-class Cardiff or rural Northern California. I am, in short, a hopeless dialect nerd.

Which is why I am sad to say that the one accent I have trouble with is not some obscure regional patois spoken on the Hebrides, nor some inscrutable dialect off the West Coast of Ireland, but rather, an accent spoken less that three hours from where I grew up: New York City.

I have already spoken about the reasons why this accent is less prevalent in television and film.  I’d like to add another, indirect factor:  the New York City accent is incredibly hard to do.

What is it about this accent that has confounded actors for generations? I attribute this to several problems:

1.) There is no single New York Accent. Not even close. There are ethnolects (Jewish New York, African American New York, Irish New York), sociolects (working-class,upper-middle-class), and ideolects (New York siblings rarely seem to have the same accent).

2.) The accent has changed tremendously over the years. A film set in New York from even 30 years ago can be a misleading reference. The New York accent has evolved and continues to evolve. You need to be incredibly specific about time period, because each decade of the past century has produced its accent innovations.

3.) New York accents are inconsistent. The most obvious example of this is non-rhoticity. A New Yorker might say “Park the car” while dropping the r in park, but pronouncing the r in car. Actors are trained to be consistent with dialect work, and yet inconsistency is very much a part of contemporary New York English.

But the trickiest part of doing a New York Accent?

4.) The tense-lax split. If you’re an American or Brit, you probably pronounce cap, cab, batch and badge with the same vowel, right? Not so in New York City, where these a words are pronounced in two ways: tensely (meaning the vowel is pronounced slightly higher in the mouth) or laxly (pronounced slightly lower).

What’s the rule for which words are tense and which are lax? It’s so simple, really

The vowel is tense before nasals, voiceless fricatives and voiced stops, except in open syllables and function words, in which case the vowel is always lax, not including a large number of “exception” words which rules dictate should be lax but are in fact tense, AND words learned later in life, which are always lax.

Confused? Yeah. Me too.

The bottom line is, if you need to learn a New York accent, try to find somebody very knowledgeable to help you. All accents can pose their challenges, but New York City can foil even the most talented of dialect savants.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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13 Responses to New York City: Accent of Champions!

  1. 'enry 'iggins says:

    Nice post, if that’s what it’s called.

    You said, in case you don’t remember:
    “I like to think of myself as good at accents. I say this in all humbleness. Objectively speaking, I’d say my Cockney, Manchester, and Dublin are quite nuanced for an American. I can even do the more obscure accents, like working-class Cardiff or rural Northern California. I am, in short, a hopeless dialect nerd.”

    Maybe so, but how many of these do you get to use in plays or movies or whatever you do? We discussed that the other day. There’s nothing wrong with doing them for fun though, of course.

    For me, the more subtle an accent is, the harder it is to do. I have a Midland American accent, so I actually find Canadian accents to be the most difficult to do (I’m not including ones from the Atlantic provinces or Quebec when I say that). A lot of the time, real Canadian accents don’t sound different enough from my own accent, which makes them difficult. So if I had to play a Canadian in a play or movie I might not even try to do the accent. I probably wouldn’t need to anyway. Most people in the audience wouldn’t notice the difference.

    I’ve noticed what many actors do is exaggerate subtle accents like these (see Amy Walker). But that just sounds terrible in my opinion, although I like Amy. But I’m okay with it if it’s being done for comedic purposes. I do have a sense of humor.

    • trawicks says:

      I wish there were a practical application for more obscure dialects! Like a lot of people, I began the whole dialects thing as an actor, and then it developed into an odd obsession all its own. It certainly has had any number of practical uses, although usually for more widespread dialects.

      I agree about the subtle accents thing. Learning an accent that is radically different than your own is one thing. Learning an accent that is similar to your own with some slight differences is another.

  2. Nathan says:

    Also younger people in New York City tend to not even have New York City accents or at least not very noticeable ones.

  3. After having been born in the Midwest and then living in Houston, I moved to New York City in the mid-80s. I worked with a lot of people from the various boroughs of New York City. They were absolutely appalled that I couldn’t tell the difference between Queens, The Bronx, and Manhattan. And I couldn’t. I could usually distinguish Longg-eye-land from the other boroughs, but that was as far as it went.

    I should add, though, that my secretary (who was from Queens) always referred to us non-New Yorkers as being from “west of the Hudson” — and she claimed that WE all sounded alike!

    This was a really interesting post. Thanks so much!

    Janet

    • trawicks says:

      Actually, Janet, research seems to have shown you to be correct!

      William Labov, probably the most renowned dialectician in America, has emphatically stated that there is little to no geographical component to New York City English. There are certainly ethnolects (Jewish and Irish New Yorkers certainly have different accents), but the notion of there being a Queens vs. Bronx vs. Brooklyn accent to be mythological. Not 100% sure about this myself, but I’d be more inclined to believe Labov than just anybody.

  4. Julie says:

    As a native of rural Northern California, I would be curious as to what characteristics you think are typical of a rural Northern California accent. I can hear an array of such accents, falling along a broad spectrum.

    • trawicks says:

      There’s something called the “California Vowel Shift” that is relatively similar to the Canadian vowel shift: The vowel in “bet” moves toward the vowel in “bat,” “bat” moves toward “bot,” “bought” moves toward (and merges with) “bought,” and “but” moves toward to “bet.” I call it “rural” (admittedly misleading), because San Francisco has some unique dialect features that mark it as a slightly different region.

      • m.m. says:

        yeah, i was like, “rural”? that cant be right. but yeah, san francisco isnt relatively the same english as the rest of california, though other non-‘rural’ parts of california, like modesto, los angeles, and san diego, have also been found to participate in the california vowel shift. rural would definitly be misleading.

        • trawicks says:

          I’ve made the mistake a few times of using “urban” or “rural” to distinguish an accent from another region. The more accurate terms would perhaps be “non-San-Francisco” Northern California English.

  5. Mig says:

    I’d love to hear your Manchester! I promise I’ll be nice!

    I hope you’re not getting accent tips for Manchester fof Coronation Street though because the range of accents on there is a lot broader than Manchester.

    • trawicks says:

      Haha I’ve actually never watched Coronation Street. Although seeing as most actors on the show are from elsewhere, I’m pretty sure there are some atrocious accents.

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  7. Spencer says:

    New York accents are very distinctive but apart from the South I am hopeless at guessing where people are from judging by the way they speak.