More Thoughts on the New York Accent

Ellis IslandI somehow missed this NY Post piece, in which Kara Becker, a linguist at Reed College in Oregon, pens a broad overview of the long decline of the ‘classic’ New York City accent. It’s a good read for anyone who wants to get a general look at the way that New York’s distinctive accent has changed over the past few decades.

This observation is made about many cities throughout the English-speaking world: ‘Cockney is disappearing,’ ‘the Dublin accent is disappearing,’ or ‘the New Orleans accent is disappearing.’ But these gripes prompt a rather obvious question: just what made these accents the ‘definitive (insert city here) accent’ in the first place?

I think it is safe to say that for most major cities, the local dialect is primed to change, often radically, every few decades. This is one of the major exceptions I take to complaints about Cockney being supplanted by Multicultural London English, or General American usurping any number of working-class accents throughout the United States. Such events are business as usual throughout the history of English.

With that in mind, I can think of four major dialect ‘events’ that (perhaps) occurred to New York City accent:

1.) At some point in the 19th-Century, a type of non-rhotic, ‘aristocratic’ English became prestige in the city.

2.) Around the turn of the 20th-Century, millions of immigrants brought unique influences to the local speech which strengthened pre-existing features of the accent and introduced several innovations.

3.) After World War II, the spectrum of accents known as General American became common in the city due to high levels of American inmigration.

4.) In the latter half of the 20th-Century, various innovations from African-American Vernacular English entered the linguistic landscape (really a process that dates back much further, but seems most salient in recent decades).

Some of these may be debatable. Regardless, the point is that what we think of as the ‘New York accent’ is a type of English that was common at a particular point in the city’s linguistic history (arguably ‘step 2’ in the list above). So why do we say ‘the New York accent is dying out’ and not ‘the New York accent is changing?’

I think the problem here is that recorded sound has been a part of mainstream American life for a relatively short period, only about 90 years. Without being able to hear how people talked 150 years ago, laypeople have only had enough time for to make two very simple empirical observations: (a) people used to speak a certain way, and (b) we speak rather differently now.

I’m interested to know what it will be like 300 years from now, when we (hopefully) will have centuries of recorded speech at our disposal. Will we then be more aware of the changing nature of accents, rather than assuming unique speech features are perpetually ‘dying out?’


About Ben

Ben T. 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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21 Responses to More Thoughts on the New York Accent

  1. boynamedsue says:

    Just a query about elite rhoticism, is it not more probable that it was once established as elite speech for the whole New England seaboard, receding to Mass and New York, and that its origin is pre-revolutionary? Of course that leaves us asking where and who was rhotic at this time, as I believe Virginia down also had elite rhoticism, and if it’s true we haven’t got a lot of centres left to be the heartland of the rhotic accent.

    • trawicks says:

      That’s a good question. I’ve often suspected that Philadelphia and Baltimore may have once been non-rhotic, as both accents maintain a number of features more common in r-less accents: marry/mary/merry distinction and raised THOUGHT being the two most prominent of these. What’s puzzling then, is that non-rhoticity (at least as it was distributed in the mid-20th-century) has a noticeable ‘gap.’ It extends from Eastern Maine all the way down to Staten Island or thereabouts, doesn’t occur for a few hundred more miles, then pops up again in coastal Virginia and continues its spread southward. Why the mid-Atlantic is the exception is something I’ve never quite understood.

      • dw says:

        The account I’ve heard is that there were two distinct focal points for the introduction of non-rhoticity into the USA: the coastal North East and the coastal South, both of whom somewhat Anglophile social elites. The Mid-Atlantic fell in between.

        • trawicks says:

          Although this post on JC Wells’ blog a while back includes a phonetic transcription from 1911 that suggests the presence of non-rhotic accents in Baltimore in the early 20th-Century. (Made somewhat more believable because the transcriptionist mentions several features of the accent that are still part of Baltimore English today: GOOSE, GOAT, and MOUTH fronting). Non-rhoticity may have once occurred in cities from Baltimore to Boston, but perhaps simply retreated earliest in the mid-Atlantic.

          A related, fascinating fact about non-rhoticity in the Northeast is that it neatly corresponds with major cities’ waterway access to the Atlantic Ocean. Hartford and Philadelphia (both firmly non-rhotic in 2012) would have been a 100 miles’ sail from the Ocean, a large chunk of these journeys through narrow, winding rivers. Baltimore, meanwhile, would have required over 150 miles or so of sailing through the Chesapeake. Non-rhotic cities like New York, Providence, and Boston, on the other hand, are located on open bays, less than 30 miles from the open sea. Among these ‘coastal cities, there is a discrepancy in non-rhoticity prevalence between the genuinely coastal and cities merely relatively close to the coast.

  2. Marc Leavitt says:

    The New York accent, I would argue, is better characterized as New York “accents.” Besides an obvious change over time, demographic as well as socio-economic influences are also at work.

    • trawicks says:

      Agreed. Even the ‘classic’ New York accent exhibited tremendous variation. The city is large and diverse enough that, even in the days of the ‘classic’ NYC accent, it was a bit hard to pinpoint. Almost all of the salient features of the accent are arguably the most variable.

  3. William Carter says:

    “So why do we say ‘the New York accent is dying out’ and not ‘the New York accent is changing?’”

    Well, what new, uniquely New York City features are replacing the features that died out? If the answer is “there aren’t any”, then I would say the accent is dying out. The pronunciation changes mentioned in the NY Post piece are all in the direction of “General American”.

  4. darren says:

    I’ve never been to New York, but I getthe impression If I was to bump in the average longtime resident, working downtown Manhattan, they would greet me with a General American accent. Has the stereotypical accent moved out to the boroughs??

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  6. Peter S. says:

    I haven’t lived there for seven years now, but my impression (from then) is that while non-rhoticity may be declining, there hasn’t been any change in using a vowel different from /ɔ/ in words like horror, forest, and correspond. (Although I think that whether this vowel is exactly the same as the one in father depends on the speaker.)

    • dw says:

      That is of a piece with retention of the Mary/Marry/merry distinction. RP has the LOT vowel (not the NORTH vowel) in all these words.

      • dw says:

        This could be called the “aural”-“moral” merger. There isn’t a good minimal pair.

        • gaelsano says:

          I mention it in more length in the thread about Sorey, but I don’t think there has ever been an aural-moral merger. I think that the Canadian/American phenomenon is a torrent-Tory merger. This is why you can have cot-caught mergers with no effect on NORTH (because the merger is towards lexical set FORCE even if the realization sounds like [O:r] instead of [o@r])

    • Anthony T. says:

      That feature is interesting to me because it seems to be an East Coast feature in the broadest sense of the term. I live in South Carolina and it seems to me that people here, even people with thick Southern accents, have something like LOT or START in those words.

      dw: “RP has the LOT vowel (not the NORTH vowel) in all these words.”

      This would also be true of most accents outside of North America, would it not? I think it even applies to Irish accents, which are usually rhotic, like North American accents. But they don’t seem to have the Mary/marry/merry, spirit/spear it, hurry/furry, etc. mergers.

      • gaelsano says:

        Irish and Scottish English seem uniquely averse to r-conditioned mergers or r-controlled vowels or liquid/nasal-coloring etc.

        There are several Irish accents but it is quite amazing to hear NORTH with the exact same vowel as LOT. Scots probably have zero vowel coloring, but you don’t notice it as much since their NORTH sounds close enough to an American’s NORTH and their LOT sounds like a Southern Hemisphere LOT. Scots have a true [o] in GOAT and FORCE but that doesn’t raise eyebrows because many Canadians have monopthongal GOAT and they don’t have a fronted GOAT like the Brits, so FORCE sounds good enough. Both are [Q(:)]. Scots also use a TRAP/PALM vowel between Anglo-British TRAP/PALM (Ignore Cockney and NCVS) so that the single vowel sounds okay for both.

        Wales kind of baffles me. Very different from other Celtic-heritage accents. They have a NORTH-THOUGHT-GOAT merger and I think I’ve heard some people also merge it with FORCE.

        • dw says:

          Don’t forget that Scots are Brits, too 🙂

          Even within England, GOAT is by no means uniformly fronted: much of the north has monophthongal FACE and GOAT.

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  8. Sooryan FM says:

    Which NYC accent? The accent used by famous people from Manhattan (like Lana del Rey, Lady Gaga or Brooke Shields) sounds like the standard Western US accent: caller = collar; pol = Paul; Don = dawn; caught = cot.

    • gaelsano says:

      Everything about Lady Gaga is fake and manufactured for mass appeal, including her accent. I was shocked when I found she was an Italian-American from NYC. There is no way, I thought, because I distinctly thinking her accent was California precisely because of the PALM-LOT-THOUGHT merger

      • Barry says:

        A friend was quite surprised when seeing her in concert how she had a difficult time hiding her real accent. He had no idea that she (according to him) has an actual NYC accent.

  9. Richard says:

    The movie Quiz Show portrayed what felt like a very studied portrayal of various New York accents of the 50s, including the aristocratic non-rhotic.