The Brooklyn Accent (And the City it Stands For)

Coney Island

Coney Island, 1884

Like almost any theatre student in New York, I spent my share of time during college at the Drama Book Shop. Naturally, I always gravitated toward the voice and speech section of the shelf. I remember browsing through a book on ‘stage dialects’ and being perplexed by the chapter titled ‘The Brooklyn Accent.’ Can the speech of this single borough be considered different from the city as a whole?

William Labov, American sociolinguist extraordinaire, explicitly warned against attempts to find sub-regions within New York City English in a New Yorker profile:

“People want me to tell them which block … The fact is—but don’t write this, because it will enrage people—Brooklynese is exactly the same whether it’s spoken in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island or in Brooklyn. Or the Lower East Side.”

Note, though, Labov’s choice to use a single borough to describe the speech of the city as a whole. There is something about that particular section of the Big Apple that seems to garner the most linguistic attention.

The colorful term Labov uses, by the way, dates back to at least 1893, where it appeared in a satirical magazine called Town Topics.  Even then, the borough had clearly earned a reputation for being a bit, well, different:

It should be mentioned here that the people of Brooklyn talk Brooklynese. Brooklynese is a language that is a mixture of Bowery, Pittsburgh, and Zulu.

Since then, Brooklyn speech has been the butt of countless jokes, sometimes loving, sometimes obnoxious. An example of the latter popped up on a TV show about hotel management I recently watched. The host, trying to make nice with a Spanish-speaking staff member, reassured her that ‘I’m from Brooklyn … so don’t worry, I don’t speak English so great either.’ Which is not a little insulting given that the borough was one of the 20th-Century’s great sources of literary talent.

A quick trip to Google NGram reveals pretty much what you might expect about the borough’s dominance. ‘Brooklyn accent’ (the blue line) takes the lion’s share of mentions of borough-specific English, followed distantly by ‘Bronx accent’ (the red line) and ‘Queens accent’ (the green line):

(I’ve included Staten Island and Manhattan for good measure, and both yield predictably insignificant results.)

Why is this term so synonymous with ‘New York Accent?’ Brooklyn is the most populated borough, so that may have something to do with it. One could argue that we name city’s dialects after their heavily populated, working-class areas, which is perhaps why ‘Cockney’ took hold more than something as general as ‘London English.’

That’s perhaps why Adele was described in a recent profile as speaking ‘Cockney’ (despite not growing up in East London). And it’s why I once described the old woman ordering rye at a local deli as having a ‘Brooklyn Accent’ (even though I was in Queens at the time). Sometimes the speech of a part of a city is equated with the speech of the city itself.

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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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7 Responses to The Brooklyn Accent (And the City it Stands For)

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    Pace Mr. Labov, and I know he’s a world class linguist who could probably prove me wrong in a moment, I think there ARE borough specific accents, although their scale may not be great enough for the average person to differentiate them.

    By way of analogy, I was born in New Brunswick, NJ. A native speaker of my generation(born 1940), refers to the city’s largest park, as bugle-oh park(that’s properly spelled ‘Buccleugh’ and pronounced buck-lew by non-city residents). Someone in the contiguous municipalities doesn’t know what you’re talking about if you use the first pronunciation.

    There are many factors affecting pronunciation, social and econmic class, ethnicity and how close a person is to first generation speakers of English among others. By the way, for all who read this: NO ONE in New Jersery has EVER referred to the state as New Joisey!

    • trawicks says:

      I think Labov has elsewhere clarified that his main objection is that inter-ethnolectical and inter-sociolectical differences are great enough that they cloud whatever picture we might have of inter-borough differences. One way someone could make a more compelling case is if particular ethnolects in different parts of the city were compared; for instance, if the accent of the Italian-American community in Bensonhurst was found to contrast with the Italian-American community in the Bronx.

  2. Ed says:

    I’ve just visited New York. I think that British people like New York accents more than other American ones, as they tend to be less nasal. In addition, I noticed that New Yorkers don’t use many of the phrases that we refer to as “Americanisms”. I didn’t hear many instances of “Oh my God!”, “totally”, “awesome” or “man” as a tag. One 50-something resident told me that this was more typical of Californian and that most New Yorkers hated that way of speaking.

  3. Lane says:

    Brooklyn” probably became identified with what people think of as the “New York accent” because what most people think of as the “New York accent” (particularly post-vocalic r-lessness but maybe also dental-stops for interdental-fricatives, “deze and doze”, “toity-toid and toid”) is “working-class New York.” People associate the working class more with Brooklyn than with Manhattan, and Brooklyn is more famous (as well as more populous) than the other three outer boroughs.

    As a resident though, I can tell you it’s very easy to spend a day in my part of Brooklyn, talking to people in shops and restaurants and bars all the while, and never hear a “Brooklyn accent.” Big chunks of the borough are gentrifying like mad.

    • trawicks says:

      I can second that! I think there is something of an outer borough ‘Gen Am Corridor’ that extends from Park Slope (or perhaps a bit south), up through the brownstone areas of Cobble Hill, Fort Green and a few surrounding neighborhoods, through the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, Long Island City, and ending with Astoria as its northernmost territory. That’s not to say there aren’t speakers of New York English in those areas, but they tend to be outnumbered by GenAm-speaking transplants, L2-English speakers, or (in the case of Greenpoint and Astoria) a unique mix of the two.

  4. Paul Johnston says:

    Labov did notice ethnic differences in the Lower East Side, and I think you can find parallel ones in Brooklyn, the Bronx, etc. About “New Joisey”, no, in general, Jerseyites never say that (& I’m from Morristown), but I’ve heard old male natives of Hudson County–Jersey City, Bayonne, etc. use the Brooklynese vowel. These are guys who probably would be 100 today. Reportedly, the “oi” once extended as far west as Paterson and Newark at one time, according to the LAMSAS dialect atlas, which recorded speakers born in the 1870’s and ’80’s. Now it’s gone or nearly gone, even in Brooklyn!