On “Local” Place Pronunciations: “Manhattan”

Manhattan

Geographicus

While on a train to New York, I overheard the following from a young man speaking Nuyorican English (i.e. the Latino-American New York dialect): “I’m on a train in Jersey to visit my cousin in Manhattan.” This would be an unnoteworthy sentence except for the last word, for which he markedly elided several consonants: mæ̃.æʔn (“Ma’a'uhn”).

This ia a strange sequence of sounds for English, but given “Manhattan’s” tricky juxtaposition of /n/ and /h/, it’s a common type of variant*. It occurred to me, however, that I’ve never found any consensus on the “local” pronunciation of this word, or even if there is anything like a local pronunciation. (And given similar discussions of this type, I doubt there’s just one!)

If there is anything I have noticed that New Yorkers tend to do more than others, it is to reduce the word’s first syllable; hence where my middle-American-bred parents would speak of “man-hattin” (mænhætn̩), New Yorkers will sometimes truncate this entirely, so it’s more or less “mnn-hattin” (mhætn̩).

New Yorkers don’t always knock off that first /a/, though. So there is also the question of where “-anh” falls in terms of New York’s tense-lax split (that is, /a/ before /n/ can be pronounced in two slightly different ways depending on several factors). My impression is that when New Yorkers do not reduce the first syllable, it falls into the lax category, so that it contrasts slightly with the raised/nasal General American pronunciation–mænhætn̩ vs. meənhætn̩. But I admit that I’ve heard this so seldomly in my lifetime that my memory might be faulty.

And as the opening anecdote suggests, there are probably all kinds of other quirky pronunciations that occur in rapid or informal speech. I would not be at all surprised to hear a dropped /n/, /h/ or /t/, not to mention combinations of such elisions.

This is yet another example of how variable local pronunciations of place names can be. This one, I suspect, may exhibit a particularly large number of variants because of the inexactitude (and hence infrequence) of “Manhattan” as a place marker for New Yorkers. You’re more likely to hear someone say, “I live in the East Village” than “I live in Manhattan,” just as a Brooklynite is more likely to say she is “going into the city” than identifying the borough of her destination.

*Although more common if a morpheme or word boundary separates them, as in “unhappy” or “in hot water.”

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began 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 On “Local” Place Pronunciations: “Manhattan”

  1. Jordan says:

    I grew up in Nassau County, about 45 min. from Manhattan by train. My family, and most people from my village, say meənhætn̩. The borough is, as you note, is usually called “the city” by locals anyway. “Manhattan” rarely entered discourse unless speaking to someone not from the area.

    Maybe it’s a local dialect pride issue, but when GenAm speakers (such as newscasters) pronounce “Manhattan” as mænhætn̩ or “Long Island” with a hard stop between the two words (instead of the native pronounciation “Lon’gi’land”), I feel as if a robot is describing my place of birth and early years. I suppose this is likely true whenever a regional American English dialect speaker hears his or her place of birth or residence described in GenAm.

    Interesting observation: On the BBC recently, the RP announcer pronounced “Long Island” as “Lon’gi’land”, like native Long Islanders. Is the native Long Island pronounciation an intrinsic result of the non-rhotic dialect? In other words, would most non-rhotic Englishes pronounce “Long Island” like Long Islanders do?

    • Ellen K. says:

      I’m definitely not an expert, but seems to me that what you call the native pronunciation is simply the result thinking of it as a single phoneme and then pronouncing it naturally, without trying to carefully articulate, in any accent. The pronunciation with the “hard stop” between the words would come from either thinking of it as an island named Long (rather than a place named Long Island), or from trying enunciate clearly rather than speaking casually.

      And since there’s no R-sound in Long Island (in whatever accent), I can’t see that an accent being rhotic or not would have any effect.

      • Peter S. says:

        I’m quite sure that “Lawn Guyland” (as this pronunciation is often spelled) comes from an intrusive ‘g’ which gets inserted whenever /ŋ/ is followed by a vowel. I lived in the New York suburbs for nearly twenty years, and among the people I talked to, there were a small percentage of people who did this. See Wikipedia on the New York Dialect. I don’t believe this has anything to do with the intrusive ‘r’, other than being parallel to it in some sense.

    • dw says:

      My guess is that the BBC announcer is trying to be “authentic” by imitating the local pronunciation.

      Alternatively, the announcer may come from one of the areas of England where this historical pronunciation pattern still survives (e.g. Manchester). However, the fact that you describe the announcer’s pronunciation as RP makes that unlikely.

    • Ed says:

      No, most English speakers are non-rhotic but would say /lɒŋ aɪlənd/ rather than /lɒŋg aɪlənd/. The cluster /ŋg/ only occurs in the west Midlands, Lancashire and (oddly enough) Kent.

      The BBC announcer you heard was probably just an unusual case, or perhaps someone trying to imitate the local pronunciation of Long Island.

  2. Nick says:

    I’ve heard a few New Yorkers use a glottal stop for the “tt” in “Manhattan”. This sounds very distinctive to me as a Midwesterner (originally). The people that I’ve heard do this were Hispanic FWIW. If they’re more likely to do this than other ethnic groups, I’m not sure why that is, because the Spanish language doesn’t have any glottal stops AFAIK.

    I’m also not sure if the first syllable of “Manhattan” would have a tense or lax a in the local accent. I would guess lax because it’s a multisyllabic word, but I’m not sure because “man” would have a tense vowel. I’ve read about the “rules” of the NYC short a system in one of Labov’s papers, but it’s very complicated and there are exceptions.

  3. m.m. says:

    there are amEng speakers who dont glottalize [or flap?] the /t/ in manhattan?? thats so… odd/RP sounding

    the reduction of man seems normal, even expected, in quick utterances to me. or at least in my lect. but that full on redux you open with, i have a hard time imagining it being uttered with ease haha

    • Nick says:

      My impression is that the majority of AmEng speakers do not replace the /t/ in “Manhattan” with a glottal stop. If they did, why would that feature stick out so much to me? Flapping the /t/ in “Manhattan” sounds odd to me.

      • m.m. says:

        its endemic in southern california then? flapping sounds degrees less odd than [t] to me. its fascinating that a glottal stop is marked to you.

      • Nick says:

        It’s equally fascinating to me that a glottal stop isn’t marked to you :)

      • Nick says:

        It’s possible that you and I have a very different idea of what a glottal stop is.

        • dw says:

          I would use an alveolar stop with nasal release (which, I think, some people mistakenly perceive as a glottal stop). But I’m not a native AmE speaker.

        • m.m. says:

          im preʔy sure I know whaʔ a gloʔal stop is :b

          both in items like the manhatten project and manhatten beach, glotting is pretty much #1 followed by flapping, and extends to the place in nyc.

          seriously curious how were on opposite sides of markedness haha

  4. Norm says:

    Grew up in the New York area (New Jersey side) and have always used a glottal stop – which all my friends from NJ/NY use. Didn’t realize I did it until my roommates from Arkansas and California pointed it out. Is it a Northeast thing to glottalize (sp?) -attin/-atten/-atton/-itten?

    • Gonfal says:

      I live in Ontario and I just glottalized. I do it frequently – “completely” is glottalized, and words like “button” and “manhattan” are not completely glottalized, I think, but my tongue isn’t involved in the t sound.

      The local one where I am are “Sydenham”, which comes out as “Sidnm”.

  5. Neuro Polarbear says:

    In “The New Style” one of the Beastie Boys (I think Mike D), a New Yorker, says:

    You’re Secaucus, Im from “Man-hae-?n”, you’re jealous of me cause your girlfriend is “caddin”

  6. Dan says:

    While I’m fascinated with the topic of local dialect, I don’t know the vocabulary of dialect discussion. So half this commentery is lost on me. That said, we have a Manhattan in Kansas. Most folks here do not make the ‘t’ sound at all. I have one high school daughter who does, however, and every time she says it I think she sounds strange.

  7. TW says:

    Interesting your commentary on the various local pronunciations of Manhattan. I’d never thought of this with Manhattan, but I have noticed it with the way some New York City AAVE speakers pronounce” Broadway,” using a glottal stop at the d.

  8. aestrivex says:

    I grew up middle class from the lower east side and like many young people have lost a lot of the marked characteristics of the area dialect. I would usually produce [mən'hæ.tⁿ] but sometimes [mən'hæ.ʔn]. I would never flap it, that sounds completely wrong.

    Regarding æ-tensing, I can’t parse [meənhætn]. I think [mənheəʔn] (or perhaps [mənheətⁿ]) would sound much more correct from the native dialects that tense the vowel.

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