The New York Accent

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, the epi-center of the New York accent. When I went to college in the Midwest, I was constantly told that I talked like a gangster. I wished I could talk like a "real American". I tried to get rid of my accent. I never succeeded although I guess it has softened over the years. Still my children tell me that even now I talk with a strong New York accent when I talk with my brother. When I was younger and suffered ridicule in Chicago for the way I talked, I was ashamed of my New York accent. Now I am proud of it. It is a sign of my clan, my tribe, my people.

My experience brings out the two basic truths about regional accents in any language. On the one hand they SEPARATE people according to geography or social class. On the other hand, they UNITE people within regions and social classes. Nevertheless with national television and radio and increased travel and moving around the country the old accents are disappearing.

The New York accent is found in the five boroughs of the city (Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island),in neighboring parts of the neighboring counties of New York State, and in the nearby cities of Newark and Jersey City of the state of New Jersey.

Although the origins of the accent have been traced by historical linguists to parts of sixteenth and seventeenth century England, the New York accent has been greatly influenced by the waves of immigrants to this most metropolitan of cities. Traces of Dutch, can be found but it is Italian, Yiddish, and Irish-inflected English that have had most effect on the dialect.

We will briefly examine the pronunciation of the vowels and consonants that influence the New York accent. However, we must remember that an accent is not only made up of proper pronunciation. An accent is made up of three parts: intonation, liaisons, and pronunciation. More on this can be found in the useful site: www.GoodAccent.com.

Intonation is perhaps the most important and the most difficult to change. It is the "music", the rhythm or a language. Liaisons, or linkages, are the ways that words and parts of words are linked together in a language. This may be very different from how you do it in your native language.

Having clarified that it is not the ONLY part of an accent, let's look at pronunciation in the New York Accent. Although most of the extremes of pronunciation of the vowels and consonants in New York are disappearing.

VOWELS: Some vowels are pronounced differently in New York than in other parts of the United States. For New Yorkers, the name of the state Florida and its favorite fruit, the orange, have the vowel sound of the word "horrible" (no criticism intended since many New Yorkers love oranges when they retire in Florida!). In NYC both words are pronounced like the word "pot". In other parts of the country these words are pronounced like the word "fork". Another example: The New York accent pronounces the vowels of the words bad and bat differently. In most parts of the country these two words have the same vowel sound. Finally, of course, everyone thinks of the extreme accent of "Noo Yawk". Sometimes in a heavy accent the vowel even seems to be made of two syllables, as if it were "Yaw uk". This sound is found in the words, talk, law, cross, coffee.

Everyone has heard that New Yorkers say the "oily boid gets the woim" and the " car needs erl". The sounds are really not interchanged as the myth goes. The explanation is a more complicated but this pronunciation is dying rapidly.

CONSONANTS: The consonant differences in the New York accent mostly have to do with the absence of the "r" sound at the end of a word or before a consonant, pronouncing the words car, butter, garlic as if they were cah, buttah, and gahlic. An example of this is the prevalence in hip-hop culture of the spelling "sistah", "gangsta" etc.

On the other hand, the traditional New York dialect speaker would say "idear" for idea. The end result is that New Yorkers have a "rhotic" problem (a fancy way of saying "variants of the 'r' sound"). For them, the words law and lore are undistinguishable. They both are pronounced as "lore".

We have to mention the famous "dis, dat and dose" of the caricaturization of the New York Accent. Although this is losing ground, the pronunciation of "dis" for "this", "that, and "those" is still heard and sneaks out even with careful speakers.

Finally, at least finally in our VERY BRIEF and informal treatment of New York pronunciation is the special sound of the composite "ng" sound of the words finger and singer. This feature is still present in the accent of many New Yorkers, especially those with Yiddish influence in their speech. In this case, in General American speech in the rest of the country, the words are pronounced with the combined "ng" consonant ending the first syllable, and with a vowel beginning the following syllable. But the New York accent clearly pronounces the /g/ by itself, ending the first syllable with /n/ and starting the next syllable with /g/. The result is the famous pronunciation of Long Island (home of many speakers of the New York Accent). It is called affectionately "Lawn Guyland".

VOCABULARY: There are also some vocabulary differences that we won't look at here since all other also regions have their own. After all, vocabulary is part of a dialect, not of an accent.

ATTITUDE AND STYLE: Now to the most characteristic part of the New York accent, one that has nothing to do with the sounds of the language, but more to do with the New York attitude. I once had a woman contact me from out of state. She had heard of my work with accents (you can contact me at accent@LeerEsPoder.com) and asked for help. She was a New Yorker living in another state. She worked in customer service andher supervisors were going to pass her up for a promotion because of her accent. The funny thing is that she did not pronounce any of the words in a typically New York way. Her pronunciation was national but her intonation and rhythm was very New YOrk. There was something that grated on non-New Yorker ears.

It was that she had the choppy, nervous, high-tension way of speaking that characterizes New Yorkers. New Yorkers have to talk. They can't stand silence. They have to intersperse questions in a conversation and often answer their own questions. If you tell a New Yorker (more women than men) that you have a new job, she will invariably say "You like it? If you say your daughter lives in Los Angeles, she will say, "does she like it"? These questions are just a way of keeping the conversation going; they are not real questions. Often, the New Yorker doesn’t care if your daughter likes her job or not. It is merely a way of saying "Oh, how interesting", or "how nice", expressed as rapid-fire questions.

I no longer am ashamed of my New York accent. I consider it a national treasure that enshrines the contributions of the people who have formed it. It was not formed by the tight-lipped descendants of the powerful but by the immigrant millions. New Yorkers still preserve words and sounds of Yiddish, Italian, Irish, and other European immigrant groups. Currently, their speech also has African-American, Caribbean, Hispanic, East Asian, and South Asian influences. The New York accent reflects the “mish mash” (Yiddish), “chanfaina” or “sancocho” (Spanish), “misciata” (Southern Italian dialect) and similar descriptions of the proud people of New York. By the way all these words connote a “mix of ingredients” as does the expression, “gorgeous mosaic” of David Dinkins, New York’s first African-American mayor.

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