The accent varieties of New York City have received a great deal of attention over the years, both scholarly and popular. We have all grown up hearing, and noting accents that purport to exemplify New York speech, from actors, comedians, or cartoon rabbits. Linguists, too have been fascinated by the accents of New Yorkers and have been working to catalogue the features of that accent for more than a century. A great deal is known, but accent, like all human behavior and culture, is complex, and though we can make some generalizations, there is so much variation within groups that we will never be able to pin down
In this handout we will build a picture of the features that unify many of the varieties of New York speech. An actor working on a particular vocal characterization for a role will need to specify and develop choices based on their character’s socioeconomic status, aspirations, ethnic background, etc. but the features described here should serve as a starting point.
Perhaps the most readily apparent feature of the New York oral posture is lip protrusion. A certain holding in the peripheral fibers of the orbicularis oris muscle keeps the lips poised loosely forward. The dorsum of the tongue tends generally back and up. The combination of these two postural tendencies makes the New York realization of the GOOSE vowel a particularly useful touchstone for connecting with the feel of this accent. A general nasality is also quite common and so it is also valuable to consider a heavy velum part of this oral posture.
A feature of this accent that does not fall neatly into the category of oral posture or of particular realization of phonemes is assimilation. This could also be described as the simplification of consonant clusters. Simply put, linguistic detail has a lower priority in this accent. Obviously, in theatrical venues a balance needs to be found between necessary detail and authentic simplification.
TRAP → tɹæp h ŋ l f
New York has a split in the TRAP lexical set. William Labov described this split as a distinction between tense and lax realizations, and he described the conditions for this split as follows:
æ is lax (realized as [æ] )when followed in the same syllable by:
trap apple scrap
cat bat mat
batch match latch
back tack actor
hang anger tang
average havoc cadaver
lather gather rather
has jazz lazarus
pal alibi dally
æ is tense (realized as ) when followed in the same syllable by:
Actually, that cat was my pal.
Maslow happily matched my arrows with his fangs.
Randy was absolutely magic last night. Cathy laughed so hard she passed gas.
Did you leave a ham sandwich in the trash bag?
LOT ≠ CLOTH/THOUGHT→ lɑt / kl θ
Unlike Western accents that tend to merge these sets into a single, undounded open back vowel, or RP that groups LOT and CLOTH separately from THOUGHT, New York makes a clear distinction between the unrounded LOT and the similarly rounded CLOTH/THOUGHT.
Don stopped boxing last October, so obviously seeing a doctor isn’t an option. There’s no more coffee in the office, and my dog is long gone.
All the ice has thawed and fallen into the water.
GOOSE → ɡuːs
This vowel stands out as different to the growing trend in Western accents as it remains fully back and fully rounded
You knew Lou Reed? Who are you trying to fool? You mook!
PRICE → pɹ s
This diphthong starts in a somewhat backer place. J.C.Wells hears it as overlapping with the Cockney realization, but that seems like a bit too strong a statement. It’s worth noting, though, that the realization can vary based on stress and consonant ccontext.
Alright, so Michael’s a wise guy, right? But I like him. He’s a nice guy.
MOUTH → m θ
The second element of the diphthong can be extremely unstressed and unrounded. There may also ne nasalization in the first element. This seems to be very much contingent on stress/length. In the phrase “forget about it” for example, the MOUTH diphthong is completely smoothed, while in other instances this effect doesn’t occur.
Without a doubt, Howard’s a loud mouth.
Historically, New York is home to non-rhotic accents, and a fully non-rhotic form of speech is still in use there. Nontheless, lack of rhoticity can be stigmatized, so speakers from non-rhotic communities could feel some pressure to add postvocalic /r/ and might have variable success. Alternatively,
there’s enough rhoticity floating around the city and in the media, that there are entirely native rhotic versons of a New York accent. For our purposes, it’s best to establish a position that is
completely without postvocalic /r/ and then experiment with increasing rhoticity until we find the characterization we’re looking for.
START → stɑːt stɑ t stɑ t˞
This diphthong can vary from a fully monophthongal /ɑː/ to more diphthongal versions, including a variety with lip rounding “in the place of” rhoticity..
Arthur started a barbershop in his apartment.
So he needed a large parking garage for the cars
NORTH → n θ n ːθ
There is no distinction between NORTH and FORCE, and both are entirely non-rhotic.This diphthong will merge with THOUGHT, making “floor” and “flaw” homophones..
Before the divorce, George Foreman ordered organic sausages. The orchestra was informed of the source of the storm
Many American accent treat word like “orange” or “horror” as NORTH/FORCE words. JC Wells, though, classifies them as CLOTH words, with the /ɹ/ starting the next syllable. In this accent, though, the vowel is realized more like LOT.
The oranges in Florida are horrible.
CURE → k kç
The older form of the diphthong / /
still lingers in NY. It may drift to a more open form,
but it doesn’t merge with NURSE as it does in other American accents. Even in an unstressed position, a bitof lip rounding is detectable.
Poor lurid tourists. They’re sure furious!
NEAR → n n .
Similarly non-rhotic, this diphthong can be more resistant to smoothing.
I hear he has a fierce beard
SQUARE → skw skw .
Just like NEAR, this diphthong, this is non-rhotic, and when stress it can break into two syllables.
There ‘s a bear over there!, Yeah? Where?
NURSE → nɜs nɝs nɜ s nɜ s
Even in the most non-rhotic versions of this accent, the NURSE set bucks the trend. The description of NURRSE as rhotic, however, doesn’t quite describe the variety of possible relizations. In unstressed positions /ɜ/ is possible. An older form uses an action similar to the centering movement of rhotic diphthongs, but without the tongue bracing, producing a diphthong [ɜ ] that comes close to CHOICE. This is why some theatrical versions of the accent imagine “thirty” as “toidy” and “toilet” as “terlet”
The nerve of that German gir! Her words were perfectly poisonous. I heard Bertha was a nurse.
letter → l t
This can sometimes be the last evidence of a non-rhotic accent in the process of being rhoticized. Even in accents with rhoticity in other lexical sets, the unstressed nature of this phoneme, leads to a non-rhotic realization here.
I wonder whether the Professor ever remembered about his brother.
As with other non-rhotic accents, the “dropped /ɹ/” will reassert itself when followed immediately by a vowel. This happens between words and when the /ɹ/ is between syllables in a word
My brotheris wearing four or more underarm deodorants.
Elision can also occur in situations that mimic the above conditions
The idea is that yoga other spa activities are against the law in Virginia
inTO → nt the → ð roses→ ɹo z z
Some accents retain the lip rounding of unstressed /u/ sound when the next syllable begns with a vowel. Similarly, the word “the” will be pronounced [ð ] when followed by a vowel. New York accents resist this, pronouncing these words more consistently with a schwa. In the same way, unstressed syllables are more likely to be reduced to a schwa, making “Rosa’s” and “roses” homophones.
The elephant believed that the only way to open the cages was with the hoses.
This is the so called, “dropped g”. In fact, it’s the replacement of /ŋ/with /n/ in gerunds. It is common in all informal accents.
The king was taking a beating. Starting the meeting by debating herring fishing was relaxing.
-t-→ b t
In medial positions the alveolar plosive is voiced.
He’s pretty little for a British writer, but his letters are beautiful.
The alveolar plosive can be formed laminally
Tony took a bat to the terrorists toes. Typical Tony!
These fricatives are frequently shifted to dentalized plosives.
Think of all those thirty thousand mothers and fathers who thought that they’d leave their kids in the bathtub.
This fricative is commonly made as a voiced approximant
Humor me, Hugo. Human beings aren’t used to this humidity
All accents are subject to assimilation and deletion of sounds in the right conditions. This accent goes further than others.
You’re probably wondering about the temperature of those fundamentalists. Because about a hundred of them came here about twenty minutes ago and said, “Let’s go!” And I had to clean them right here on the spot. I didn’t want to but I thought I ought to.