Thursday 2 September 2010


Thanks to Ludwig Tan for a link to this BBC news article about one Heather Quinlan, who is “on a quest to record [the] full variety [of the New York accent] for posterity”.

I have to say that in my opinion displaying a sign reading “Do you have a NY Accent? Then talk to me” might produce a rather unbalanced sample of speakers. But I suppose it’s better than nothing.

Despite its publication on a British website, the article betrays an American point of view. Declaring that New Yorkers pronounce “Wa-ta” not “Water” is pretty meaningless for an English readership. But then declaring that they say “Awe-ful” not “Awful”, and calling this “’A’ broadened” is pretty meaningless from every point of view.
(The latter assertion is presumably about the THOUGHT vowel, which in NYC can be an opening diphthong, almost [], rather than the [ɔ, ɒ, ɑ] monophthong that we hear from other Americans. But for a British readership a “broadened” A would be taken as referring to the backed and lengthened vowel of BATH in RP etc, bɑːθ as against northern English baθ or American bæ(ː)θ, bɛəθ — a quite different matter.)

Fortunately the author of the article consulted Bill Labov, who introduced some scientific objectivity to the discussion.

The embedded clip, a compilation of (presumably) New Yorkers saying this and that, starts with a young lady who refers to them as niˈjɔrkɚz. No one comments on the apparent contradiction between this rhotic pronunciation and the assertion that New Yorkers drop r. (As we know, rhoticity in NYC is actually variable: some rs are dropped, some aren’t. It partly depends on the speaker’s socioeconomic status, their level of education, and the degree of formality. See Labov’s Social stratification of English in New York City.)
"A young person growing up in a college-educated household might, for example, complete the 'r' pronunciation even in his everyday speech," says Prof Labov.

Americans who know nothing about phonetics can nevertheless readily identify a New York accent. The same is not generally true of the British, to whom New Yorkers just sound American.

Over to you, Amy Stoller.


  1. Sorry, this is on yesterday's blog:
    "more ice mɔːr aɪs sounds different from more rice mɔː raɪs — in the same way as an aim ən eɪm sounds different from a name ə neɪm".
    I can easily hear the difference between "more ice" and "more rice", but I can't find any between "an aim" and "a name". Do native speakers really do? (Say aloud and quickly "It was an aim" vs "It was a name".)

  2. Anonymous

    1. Yes, I'm a native speaker, and I hear a difference.

    2. You can easily move this to the other thread:

    • First copy your post and paste it on the other thread.
    • Then click the dustbin (trash can) symbol at the bottom of your post on this thread, and confirm that you want to delete it.

  3. Yes, they do. (At least, I do.) I remember a French colleague misleadingly getting this wrong, and telling us to insert "a knell" (= an L).

  4. @ David: I'm afraid I'm hopeless at these modern machines. I can't make sense of point 2.

    @ John: In Spanish, we tend to pronounce a final /n/ as if it belonged with a following initial vowel. Why can't you do the same, for Heaven's sake!

  5. Thanks David. I'm still not quite sure but I think I can make it (if I can eventually find the dustbin). From the "orange" case, I gather that English people enjoy dressing the end of syllables with at least one consonant. (Sorry but I still can't believe that you will distinguish between "a norange" and "an orange". Please try and carry the experiment with a non-expert English speaking subject. Speaking English can't be such a nightmare!)

  6. See for the distinction between "an ice" and "a nice".
    @Anonymous: Same in Italian. Once I thought a professor of mine had said una simmetria 'a symmetry', but then starting describing an obviously asymmetric situation. I was about to ask him whether I was missing something but before I did I suddenly realized he actually meant un'asimmetria 'an asymmetry'.

    (Some /n/'s do resyllabify with the following vowel, e.g. in "another", to the point that now speakers say things like "a whole nother".)

  7. un'asimmetria

    An additional issue is that the stress doesn't change to the a-.

  8. Anonymous: Because we anglophones prefer syllables that end in consonants and create them at every opportunity. Perverse, I know.

    John: What a wonderful way to start my day with the trailer and the other excerpts at the film's website. I've been living here for thirty years, and of course my accent remains fundamentally unchanged — well, maybe I'm starting to get a bad/lad split very occasionally — but I love the native accent of my adopted city. Naturally, an accent out of context is just a rag-bag of allophones: it's the New York point of view above all that I identify myself with. Nobody can say "Fuggedaboudit" with as much emphasis as my wife, and she still speaks North Carolina after almost forty years here. Indeed, whenever I fly over Manhattan after a trip to the planet Earth, I find myself reflecting that I am a citizen of no mean city.

    I particularly want to point to Quinlan's short film (not an excerpt) O Brooklyn! My Brooklyn!", a montage of Brooklynites reciting lines from Walt Whitman's poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry". It underscores the point that the accent Labov rightly called "a great sink of negative prestige" can be the vehicle of high culture and art; indeed, Whitman doubtless read it over to himself in much the way it is spoken here.

  9. Oy, vey. I think the first thing I'd want to do is contact Bill Labov for comment. I'm not altogether sure he's been quoted correctly, or at least in full context.

    You are of course correct, John, that rhoticity in New York is variable - it has been for quite some time, as Labov pointed out in the 60s.

    I keep seeing articles saying that the New York accent is disappearing. I suppose it may be moribund, but dead it ain't - not by a long chalk. From a common-sense point of view, I'd suggest folks consider whether it might not be evolving, as regional accents tend to do over time, rather than dying.

    Naturally I agree with your point that such twaddle as "awe-ful" vs "awful" is useless. But at least I can see what the writer is driving at. "Wa-ta" vs "water" is simply bizarre. I can't make any sense out of it at all.

    If I have the energy and patience to comment on specific points later, I will. (The impatience is with the article, not with anyone here!)

  10. army1987,
    Some /n/'s do resyllabify with the following vowel, e.g. in "another", to the point that now speakers say things like "a whole nother".

    Yes I do say that. Good point. It took me a really long time to realize nother wasn't a proper word.

  11. I'm just going to be a pedantic Upstater who points out that this is not about chronicling New York accents. It's about chronicling New York City accents!

  12. “Wa-ta” not “Water” is pretty meaningless for an English readership.

    I'm a Yank, so bare with me here. Can you explain how this is meaningless to English people? Are you saying the a at the end suggests that orthographic er is pronounced /æ/? Because I agree that is wrong. I suppose it's somewhat meaningful to me because I'm American and I know what they're getting at.

  13. On second thought, please don't bare with me. I'd much prefer that you bear with me.

  14. @ John Cowan:
    Are you from England originally? It's nice to hear that someone likes NYC accents. Not too many people in America do.

  15. Jake: -ta is meaningless to us English people, because that's how you Americans would caricature our pronunciation too, non-rhotic -tə. Remember that we pronounce rotor, rota identically. To us, by far the most striking thing about NYC water is the voiced t. It could sound to us like warder. (Think about it.)

  16. lynneguist: you'll notice that I carefully headlined the piece "NYC" (not "NY").
    Although NYC is different from the whole of NY, I wonder whether the derived expression "a New Yorker" is ambiguous. Would you call someone from Buffalo or Albany a New Yorker?

  17. @ John Wells: The demonym for Albany is Albanian. Talk about ambiguous.

  18. I (Joe) come from Philadelphia, and for me "New Yorker" could only refer to someone from NYC, not New York State.

    I think the article is a bit sloppy here and there in its characterization of what Labov says, but I think it is mostly correct. Anyways, you can hear Labov himself talk about NYC accent (complete with examples) in this NPR interview, The New York City Accent: History and Change, available here:

  19. John Wells: Our late senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, used to address his letters to his constituents, the citizens of New York State, "Dear New Yorker". So yes, it's ambiguous.

    Phil: No, I'm from New Jersey just west of the NYC isogloss bundle (so it's not Joisey to me and never was).

  20. @ John Cowan: Nor is it "Joizey" to anyone under about 90 within the NYC isogloss.

  21. More like 60 than 90, Phil. Listen to the older people in those films. I do agree the NURSE-CHOICE merger is dying out, but not yet — and of course there are plenty of other features of the accent that are very robust.

  22. Interesting that the writer of the placard uses "a NY accent" and not "an NY accent". I can't think the writer pronounces "NY" as a word. They'll say it as two letter-names. Of course, the name for N begins with a vowel. Maybe the writer thought the a/an convention was orthographical rather than phonetic.

  23. "NY" is, of course, pronounced exactly like "New York".


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