American Dialect: New York Speak

One of the most distinctive dialects in the United States is that found in New York City. Often called Brooklynese (a misnomer as the dialect is common to all five boroughs, plus parts of New Jersey and Connecticut, and not just Brooklyn), the dialect has been introduced to the world via Hollywood, from the Bowery Boys to the Sopranos.

New York is the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the country. Not everyone there speaks with the New York dialect. And unlike the dialects of other regions, like Boston or the South, the New York dialect is class-based. The higher you are on the social ladder, the less likely you are to sound like a New Yorker.

In the 1966, linguist William Labov conducted a classic study of the pronunciation of the letter R in New York department stores. Like their Boston compatriots, New Yorkers tend to drop the letter R; it is a non-rhotic dialect. Labov went to three different department stores and conducted undercover “interviews” with employees, counting the number of Rs in the pronunciation of phrases like “fourth floor.” He found the most Rs at upscale Saks. Macy’s, a mid-range store, had fewer and the discount Klein’s had the least. He also discovered that in all three stores, stock boys were more likely to omit the R than managers, and sales clerks fell between the two extremes. When Labov asked them to repeat themselves, all the employees used more Rs the second time around, when they were speaking more carefully.

This class difference in speech means that New Yorkers are often a bit embarrassed to be caught speaking their own dialect. They don’t celebrate their pronunciation as do the Bostonians, Baltimoreans, or Southerners.

So what makes New York speech so distinctive?

Non-Rhotic Dialect
We’ve mentioned that New York speech is a non-rhotic dialect. Much like the speech of New England or the South, New York drops the letter R after a vowel, hence the Yawk in Noo Yawk and source is pronounced as sauce. And like New England (but unlike the South), New Yorkers retain the R at the end of words if the next word begins with a vowel.

And like New Englanders, New Yorkers will actually insert an R at the end of words if the next word begins with a vowel. So I saw it becomes I sawr it, and idea often becomes ideer.

Closed Vowels
Another pronunciation difference is that New Yorkers pronounce the vowel sounds in words like walk, talk, and dog with the mouth more closed than most other Americans do. Most Americans will pronounce these vowel sounds as “ah,” as if a doctor were examining their throats. New Yorkers say them like the vowel in the first syllable of coffee.

Irish Influences
Three pronunciation habits made their way into New York talk at the turn of the 20th century. The first is replacing an S sound with SH. Office becomes offish and serious becomes sherious.

The second is the substitution of T or D for TH. These and those becomes dese and dose, and thirty-third street becomes tuh-eety tuh-id street.

The third is often represented as toity-toid street, but this is not quite accurate. Rather, the substitution should be an UH-EE sound for ER and vice versa. Oil becomes erl, boil becomes buh-il, and girl becomes guh-ill.

All three of these Irish borrowings are fading from the speech.

Dropped H
New Yorkers also drop the H at the start of some words. Huge becomes yuge and we’re not humans, we’re yumans.

Central Gs and Ts
New Yorkers also do interesting things with Gs and Ts in the middle of words. They distinctly pronounce the Gs in words like Long Island and finger. And the often reduce the T in two-syllable words like bottle or settle to a glottal stop.

NYC Words and Phrases
Aikies, interj., child’s call laying claim on something, dibs. Etymology unknown, perhaps from an English dialectical term. In NYC use since at least 1934. Often no aikies.

Brownstone, adj. and n., a residential building, originally a single-family dwelling for the wealthy, now usually converted into several apartments. From the stone used in the fa├žade. Adjectival use since 1858. As a noun since the 1940s.

Bunk into, v.phr., to accidentally meet someone. Alteration of bump into. From 1942.

Ditzy, adj., scatterbrained, irresponsible, absent-minded. From c. 1976. Probably a variation on dizzy. Originally a NYC term, this has gained wider currency.

Egg cream, n., drink made from seltzer, chocolate syrup, and milk (there are no eggs or cream in an egg cream). From 1906. Evidently, early recipes for egg creams did mix egg and cream with the syrup, but by the 1960s this had been abandoned in favor of plain chocolate syrup.

Elevator apartment, n., apartment in a building with an elevator (1912). Cf. walk-up apartment.

Floor-through, n., apartment taking up an entire floor of a, usually small, apartment building (1964).

Fuhgeddaboutit, interj., denial of possibility, NYC equivalent of no way, Jose. From at least 1985.

Hero, n., a submarine sandwich. From 1947. Probably from the idea that it was a “heroic” deed to eat an entire sandwich. Often attributed to New York restaurant critic Clementine Paddleford, but there is no evidence that she ever used the term. An alternate theory is that it is an alteration of the Greek gyros, but this is unlikely. Gyros is a later addition to English and no one would mistake a gyros for a sub.

Hey, I’m walkin’ here, interj., used when bumping into someone, the NYC equivalent of “excuse me.”

Mook, n., a low-life, a disreputable person, a fool. From 1930, of unknown origin. This word is made famous by its use in many police dramas.

On line, adv., in the queue. Millions of Americans go on line to access the internet, but they wait in line. Except in New York, where you wait on line. From at least 1958.

Regular coffee, n., coffee with milk and sugar. Elsewhere in the US, regular coffee is coffee with caffeine. Witness this exchange on the TV show Law & Order:

Waitress: “What would you like?”
Detective Briscoe: “A regular coffee.”
Waitress: “How would you like it?”
Briscoe: “Regular.”

Youse guys, n., you, form of address. Youse guys is to New York what Y’all is in the South.

New Jersey Words and Phases
Bennie, n., summer visitor to the Jersey shore. Found in Monmouth and Ocean counties. From c. 1977. Origin unknown. Several theories prevail. Possibly from the name Benny, a common name among Jewish families in NYC that visited the shore. Possibly from someone who wants the “beneficial rays of the sun.”

Jersey barrier, n., temporary concrete barrier used on highways. Not so much a New Jersey-specific term, but so called because jersey barriers were an invention of the state highway department in the 1950s.

Jughandle, n., a right hand exit lane at a highway intersection that curves back to cross the original road at a right angle, facilitating a left turn. From 1961. So called because of the shape.

Shore, n., the beach, in particular the New Jersey shore, from Sandy Hook to Cape May. New Yorkers go down the Shore (no to) on summer weekends.

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