New York in undoubtedly one of the largest and most powerful cities in the world, and the New York dialect is associated with many fictional characters and public figures. With all of that being said, the dialect known as New York English has low prestige amongst other dialects and varieties of American English. This lead to various linguistic change, and there are many social variation studies that analyzed that change like Labov (1966). His study is considered as a foundation for what followed it of research on the dialect. He presented a very detailed analysis of the dialect and a very informative description on the population of New York, and its social classes, ethnic differentiation, and social proprieties.
The changes highlighted by Labov in the 1960s have advanced, and that lead to the rise of new linguistic and social developments in New York throughout the years. Many studies were conducted to measure these social and linguistic traits, and these studies presented new and important findings.
The purpose of this paper is to review these studies with the guidance of the following questions:
1- What methodology was used to study New York English?
2- What kind of participants were studied to measure the linguistic features of New York English?
I will start by presenting a historical background of New York and its dialect, then I will present an analysis of some important studies on NYCE, then I will end the paper with a discussion.
New York English
The population of New York is currently over 8 Million people (US Census 2009), and those 8 million people are very ethnically diverse. According to Becker and Coggshall (2009), a 1660s report revealed the existence of English, French, Dutch, Waloons, sweedish, Portuguese, Finnish, Negro settlers, and Jewish varieties in New York. This diversity was a result constant immigration which lead to a papulation starting from 18% to 40% foreign-born in the past century. The rate of foreign-born recently reached 36.8% (US Census, 2010). When we compare this with USA in general we see the big difference. The foreign-born rate in America is only 12.6% and 74% white (US Census 2010). When we dissect the population of New York we find that it is only 35.1% white, and the rest is divided between a number of ethnicities and that includes Latino (27.4%), Black (23.5%), Asian (11.7%), and Others (17%), and the remaining (2.1%) is for those who have more than one race or ethnicity. This is what makes New York very unique in variation studies.
New York is known for a set of lexical, phonetic and phonological features. According to Guy (2016), NYCE is one of the three “r-less “regions of America, the other two being Eastern New England and the lowland of the south. NYCE was affected by the 18th century sound changes in Southern England where coda (r) was deleted. In addition, the retroflex syllabic nucleus in herd, and bird lost r-coloring and became a diphthong. New York English is also known for having high rates of affrication of the interdental fricatives (DH) and (TH). Guy (2016) added, “And it had several distinctive vocalic properties, notably a raised back nucleus followed by a low central off-glide for the BOUGHT vowel, and a splitting of the TRAP vowel /æ/ into two allophones, a low front lax monophthong, and a tense diphthong phonetically analogous to the BOUGHT vowel, with a raised, fronted nucleus and a centralizing off-glide” (P:522).( see Figures 1 and 2 ).
NYCE also had strong phonological conditioning, which we can find in word that are followed in a closed syllable by a voiceless fricative, a voiced stop, and front nasals (examples can be seen in table 1). Tense avenue is considered as an exception to this pattern (Guy 2016).
Table 1. Examples of phonological conditioning.
Voiceless Fricative Voiced Stop Front Nasals
Half Cab Man
Path Mad ham
Pass Bag ——
In Labov (1966), all the previously mentioned linguistic features were apparent in his participants but at different rates. His participants had different social, ethnic and stylistic distribution. Some of these vitiations were apparent in the vowel usages, where Italian speakers used more open variants of BOUGHT, but more fronted and raised variants of tense /æ/, on the other hand, the Jewish speakers were the opposite they had more raising in BOUGHT and less raising in /æ/.
The fricative and rhotic variables showed stylistic and social stratification, where the local features we used by lower class speakers in more casual styles, on the other hand, the speakers of higher social classes used alternative features that are features of other American English dialects (Guy, 2016).
Figure 1. Class and style stratification of coda (r) (adopted from Labov, 2006, P:152)
Figure 2. Class and style stratification of (TH) (adopted from Labov, 2006, P:152)
When we look at the figure we can see that the participants were classified in terms of their socioeconomic status, and that is defined according to their income, occupation, and education. It is apparent in Figure 1 that the value of (r) increases with the social class of the speakers. The high classes have more (r) in their speech than the lower classes.
In Figure 2 we can see that the lower-class speakers use a more occlusive pronunciation. It also shows that the higher classes prefer to use the more “standard” features. All of this brings us back to the fact that NYCE variants are linked with a stigma in social contexts.
Labov’s work revealed that the change in NYCE is progressing, and several studies that followed attempted to measure that change. In the following section I will present my review of these studies.
Variation Studies on New York English
The results that Labov reached paved the way for many studies on NYCE. For the purposes of this paper I will focus on the more recent ones.
In her study entitled ” /r/ and the construction of place identity on New York City’s Lower East Side” (see Figure 3), Becker argued that a group of white residents on the lower east side of Manhattan use a NYCE linguistic feature called “non-rhoticity” in the syllable coda which she linked to the construction of place identity. She investigated the association between their sense of place, and their speech behavior. Becker noted that” People in the midst of social change are likely to highlight place identity” (P:637), and her aim was to show how the linguistic choices the speakers make are linked to their sense of place.
Figure 3. A Map of Manhattan, with the Lower East Side shaded. (adopted from Becker,2009, P:639)
The Lower East Siders are associated with gentrification, disinvestment, and the change in NYC’s ethnicity. This was apparent in the different names used by multiple groups to refer to the place. They called it East Village, Loisaida, and Lower East Side. This lead the Lower East Siders’ sense of place to be threatened by other gratifiers.
Becker used two methods in this study. She first had an ethnographic observation, and then conducted interviews with a few of the Lower East siders.
She interviewed 7 LES’s (see Table 2), then the interviews were transcribed and used in the study.
Table 2. Demographics of the Lower East Siders (adopted from Becker,2009, P:641)
As we can see, the number of speakers in the younger group is only 2 and the author couldn’t bring participants from different social classes. All the participants were in lower middle class. She presented a quantitative analysis where she stated, “I produced an r index for each speaker by dividing the total r-1 by the total number of instances in which /r/ could vary”(Becker, 2009, P:646). After that she provided a Goldvarb analyses, which brings up a question Why did she use an index in the first place? These factors affect the validity of her findings especially the number of speakers.
The study is still one of the few ethnographic-type studies conducted on NYCE and it revealed some interesting findings about New York English. The rhoticity in the Lower East Siders speech decreases when they are talking about their neighborhood. Becker argued that the Lower East Siders use of non-rhoticity is their way of claiming authenticity to other groups that are rhotic speakers.
Becker and Wong (2010)
This study provided a report on the status of the short-a system in NYCE. The authors used interview samples, conducted by several interviewers with the participants. The participants were 12 native white New Yorkers, and 12 speakers from 3 ethnic minorities Chinese, African American, and Puerto Rican. (see Table 3) All the participants are native speakers.
NYCE’s short-a system is labeled by Labov and others as “phonemic”, and the authors of this study decided to call that label into question.