NYC accent curiosity

This always intrigued me after 40+ years of observations of people I’ve met and/or knew, but never got around to asking.

Why, when going north from New York City, the accent fades very quickly. It’s noticeable to some degree in Yonkers, fades to the point of non existence by the time you get 18-20 miles north of NYC. But…when one goes east to Long Island; from Brooklyn/Queens out Nassau and Suffolk counties, the NYC accent is still very strong…50, 60, 70 miles or so until far eastern Suffolk county. Very strong, and especially non-rhotic.

It’s hard to do a web search for, so I thought bounce this off the mind trust here. :slight_smile:

The New York City accent that you’re thinking of is largely a class accent. It’s not about the distance from whatever point in New York City you think of as the center of the accent. If you go north from New York City, you hit well-off suburbs faster than if you go in other directions from it.

Having just moved back to the Hudson Valley after a decade away, I was struck by (1) how much the NYC accent pervades the east bank of the Hudson (as far as Poughkeepsie, though dropping off rapidly after that as you go north; far less noticeable on the west bank I didn’t remember it being outside of the city limits in the old days ); (2) how much the broader Hudson Valley accent resembles that of Pennsylvania (where I grew up), with a mix of Central/Western PA with some Philly-area bits (like “wooder” instead of “water”). I didn’t notice either of those things last time I moved here.

I’d guess that the preexisting HV accent may have had a lot in common with the rest of the mid-Atlantic accent throughout PA and northern MD for many decades/centuries, until the NYC accent started making inroads north along the rail lines. Poughkeepsie, of course, is the last stop on the commuter rail (Metro North), so it makes sense that NYCers looking to change/upgrade to non-city life (as WW noted, the working class who bore the accent) would have followed the train line up, but might not have gone any further than was commutable. So their influence ends there (and, as has been noted, didn’t penetrate the wealthier enclaves south of Dutchess County).

I agree, has a strong correlation to class. Also somewhat to ethnicity. The stereotypical version in TV and movies is generally the Italian working class version. The Jewish version that’s heard nowadays especially on ‘Lawn G’Island’ is a little different, although you don’t have to be Italian or Jewish to have either one or a mixture. There are various underlying older ones too.

All known branches of my family are Irish from Brooklyn going back several generations. My mom had a strong accent but not the TV/movie NY accent, her form of Brooklyn accent is no longer common. But I grew up in Queens and Long Island and nobody in California, when I lived there, ever guessed I was from NY from speech. I have an accent (as does everyone) but it’s only slightly different than the ‘no accent’ (to most US ears) general northeastern US accent. My dad’s younger brother was more of a blue collar guy than my dad, and my cousins have heavier accents than myself and my brother. My oldest cousin has the strongest accent in our generation I’d say, but her husband is also from Queens and like me, non accent fans wouldn’t guess NY. The next generation, my kids & cousins’ kids, mostly grew up in LI or Hudson County NJ, all upper middle class, again pretty much standard northeast US accents. But plenty of working class whites in my neighborhood in NJ have ‘NY accents’ (given how much these accents vary even within families I doubt the validity of a separate NJ accent).

The other thing about Long Island v Westchester is that even in upscale LI suburbs (my cousin lives in one) my impression is that more people are from the NY area originally than is the case in Westchester.

One thing I have noticed is that my 10 year old grandson who has lived in Brooklyn all his life and gone to public school there has nothing of what I called the “tree toids in de terlet” accent. I also don’t hear in the merchants I have frequented while visiting. I guess this is an aspect of what the wiki article called the obsolete coil/curl merger disappearing.

One thing that struck me was what wiki called the gas/gap separation. It would never have occurred to me that there were dialects in which those words had the same pronunciation, but they certainly don’t in my (Philadelphia) dialect. Nor do can (the noun) and can (the modal) have the same pronunciation, a much more striking example. Or Mad and mad.

Thanks for the interesting commentary. I was basing my observations on my own travels and people I’ve met and worked with. I can see where class may be a factor, and can also be affected by where one’s parents were raised. Which brings me to this comment, which seemed to make a light bulb go on in my head:

Very good theory, and come to think of it, I’d put my money on that possibility. It’s true to I’m sure that what is to my ears “a lack of a NYC accent” may not be so to people from other parts of the country. It would no doubt sound vaguely northeastern, if not “new york city”.

Chicago native here, been living in Dutchess County (about 80 miles north of NYC) for many years now. (Hi, toadspittle!)

Most (white) people here have a noticeable “northeastern” accent, to my ears anyway, including several pronunciations and phrasings that I rarely if ever heard growing up. “Hairy” and “Harry” are differentiated here, for instance, and people “stand on line” rather than “in line,” and “quarter of” seems more common than “quarter to,” and…a few other things like that which serve to remind me every day, in a not-real-obvious way, that I’m not from here.

If we’re talking the “NYC outer borough working class accent,” though, that’s much more obvious–and much less common in these parts. I do know a number of folks, but not all that many, who speak this way. Mostly they come from the Bronx or from Queens. [My favorite anecdote regarding the accent (understand that I work in a school)–a teacher with this accent told me that a kid in her class was “extremely autistic.” I knew the kid and I was opening my mouth to object–whatever else the kid was, autistic wasn’t it–when I realized what she was actually saying.] But–most of the people I know here who grew up in the Bronx or in Queens don’t speak this way; they just have the milder “northeastern” accent.

And what’s especially interesting to me, alluded to by Hari Seldon above, is that the children of the heavy-NYC-accent-speakers don’t have that accent at all. I know; I teach some of those kids! They sound like all the other kids who grow up here–that lighter northeastern accent and that’s about it. The accents they are a-changin’…

My mother, who is 88 and a third generation Irish-American resident of the Bronx, pronounces “oil burner” as “earl boinuh.” I’ve never heard anyone younger with this pronunciation.

(Regarding another feature of the accent, I recently heard a guy behind me on line for a flight to New York talking on his cell phone and referring to the need to sign up some “recording ahtiss’es” for a video he was making. It reminded me of a guy from the neighborhood when I was a kid who used to talk about “bullshit ahtiss’es.” Of course, if you drop the final “t” from artist you have to make the plural with -es instead of -s.:D)

Having lived in NYC my entire life, I hear so many different butcherings of the English language every day that’s its hard for me to say what an nyc accent is. If you walk into any bodega in the city you will hear English and Spanish being combined in ways that I think would qualify for a new language…

My grandmother was Irish-German and oil was earl for her, she grew up in an Irish-Italian neighborhood in some terrible part of Manhattan. Though was in the South Bronx for the bulk of my childhood. She had all the odd adding R’s where they’re not and removing them where they should be.

If not a language, at least a pidgin building towards a creole.

Are you sure you are not hearing what linguists call “code switching” in which people who are totally bilingual regularly switch from one language to the other during a sentence? Code switching has its own grammar the most important rule of which is that you do not switch at a point in the sentence where it makes no sense to. For example, in Spanish/English switching you cannot switch between a noun and an adjective because Spanish adjectives are always postposed, whereas English preposes them. The same is true in French/English switching, which has been observed in Montreal.

Creoles blend the two (or more) languages and creates its own grammar.

A lot of people moved to Long Island FROM the outer boroughs - my family did, as did a number of my aunts/uncles/cousins - we were all lower/working class who lived in the Bronx and/or Queens beforehand (I suppose you could say we were all part of the 1970’s “white flight.”)

Tom Wolfe subtly noted this point in Bonfire of the Vanities. When the upscale protagonist’s neighbor in their expensive cooperative happens to meet the protagonist’s downtown criminal lawyer, the neighbor says, “How d’j’do,” and the lawyer responds, “Howaya.”