New York-ese, or a Guide to the New York City Dialect

Aileen Marshall


Photo Courtesy of Daniel Schwen

People come to New York City for different reasons. Many come as tourists, others come to live and work here, not only from other parts of the United States, but from every corner of the globe. American citizens study standard American English in school. Visitors from other countries usually learn British English. Then they come to the city and hear phrases like “Hey, watcha doin?” or “Aw, fuhgeddaboudit”. Confused? Studies in standard English do not always prepare someone to interpret the New York City dialect. With that in mind, Natural Selections will be providing a new service. For the next few months, this column will give lessons in New York-ese. Each month will have a few new vocabulary words. Hopefully by the end, non-native New Yorkers will have a better idea what that man pushing past you on the subway is saying, or what those two hot dog vendors you just passed are fighting about.

Where did the New York City accent come from? Like the city itself, its origin is diverse. It was first studied and documented in the 1890s. The first influence was the Dutch. That’s why we refer to the stairs in front of a building as a stoop. Then the Irish, Scottish, French, German and Scandinavian groups came in and influenced our language. The term deli, used for a store where cold cuts, salads, and other prepared food is sold, is short for delicatessen, a German word. In the early twentieth century, Eastern European and Italian waves of immigrants added to the dialect. Yiddish words are often incorporated into the speech of a native New Yorker.

Linguists say it is the most recognizable accent in the world. Some famous speakers of the New York dialect include Woody Allen, Tony Danza, Fran Drescher, Robert De Niro, Cyndi Lauper, John Leguizamo, Rosie O’Donnell, Rosie Perez, Bernie Sanders, and Jerry Seinfeld, among many others.  Sadly, this accent is slowly disappearing. It is not heard in Manhattan as much as in earlier generations. Recent immigrants usually cannot afford Manhattan housing. Middle- and upper-class professionals from other areas of the country, who speak standard American English, make up most of the population of the main island. The dialect survives among working class natives of the metropolitan area, but linguists say there is a tendency among the millennial generation to try to drop the accent because of a perception of an association with a lack of education.

Lesson 1

In the New York City dialect, the letter T is pronounced like a D. The most common example is the word “the.” Here it is pronounced “da.” Some examples of it used in a sentence, written phonetically:

I am going up to da Bronx.

I take da subway to work.

Here are our vocabulary words for this month:

Dem       them

Example: When da Dodgers were in Brooklyn, dey were known as dem bums.

dese       these

Example: Dese bagels are from da corner deli.

dose       those

Example: I will take dose slices to go.

Click on the blue links above to hear the words pronounced. Practice these on your own, and next month we will have more vocabulary words for you.

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