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Visualizing New York City English uses motion typography and audio collages to investigate and celebrate the rich sociolinguistics of New York City.
Sitting at the intersection of history, sociolinguistics, media studies, storytelling, and design, this project explores the narratives told about and through “the New York accent,” weaving together city and people in mirrors and contrasts.
Integrated Design & Media Master’s Thesis
August 2021 – May 2022
This collage explores variable rhoticity — the tendency to drop the R, especially right after vowels. Some R-ful words require speakers to adapt to a diphthong when dropping the R (e.g. the stereotypical toidy-toid for thirty-third), which contributes to NYCE having a total range of at least 19 vowels.
Hot Dog Cart
This collage explores the cot-caught split — where O sounds which often merge in other English dialects remain distinct. NYCE can resist this merger thanks to the presence of the [ɔ] vowel, also responsible for the classic cawffee pronunciation. The [ɑ] vowel in hot is more open than [ɔ], and is produced without rounding out the lips.
Bad Bags Black
This collage explores short-A raising, where certain A sounds are produced more tensed and elongated due to the raising of the tongue in the mouth. This often gets realized as an [ɛə] diphthong, which can make the word bad sound almost like bed when isolated. In NYCE, words like back, am, or happy tend to retain the more lax and open [æ] sound.
On a personal level, this project unites several facets of my life: my own experience as an immigrant in New York City; my relationships with native New Yorker neighbors, friends, and family; my interests in linguistics, media, and history; and my practice as a designer. As I delved into my research, I found thread after thread that unlocked a new perspective into the city.
Millions of people claim a relationship to NYC, whether they have never stepped foot here or have never left — linking the city with love, hate, amusement, resentment, longing, regret, and everywhere in between, rarely singled down to one feeling. My hope is that by learning more about NYCE, viewers can also gain new insights into New York City like I did. Understanding the speech system of the city and the narratives surrounding it can challenge preconceived notions — or explain hidden dynamics for those who had no previous knowledge on the topic at all. It can open up more nuanced, intricate, and vastly more interesting versions and histories of NYC, and deepen our relationships with the city in the process. It can make visitors and new residents more informed, polite, and empathetic towards the community they are navigating through, whether for a single day or for the rest of their lives.
New York City and Its English
|New York City English * (2014)||Michael Newman|
|If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the NY Accent * (2013)||Heather Quinlan|
|City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York * (2016)||Tyler Anbinder|
|Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World * (2008)||Miriam Greenberg|
|The Social Stratification of English in New York City (1966)||William Labov|
|You Talkin’ to Me?: The Unruly History of New York English (2020)||E.J. White|
|Imaginary Apparatus: New York City and Its Mediated Representation (2018)||McLain Clutter|
|New York, New York! Urban Spaces, Dreamscapes, Contested Territories (2016)||Sabine Sielke|
|Tipografia Vernacular * (2014)||Mariana Rodrigues|
|The Typographic Experiment: Radical Innovation in Contemporary Type Design * (2003)||Teal Triggs|
|Type Tells Tales * (2017)||Steven Heller & Gail Anderson|
|Thinking with Type (2004)||Ellen Lupton|
|Lettering and Type: Creating Letters and Designing Typefaces (2009)||Bruce Willen & Nolen Strals|
|House Industries Lettering Manual (2020)||Ken Barber|
|Transforming Type: New Directions in Kinetic Typography (2015)||Barbara Brownie|
|Typography and Motion Graphics: The “Reading-Image” (2019)||Michael Betancourt|
While all the sources above informed my project, the ones marked with an asterisk (*) were particularly influential — not just educating me on their respective topics, but inspiring me creatively and philosophically.
Beyond the reading list above, my research process included a series of recorded interviews and a typographic survey.
The interviews, conducted with 10 born and raised New Yorkers over fall 2021, were initially meant to produce the audio content for my project. The main threads we explored related to a sense of otherness attached to NYC(E); how perceptions of NYC(E) by outsiders had changed over time; and how being a New Yorker — and speaking like one — influenced identity.
My typographic survey helped me investigate the ways broader audiences imagine New York City visually. I selected 48 different typefaces — trying to display a variety of styles and anatomical features — and arranged samples of the words “New York City” for each. Participants rated each typeface on a 5-step Likert scale from “least NYC” to “most NYC.”
New York City and Its English
– NYCE is special among dialects — not only does it have many linguistic quirks, it also covers a notably small geographic area. Beyond particular sounds and slang, it’s characterized by a faster and more expressive conversational style, including the concept of cooperative overlap. This refers to a practice of interrupting by addition — a sign of engagement and enthusiasm for many speakers.
– NYCE as current generations know it became stigmatized as non-WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) groups became the majority (im)migrating into the city.
– This stigma mirrors the contentious image NYC holds in the American imagination: the most recognizable American city, but at the same time a profoundly un-American place, mythologized by its diversity. Many of the groups most closely associated with NYCE — Irish, Italian, Eastern European Jewish, and later Black and Latin Americans — have been, or continue to be, otherized in the public eye.
– On the flip side of stigma, NYCE can connote a type of covert prestige, where speakers may be perceived as tougher, cooler, more authentic or down-to-earth. Of course, this can be coopted — think politicians trying to be “a guy you’d want to grab a beer with” — and is not universal.
– NYCE can become a site of meaning for speakers. As gentrification threatens cultural and linguistic loss in parts of the city, born and raised New Yorkers can resist standardization by taking pride in their identity. Acting and talking like a New Yorker becomes a signifier to a special claim to the city.
– New York is a city of contrasts and heterogeneity — not a melting pot, but a mosaic or a salad. The imposition of one unified image ultimately erases its rich history and culture.
– Typography can connote meaning in many ways — through size, weight, color, style, cultural signifiers. Motion can embody speech in both pacing and behavior.
– Fluid typography — stretching and morphing — can be used to enhance the distinctions between letterforms as signifiers of sounds.
– The formal imperfections of vernacular typography and lettering can represent covert prestige in its positive nature: acknowledging and appreciating a level of roughness that is natural to the human voice.
– Visual overlays can stand in for cooperative overlap, giving a sense of energy and even cacophony.
Scripting & Recording
Following my research, I decided on the format of the project — split into Sounds and Stories — and started working on loose scripts to re-record with my narrators. Given the logistics of scheduling and recording with 13 different people within the timeline of the project, this was the only way to guarantee I would get the content I needed while still allowing for some surprises along the way. The script was split into three parts, gradually increasing the opportunity for spontaneity:
Narrators would read a list of sentences, crafted to include as many recognizable NYCE phonemes as possible while still feeling somewhat commonplace. Some examples include:
You can hang your bags in the closet over there
I gave my palm reading a lot of thought
You need to get off the Q at King’s Highway, then walk down 15th Street, then turn right on Avenue R
Narrators would read a list of descriptions of New York City, New Yorkers, and the New York accent. To avoid putting words into anyone’s mouth, I instructed each person to use the descriptions in a sentence however it felt true to them (e.g. “Some people say New York is…”). These descriptions were distilled from my primary and secondary research, and chosen to reflect three common themes:
– Speed & Energy (e.g. fast-paced, dynamic, wild, a mess)
– Roughness & Sleekness (e.g. filthy, shiny, slick, harsh, smooth)
– Stigma & Appreciation, or Love & Hate (e.g. a shithole, gorgeous, horrible, charming)
At the end of recordings, I asked narrators the following questions to add more nuance to the content:
Where or when do you find peace in New York?
Is New York more rough or more sleek?
How do you reconcile the love and hate that the city gets?
How do you ultimately feel about your accent, or New York accents in general?
After recording with all narrators, I started mixing the audio, going through a few rounds of filtering down for the best clips — with smooth delivery, interesting inflections, or engaging comments. Transcribing them into a spreadsheet helped me figure out the best arrangement.
While cutting the clips, I left pauses as short as possible, even overlapping many of them to convey the NYCE conversation style. I hoped this would create the impression that all speakers are talking with each other, as if sitting around one large dinner table.
My final step was to add jazz music tracks to the background, which helped complement the pace of speech: extremely quick most of the time, but slower or fully paused at points when I wanted viewers to sit with a more poignant quote. These tracks also helped smooth over different levels of white noise in the background, improving the audio experience overall.
Look and Feel
I used Pinterest to find typography-focused images that inspired me: some based on letterforms, others on texture or layering treatments, and other simply on their “New Yorkness.” I tried to capture a wide spectrum of time periods and formal influences (e.g. signage from both very prestigious institutions like Radio City, as well as more modest restaurants or bodegas). The final board skews retro, with a sense of nostalgia inspired by my secondary research.
Typography: Old-Style Serif (subway tiles).
Taking advantage of New York’s iconic subway typography, this collage animates mosaic tiles to showcase variable rhoticity. Speakers with “weaker” Rs have fewer tiles animating in, as if skipping the letter. No letter is entirely filled in, to avoid implying a “perfect” utterance or a “correct” way to pronounce Park Avenue.
Hot Dog Cart
Typography: Geometric Sans (Dunbar Text Medium).
With a primary color palette and 1930s-40s inspired typeface, this collage pays tribute to vintage hot dog and soda pushcarts. The Os stretch across different axes to accentuate their phonetical distinction: hot can resemble an “ah” (more open, stretching vertically), while dog tends towards “awe” (more closed and ingliding, seemingly extending the sound into a diphthong, stretching horizontally).
Bad Bags Black
Typography: Didone Serif (Essonnes Headline Bold).
As a nod to New York’s fashion industry, this collage uses a Didone style to mimic the mouth movements in the A-split. The bowl of the “a” in Bad and Bags is stretched horizontally as utterances lean toward the vowel in “bed” or “dress.” Black tends to remain the same vowel in “cat,” translated visually as a larger aperture and counter as well as thinner stem and bowl strokes, giving the impression of a more open mouth.
As the core of the project, Stories uses a long-form narrative with a cohesive look and feel to showcase the diversity of thought and sound of NYCE speakers. Typefaces for each speaker were selected from Adobe Fonts for maximum visual variety, informed by qualities of their speech (pitch, pace, clarity) and demeanor (relaxed, animated, poised). Colors were sourced from a singular palette (RetroSupply’s Mid-Century Color Catalog) for consistency. Keeping a visual reference for all typefaces and color pairings along with a sample quote from each person helped bring their speech to life:
Speaker + typeface + colors
|Alex||New Order Medium||#35221D Background |
#BBAF64 Text Color
|Ben||Halogen Bold||#283C62 Background|
#DDB880 Text Color
|Carmine||Clarendon Wide Bold||#CBB88C Background|
#A40208 Text Color
|Dan||Freight Cmp Medium||#241E1E Background|
#2C848E Text Color
|David||Freight Semibold||#00242E Background|
#56A2DC Text Color
|Gabby||Funkydori Regular||#FBD6AF Background|
#DF2027 Text Color
|Janice||Relation Bold||#E4D19F Background|
#358456 Text Color
|Jawan||Filson Soft Bold||#5B2A4D Background|
#5FB189 Text Color
|Kianna||Ohno Blazeface Italic||#F07137 Background|
#5B2A4D Text Color
|Michele||Nueva Bold Extended||#E1DC7A Background|
#CC1D3C Text Color
|Nanci||Paganini Regular||#6BA0A6 Background|
#FBD6AF Text Color
|Raaz||New Kansas Black||#2F513A Background|
#C8A999 Text Color
|Rob||Skope Regular||#010A3A Background|
#5EA22E Text Color
The animation itself uses sliding transitions with varying directions to convey a feeling of energy, excitement, even unpredictability. A wiggle effect timed to speakers’ laughter adds another level of liveliness and movement to the text. In instances of overlap, background solids come in with a delay to allow different speakers’ words to coexist on the screen for a beat before one of them can “take over.” This creates a sense of interaction, as if speakers are pushing back against each other, or eager to add their own thoughts. Finally, rough edges effect — also used in Sounds — gives a less standardized feel to the typography, as a nod to covert prestige.
Once the project was completed, I conducted interviews to gauge how successful it was in its goals, and what viewers would take away from it. Here are some of the takeaways, organized by goal:
Capturing NYCE Sounds and Rhythm
To leverage motion typography in order to accentuate NYCE features.
I love the way the [Sounds] are visualized, especially Park Avenue — it’s a beautiful way of representing that, so that you don’t need linguistics expertise to understand it.
The movement helped me hear it more, led me to hear something that I wouldn’t normally have noticed. And having it repeated a few times, it primes you to notice more in the next times.
The shaking when people laugh and the other quirks like adding letters, bolding, it gives another dimension. It’s easier to interpret what the person is saying.
Viewers communicated an enhanced experience specifically thanks to motion — being able to notice aspects of speech more clearly than they might have if only listening. This seemed consistent across both parts of the project, though their strategies differed. In Sounds, fluid stretching helped distinguish phonemes down to the letterform. Stories, being less fluid, relied on pacing to convey rhythm, sizing/bolding/italicizing to convey emphasis, and the wiggle effect to show laughter — all more syntactical, conversational aspects of speech.
Embodying a New York(er) Look and Feel
To select typography that fits the content — AKA stylistic authenticity.
I could feel the words. I saw Janice based on the color you chose — I wouldn’t imagine her as a font but it was spot on.
I thought it was interesting that it seems to both be a visual representation of the speakers and of the New York essence — typography that’s inspired by publications and so on. It’s more serious and bold than futuristic or something. That caught my eye.
Stylistic choices are ultimately subjective — often depending on cultural signifiers that may not be shared between viewer and designer. Still, this feedback affirmed decisions I made and even detected my unstated bias towards a nostalgic New York.
Representing Diverse/Heterogeneous Speakers
To showcase the wide range of linguistic features and variants present in NYCE, as well as the diversity of thought among New Yorkers.
[The project overall] shows that these accents are not all the same, it’s not stereotypical — you can tell it’s different people from different neighborhoods, with different backgrounds, but they’re still from New York.
[Stories] does a really good job at combining everyone’s very specific points of view into one cohesive — not a unified voice, but everyone represents New York in their own way. No one’s wrong, even when they have very different perspectives. Everyone knows what they’re talking about in their respect. Even the things I disagree with, it’s like that person has a reason to say that.
This goal seemed to come across regardless of viewers’ familiarity, which I considered a success. Of course there could be more variety — both in amount of Sounds and in more NYCE variants — but it was important to me that, within the project’s limitations, the content did not feel homogenous or prescriptive. These comments highlight the interesting and beautiful tension between unity and diversity: the idea that people can share several sociolinguistic traits while not entirely blending together.
Conveying NYCE as a Site of Meaning
To illuminate the relationship between NYCE, the city, and speakers’ identities.
My takeaway is more understanding that people have a sense of pride that ties to the accent; even when it’s completely different, they’ll still kind of unite over this idea.
[Stories] shows a certain symmetry between the topics [of the city, of the New Yorker identity, of speaking like a New Yorker] but also making room for debate for some more controversial questions.
There’s something about this place that’s magical, and it’s beautiful to hear about it in our accents.
Beyond linguistic characteristics, the social significance of NYCE seemed to resonate with viewers, again regardless of familiarity. The last comment was particularly heartening, and points to the value of centering New Yorker’s voices — it’s one thing to learn about the topic objectively, and another to hear it straight from the source.
Shedding (New) Light on NYC/NYCE/NYers
To drive viewers, regardless of familiarity, to examine these topics in new perspectives.
I was surprised to learn about the way New Yorkers see themselves and are seen — especially the aggressive stereotype.
I learned the power of voice — I’m more aware of my accent, more appreciative of it.
The goal is not just being able to inform about the distinctions between New York accents and pronunciations, but also generating empathy around New York. If there’s a stigma to the accent, this not only names it, but holds it up to light.
Overall, I considered it a success if a viewer took anything from this project — a single sound or description that they hadn’t considered before. I would be happy to spread this knowledge and spark any type of curiosity to begin with, but it is especially fulfilling to drive participants to appreciate their own speech in new ways.
Crafting a Compelling, True to Life Story
To weave authentic and meaningful narratives — AKA content quality.
I did find it relatable, a lot of relatable points; it pulled emotions out of people.
I enjoyed the part about people having exaggerated opinions about New York. I think that holds very true, in my experiences back home or when I travel — people always have an opinion about New York and they can’t wait to tell you how much they hate it or love it.
It told a story: there was no beginning, middle, and end, but still a cohesive storyline.
This was a straight-forward goal, but difficult to measure until I was given feedback. As much as a clip resonated with me, it was impossible to know if it would land the same way for others. The success in this goal is due in large part to the speakers who gave me an excess of engaging content to select from — which serves as a testament to leaving room for improvisation in the production process.
Creating High-Quality Audiovisuals
To design an engaging experience, outside of the subject area — AKA execution quality.
It seems like there was thought put into how the words were designed, some bigger than others, coming from certain directions — an inner logic.
Stylistically, I have a deeper impression on the importance and utility of using motion typography — how that can be a much stronger, more engaging medium than doing something more visual. We’re so visually-biased, driven to look for emotion. I think letting us focus on the auditory phenomenon adds to the project in a way I hadn’t considered.
The music contributes to the speed of it all, it’s rolling along. You notice much less that it’s separate interviews. There are no pauses, it’s just all the opinions back to back to back.
These comments affirmed not just the design decisions I made, but also the effort I put into the project more broadly. This type of feedback stresses the importance of building that inner logic to begin with: regardless of the stylistic choices a designer makes, they should be chosen for a reason and purpose, always working in support of the content.
This work has been immensely rewarding not just professionally or academically, but personally as well. To be able to devote myself to one topic — one core mission which fascinated me on every level — for an entire nine months was a privilege and a challenge. Looking back, I am floored and humbled by the amount I’ve learned about this city during this time, and curious about what else I can still learn. The deeper I delved into my research, and the more people whose help I got, the more pressure I felt to do it all justice. It isn’t perfect, but I would not hesitate to say it’s the best work I’ve done.
Given the richness of NYCE — both in its social importance and linguistic nuance — and the fears of its erosion or disappearance, the work to capture and archive its sounds is vital. The solutions I came up with are constrained by my own knowledge, skills, and academic timeline, but there are endless possibilities that could be realized.
Much as language evolves, New York City does too. It’s imperative that we capture the mood, dreams, frustrations, and spirit of New Yorkers as they exist organically. The city creates stories, but is also created by them every day. We have to tell these stories faithfully, or risk being told a version of a city that does not want us, and that we do not want in return. This research has shown me an incredible number of New Yorks I never knew existed, and so I remain optimistic about all the New Yorks that still can be.