Visualizing New York City English


New York City produced a community of speakers with a distinctive sound, and by maintaining that sound, speakers help to produce the idea that is New York City.

E.J. White — You Talkin’ to Me? p. 209

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 is not analytical or scientific, but artistic and humanistic. To borrow a term from William Labov’s The Social Stratification of English in New York City, I’m interested in the folklore of language — in the ways we imagine language, accurately or not, and how it changes us in the process.


Sounds

New York City produced a community of speakers with a distinctive sound, and by maintaining that sound, speakers help to produce the idea that is New York City.

E.J. White — You Talkin’ to Me? p. 209

As the smallest unit of language, phonemes are the starting point in our understanding of NYCE: the building blocks that generate all meaning. While this dialect has many phonological markers, this section highlights three of the most distinctive ones.

Park Avenue

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

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

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.


Stories

New York City produced a community of speakers with a distinctive sound, and by maintaining that sound, speakers help to produce the idea that is New York City.

E.J. White — You Talkin’ to Me? p. 209

Underneath sounds there are stories. What meanings does NYCE convey? What impact does it have on speakers and listeners? How does it affect the way we understand New York City? This section explores the narratives told about and through this dialect, weaving together city and people in mirrors and contrasts. By centering New Yorkers’ voices, this video also celebrates their diversity and unique characteristics — in rhythm, vocabulary, and even mood.