Visualizing New York City English: Research and Design


This page outlines the most important findings from my research and design process. If you’re interested in learning more, please get in touch — I’m happy to chat or send a copy of my thesis dissertation!


Research

Significance

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. Language plays a crucial role in these relationships whether we realize it or not. I navigate the city as a white, fluent General American English speaker, which directly impacts how I am perceived: many of the people who encounter me might assume I was born and raised somewhere in “middle America,” and the most frequent comment I get when I explain I came straight from Brazil at age 17 is, “But you don’t have an accent.” I may have assimilated into English without a Brazilian accent, but I have not assimilated into NYCE, and this affects how I relate to New York City.

Beyond dynamics of identity, I saw this research as an opportunity to uncover parts of the city I still did not know. I’m not sure how many more years it would have taken me to gain this breadth of knowledge — about the countless nuances of NYCE I had never been attuned to before, and about the city’s history, politics, mythology — had I not gone through this research process. I’ve gone beyond NYC’s present as my friends and I experience it, and through many different versions of it that have existed over 400+ years.

My hope is that by learning more about NYCE, viewers can also gain new insights into New York City like I did. These topics are both immensely interesting and useful. 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.

Sources

While all the sources below informed my project, the ones highlighted with an asterisk (*) were particularly influential — not just educating me on their respective topics, but inspiring me creatively and philosophically.

New York City and Its English

TitleAuthorYear
New York City English *Michael Newman2014
If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the NY Accent *Heather Quinlan2013
You Talkin’ to Me?: The Unruly History of New York EnglishE.J. White2020
The Social Stratification of English in New York CityWilliam Labov1966
City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York *Tyler Anbinder2016
Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World *Miriam Greenberg2008
Imaginary Apparatus. New York City and Its Mediated RepresentationMcLain Clutter2015
New York, New York! Urban Spaces, Dreamscapes, Contested TerritoriesSabine Sielke2016

Typography

TitleAuthorYear
Tipografia Vernacular *Mariana Rodrigues2014
The Typographic Experiment: Radical Innovation in Contemporary Type Design *Teal Triggs2003
Type Tells Tales *Steven Heller & Gail Anderson2017
Thinking with TypeEllen Lupton2004
Lettering and Type: Creating Letters and Designing TypefacesBruce Willen & Nolen Strals2009
House Industries Lettering ManualKen Barber2020
Transforming Type: New Directions in Kinetic TypographyBarbara Brownie2015
Typography and Motion Graphics: The “Reading-Image”Michael Betancourt2019

Primary Research

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 I wanted to explore 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.”

Findings

Here’s a TL;DR for the research findings that most impacted my project:

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

  • 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.

Design

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:

Sounds

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

Stories

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…”, “The New York accent might seem…”, “I think New Yorkers are…”). 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)

Open-ended questions

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?

Audio Mixing

After recording with all narrators, I started mixing the audio. I re-listened to all clips and went through a few rounds of filtering down for the best ones — 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.

Motion Design

Sounds

Out of the phonemes in my script, I chose to focus on variable rhoticity, short-A raising, and the cot-caught split, narrowing down six speakers for each in order to keep the animation manageable.

Park Avenue

Typography: Old-Style Serif (subway tiles).

As a location name, this seemed the most fitting choice for a subway signage reference — which I hoped to include in the project since it’s a near-universal shared experience between New Yorkers. I created vectors for each tile based on images from the Newkirk Ave and Houston Street stations.

For each letter, I created “sets” of tiles which would animate in and out in a random-seeming arrangement. Speakers with less rhoticity would have fewer “R” sets animate in, as if skipping the letter. No letter would be entirely filled in, since that might imply a “perfect” utterance of a phoneme, or a “correct” way to pronounce Park Avenue. While this animation was the most complex out of the three (being vectorized rather than typed), it’s the least fluid — the layers appear and disappear with the illusion of forward motion created by the way they stagger. My impression was that the stretching pattern I created for the other two would not translate well to a consonant like R.

Hot Dog Cart

Typography: Geometric Sans (Dunbar Text Medium).

The primary color combination and 1930s-40s inspired typeface I chose for this Sound was inspired by a photo in my Pinterest board.

For the motion design, I wanted to stretch out the Os to accentuate their distinction. At their most distinct, the vowel in hot resembles an “ah” while the one in dog is a round and extended “awe” — the former is more open, and the latter more closed and ingliding, seemingly extending the sound into a diphthong. I translated these distinctions into different elongations: hot being more vertical, and dog more horizontal. Beyond the fluid animation, I used a Roughen Edges effect to provide a sense of liveliness and imperfection — a visual nod to covert prestige.

Bad/Bags/Black

Typography: Didone Serif (Essonnes Headline Bold).

Like in Hot Dog Cart, I chose to elongate the more closed and ingliding sounds horizontally. In this case, Bad and Bags often leaned towards the vowel in “bed” or “dress” — the more closed sound, produced by the tongue rising in the mouth — while Black was always the vowel in “cat”.

The typographic anatomy of this double-story a gave me more flexibility to mimic these mouth movements: I stretched the bowl of the A in Bad and Bags not just horizontally, but also made the form thicker at the bottom curve, and sitting slightly above the bottom guideline. For Black, the A is much taller, with a larger aperture and counter as well as thinner stem and bowl strokers, giving the impression of a more open mouth.

In the visual selection, I prioritizing finding a typeface with a more horizontal bowl of the A, to make these distortions easier to manage. The Didone style is a nod to the fashion industry, since the words themselves could relate to it. I applied the Roughen Edges effect again, this time under the Rusty mode, which adds a texture within the letters instead of at the edges — still mimicking imperfection in the impression of a distressed or artisanal fabric.

STORIEs

My first step in the animation process was to determine the look and feel of each speaker, trying to create as much variety as possible while keeping the overall look cohesive. I kept typefaces visually diverse (choosing from Adobe Fonts) while selecting colors from a single source (RetroSupply’s Mid-Century Color Catalog). My choices were entirely subjective, informed by the qualities of narrators’ speech (pitch, pace, clarity) and demeanor (relaxed, animated, poised), ultimately going with a gut feeling of what felt most fitting. I used text samples of the person’s name and one of their quotes to help me get a sense of their speech coming to life, compiling the information together in a spreadsheet to easily compare them all:

For the animation itself, I used sliding transitions, varying their directions to convey a feeling of energy and excitement, even unpredictability. I timed words to narrators’ pace to convey rhythm, and indicated laughter with a Wiggle effect, adding another level of liveliness and movement to the text.

In instances of overlap, I used the background solids more loosely, with different speakers’ words coexisting on the screen for a beat before one of them “took over.” This added a sense of interaction, as if speakers are pushing back against each other, or eager to add their own thoughts. Finally, I added the Roughen Edges effect again, to give a less standardized feel to the typography without drawing each letter by hand.


Takeaways

Once the project was finished, I conducted some interviews to gauge how successful it was in its goals, and what viewers would take away from it. Here’s some of the feedback I got, 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.


Timeline

  • September: Pre-Thesis begins

    Week 1: “Every month or so when I remembered this class was coming, I’d get that tingly feeling in my stomach because I had no clue what I wanted to do.” But… “I’d like to explore facts that make me (and maybe others, too) think about New York in a different way.

  • October: Delving into NYCE

    Week 3: “Essentially, I’m interested in how/why/when the New York accent formed; how it’s been perceived; and how it relates to the City and its identity in general. […] The idea of using typography came up — how could I make type look like New York? How could it capture the New York City English sound?”

    and noticing patterns

    Week 4: “I want to pay close attention to the words these participants used to describe New York and its accent — things like dynamicdirecthonest. It seemed the documentary really positioned the accent as integral to the NY identity: at points, you can’t exactly tell if someone is referring to the accent or the city.”

  • November: Narrowing down ideas

    Week 9: “I’m most drawn to the idea of a simple audio + motion project, using kinetic typography with original content generated from interviews […] touching on the topics of the New York(er) identity and perceptions, and how speech plays into it.”

    and planning primary research

    Week 10: “I decided to conduct interviews with native New Yorkers, which will provide the audio content for my project […] I’m also thinking through some more interactive exercises involving typography, which could provide some more inspiration about what typefaces have a more ‘New York feel.’ […] I’m not too concerned about creating a highly rigorous research process; I would just like to get some compelling stories and thoughts from the participants.”

  • December: A moment of crisis

    Week 12: “These [interviews] have been great content-wise, but also sent me on a spiral as I realized I just do not have enough time or resources to accomplish what I was setting out to do.”

    and alternative strategies

    Week 13: “I reflected on my options, and came down to two of them — 1: Instead of reinventing the wheel, I could take scenes from If These Knishes Could Talk as a backdrop; 2: Create a very tight script and re-record with my interviewees.”

  • January: Thesis begins, finalizing a concept

    Week 1: “I finally feel like I’m in a truly solid place. […] The project will have two components, both of which will be using motion typography and audio narrated by New Yorkers.”

  • February: Conducting new recordings

    Week 2: “They have been going really well […] Lot of great sound bites and reactions. I’m surprised at how well the open ended questions I had at the end are going, also — they’ve been yielding some great comments, while still being very succinct.”

    … prototyping, and mixing audio

    Week 3: “I tried to instill the pace that I’m envisioning, with some words coming on top of each other — I’m hoping that with multiple speakers, it’ll sound more like cooperative overlap.

    Weeks 4 & 5: “I listened to all the recordings and made notes of the phrases that sounded great from each speaker; I put them all together on a spreadsheet so I could move them around easily and form the narrative I was looking for.”

  • March: Animating

    Week 6: “With the simple transitions I have, this is easy enough, it’ll just be time-consuming since there are 115 clips in total.”

    … and preparing for the defense

    Week 9: “Writing was grueling but I’m glad it’s (mostly) done — I’m very happy with how it came out and surprised at how long it got at the end.”

  • April: Evaluating

    Week 10: “I’m planning [evaluative interviews] as Zoom conversations, split into two groups based on familiarity with the project.”

    … and adding finishing touches

    Weeks 11 & 12: “I finished the long-form video, though I still need to go back and do some fine-tuning, which I expect to take some 4-5 hours at most. I added some end credits which included a title card, which I came up with on the fly and am really pleased with.”

  • May: Project complete!

    Wrap-up: “Adding the last bits to the dissertation, revising the whole thing, it all fell into place how I expected. Combined with the process of building out the project page and preparing for the showcase, this last leg gave me a chance to look back through the entire project and see how far I’ve come.


Reflections

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.


Get in touch

Are you interested in the project? Do you want to collaborate, hear more about it, or just let me know what you think? Let’s chat!