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CUNY researchers seek to create first database of New York City English

2019-08-18

(Tony Gallagher for New York Daily News)

For most people, the New Yawk accent is something you just know when you hear it.

But a group of CUNY researchers is setting out to catalog just what makes the dialect so distinctively New York – and how it may be changing.

Five linguists are nearing the end of a three-year project to create the first ever “Corpus of New York City English” – an online database composed of hundreds of audio interviews documenting the city accent in all its variations.

“All accents and dialects everywhere are always changing and shifting. We’re not assuming that it’s disappearing, just changing,” said Cecelia Cutler, a professor at City University of New York’s Lehman College and a lead researcher on the project.

The first challenge was gathering data.

They turned to CUNY undergraduates — most of whom grew up in the city — for help. The study leaders created a questionnaire and sent students out to record interviews with family and friends in far-flung corners of the five boroughs.

Several linguistic patterns jumped out from the resulting conversations. Across all areas and social and ethnic groups, New Yorkers with strong accents dropped their Rs, creating the famous New Yawk sound and have a more nasally pronunciation of the “a” in words like “bag” and “ask.” They also put a trademark spin on the first vowel in words like coffee, making it cawfee.

Researchers said they’ve found no evidence to support the idea that variations of the city accent are borough specific. The variations are mostly related to ethnic group and social class, the researchers said, creating recognizable dialects like the New York Italian and Jewish accents.

The team is also investigating which words are specifics to the New York City accent.

One original city word is “pocketbook” for of purse or bag, Cutler said, noting the only other region that uses the word that way is Southern Appalachia — an area that, like New York, was heavily settled by Irish and English immigrants.

Early data also suggests some new patterns entering the dialect. Cutler said researchers noticed Asian-American youth, particularly in Queens, pronouncing the “oo” sound in a way reminiscent of Southern California. They are saying cyool instead of cool, a trend they hypothesized may be part of a move towards a broader “pan-Asian-American” accent.

The study, funded by the National Science Foundation, is set to conclude in January 2020.

While it’s the largest linguistic study of the city accent in decades, it’s far from the first attempt to catalog it.

Heather Quinlan, a filmmaker who grew up in Staten Island, explored similar questions in her 2013 documentary “If the Knishes Could Talk.”

Quinlan suggested one feature of the New York accent the linguists may have overlooked.

“One thing that does cut across the ethnic groups and boroughs is the unspoken part,” she said. “The swagger, the physicality, the interrupting.”