This article analyzes the frequency of three traditional features of New York City English—vocalized /r/, raised tense /æh/(bath), and raised tense /oh/(thought)—in the on-screen speech of 22 actors raised in the greater New York City region, in a diachronic selection of films that appeared between 1933 and 2003. Vocalization of /r/is coded impressionistically as either present or absent; the vocalic variables are subjected to acoustic analysis. The resulting data show that the prevalence of New York City features in the actors’ speech closely parallels that identified in both historical accounts of New York City English and more recent sociolinguistic studies of the speech of ordinary people. The data also correspond well with previous research on nonfilm speech in showing a decline in the frequency of traditional variants starting in the 1960s, at least for some speakers. Sociolinguistic analysis of more recent films and characters indicates a shifting social evaluation of traditional New York City English. This underlies a divergence between speakers who continue to use traditional dialect features, which now have exclusively covert, local prestige, and those who converge with nonlocal speech norms, which carry overt, global prestige.
New York City English in Film: Phonological Change in Reel Time
charles boberg is associate professor of linguistics at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He is a coauthor, with William Labov and Sharon Ash, of the Atlas of North American English: Phonetics, Phonology and Sound Change (Mouton de Gruyter, 2006) and the author of The English Language in Canada: Status, History and Comparative Analysis (Cambridge, 2010). Most recently he coedited, with John Nerbonne and Dominic Watt, The Handbook of Dialectology (Wiley Blackwell, 2018). His current research focuses on variation and change in the vocabulary and phonetics of Canadian English, as well as on accent variation in North American film and television. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.