The Speech of New York City

The Historical Background
  • Raven I. McDavidJr.
Part of the Cognition and Language: A Series in Psycholinguistics book series (CALS)


In this tribute to Arthur Bronstein, one of the most distinguished students of present-day New York City speech, it is appropriate that one examine the earliest historical roots of that speech. Lest someone demur that my recent Carolina upbringing disqualifies me from competence for the task, I must observe that both of my maternal grandparents were natives of New York State: my grandfather was born in Oswego, my grandmother in Setauket, Long Island, where her parents were refugeeing from the summer heat of lower Manhattan. Her connections with the city go back at least to 1637, with the arrival of Oloffe Stevensen, whose descendants assumed as a surname his soubriquet Van Cortland, probably derived from their experience at trading in the Baltic. My last ancestor to arrive in this hemisphere, Jan Cornelis Van Den Heuvel, intermarried with the Apthorps of somewhat notorious reputation; he had a town house at 229 Broadway and a country retreat in Bloomingdale, now the west seventies.1 Others, with varied professions and interests, lived in Long Island, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Albany area—an interesting crew.2


York City Slave Trade Maternal Grandparent Scots Family Westchester County 
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  1. 1.
    The career of Charles Ward Apthorp, Van Den Heuve’s father-in-law, is an interesting illustration of the vicissitude of the New York élite in the Eighteenth Century. Of a successful Boston mercantile family (his father was the agent for the Massachusetts colonial government who arranged for the transportation of the Acadians out of Nova Scotia), he had prospered in business, land speculation and politics; during the French and Indian War he was paymaster of the British forces in North America. A member of the Council of the City of New York he decamped from Manhattan on the eve of the British invasion; during the occupation he served on the Governor’s Council. Although he lost some of his lands—on the Kennebec, in Connecticut, and in New Jersey—and his Boston mansion on Beacon Hill, he saved his social position and most of his fortune, partly by advantageous marriages of his daughters, one to Van Den Heuvel and another to Hugh Williamson, a signer of the Constitution from North Carolina.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Many of the family papers are currently in the possession of my cousin William H. Swan, of Quogue. Those dealing with the Apthorps have been catalogued by my sister, Mrs. L. L. Barrett, and are on loan to the North Carolina archives in Raleigh.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Knowing this as a social shibboleth, I was surprised when I first encountered this homonymy (c. 1930) in the speech of a corporation executive, of New York City Dutch Colonial stock.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Providing public schools and patronizing them were different matters; even before the recent immigration from the South and the Caribbean, it was a rare child in Brooklyn Heights who attended public schools.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    About 1800 it was observed that of the inhabitants of Staten Island a third spoke French, a third Dutch, a third English.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Several prominent merchants, including Charles Ward Apthorp, seem to have sought hospitality (and received it) on shipboard before the first British landing in the Lower Bay.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    The proportion of blacks in the population of 1786 is strikingly lower than in 1771, since many had either departed with their Loyalist owners or been carried away as booty by the departing British, to the Maritimes or the Bahamas. In 1771 there were 10,559 blacks of a total population of 60,696 in New York, Kings, Queens, Richmond, and Westchester counties; in 1786, though the total population had risen slightly to 64,390, the number of blacks had sharply declined, to 7,546.Google Scholar
  8. Other coastal areas showed a similar loss of black population. The 1775 South Carolina population of 200,000 was 62.5% black; the 1790 population of 240,673, slightly more than 40.0%, with fewer blacks than 15 years earlier. Restoration of the plantation labor force to its pre-Revolutionary size was one of the motives behind the Constitutional provision forbidding interference with the slave trade till 1808. By 1810 South Carolina once more had a striking black majority, a situation that lasted till 1920; the new importations contributed heavily to the establishment in the plantation area of Gullah, a unique creolized dialect.Google Scholar


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  2. Frank, Y. H. The speech of New York City. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1949.Google Scholar
  3. Hubbell, A. H. The pronunciation of English in New York City: Consonants and vowels. New York: Kings Crown Press, 1950.Google Scholar
  4. Kurath, H. A word geography of the eastern United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1949.Google Scholar
  5. Kurath, H., & McDavid, R. I., Jr. The pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961. (Reprinted Alabama, University of Alabama Press, 1983.).Google Scholar
  6. Labov, W. The social stratification of English in New York City. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1966.Google Scholar
  7. McDavid, R. I., Jr. The folk vocabulary of New York State. NY Folklore, 1951, 7, 173–191.Google Scholar
  8. Uskup, F. L. Social markers of urban speech: A study of elites in Chicago. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Illinois Institute of Technology, 1974.Google Scholar
  9. Van Riper, W. R. The loss of postvocalic /r/in the eastern United States. Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1958.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Raven I. McDavidJr.
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Departments of English and LinguisticsUniversity of ChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic StatesUSA

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