It was then, and still mostly is, associated with ethnically diverse European-American native-English speakers.
New York City English likely evolved from an older English variety that encompassed much of the larger Mid-Atlantic region, including the Delaware Valley (whose unique dialect today centers around Philadelphia and Baltimore), since the New York City dialect and the Delaware Valley dialectal offshoots all still share certain key features originating nowhere else the United States, such as a high (making gas and gap, for example, have different vowels sounds), though the New York City variant of this split remains distinct from the Delaware Valley variants.
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According to Labov, New York speakers' loss of the r sound after vowels (which, incidentally, is not found in the nearby Delaware Valley) is an imitation of the prestigious British pronunciation, consistently starting among the upper classes in New York City in the 1800s before spreading to other socioeconomic classes.
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