IN 1850, METROPOLITAN New York was the most populous area in the United States. The census reported 515,547 people in Manhattan and 138,882 in Brooklyn. In 1900, the five boroughs of the city had 3,437,202 people. Growth had been explosive, and the city was rich in cultural and linguistic variety.
This diversity had already begun to develop before 1850. Refugees from the famine in Ireland arrived in droves; revolutionaries from the European uprisings in 1848 brought in flotillas of Germans and French (among other nationalities). Yet it was not immediately apparent how these newcomers would affect English. A historian writing for publication in 1853 repeated what had been received wisdom articulated by foreign visitors for a century: America was blessed in the uniformity of its English—particularly in comparison to the British Isles. As Tocqueville alleged, American democracy was “unconstrained” by one powerful group claiming hegemony over the others: “These circumstances have given to New-York a purer English dialect than can be found in most places where the English language is spoken” (Curry 1853, 309).