As is often reported, the New York City accent is vanishing. Some people are even paying good money to unlearn it, much like Radio Days' Sally and her diction lessons. Bronx-born filmmaker Heather Quinlan is working on a documentary all about it. If These Knishes Could Talk is both, as Heather says, "an homage to my father and grandparents, who had wonderful accents I don’t hear anymore, and also to celebrate that which makes New York so unique."
Heather and I chatted over email. I asked some questions, she answered.
Pete Hamill, author: "Hold ya horses."
People in your film talk about a "Manhattan accent," yet we rarely hear about that. Usually it's the Brooklyn, Queens, or Bronx accent that gets the attention. What is the Manhattan accent?
There is no borough-specific accent. Italians in Brooklyn will tend to sound like Italians in the Bronx or Italians in Staten Island. (With the exception of some slang here and there, but then you get into dialect which is a whole other ballgame.) This is especially true nowadays because people rarely stay put in one neighborhood or one borough anymore, so there's more accent intermingling. Where the difference lies is in ethnicities.
New York accents sound different in Jewish neighborhoods (think Woody Allen), Puerto Rican neighborhoods (Rosie Perez), Irish neighborhoods (Jimmy Cagney), Italian neighborhoods (Al Pacino), etc. Though again, your ethnic background does not necessarily determine your accent. Rudy Giuliani is an example of an Italian-American whose New York accent is not Italian, but Irish, since he grew up in an Irish neighborhood.
I will say that, to me, a "Manhattan accent" is one that's very upper-crust, think FDR or the Rockefellers. And that is a New York accent that has essentially disappeared, as it's now thought of as affected or phony. Jackie O. is another example.
Fred Austin, Katz's owner: "Toity-toid and toid."
How do you think the death of New York accents might be related to shifts in class and ethnicity?
I think because Manhattan especially has become such a wealthy borough, you don't hear the accent much there at all, and that will probably be even more so in the next several years. Also, the wave of immigrants from within America have pushed the accent further into the outer boroughs.
Our way of life is much more insular now. We're no longer families with 10 kids who need the support of neighbors to help with the kids, help find jobs, help navigate our way through a new country. So therefore there's less sharing of food, culture, stories, etc. People keep to themselves more. The people I know in my neighborhood are more the old-timers than the people in my building. As to how the new wave of immigrants will affect the accent, only time will tell.
Speaking of immigrants from within America, we often hear about people from the Midwest coming to the city and bringing their cultures with them. Do you think the future New York accent could eventually sound like the people in the movie Fargo? Will future linguists define the city's accent as one that includes phrases like, "Oh, yeah, you betcha"?
I've noticed among New Yorkers that there's a kind of bogeyman idea about Midwesterners, that they'll come in droves and take over our bodegas and delis and force us to eat pastrami on white and talk like Sarah Palin. And if someone is complaining about New York, a common put down is: "Why don't you move back to Ohio?" Always Ohio. Like Ohio is the equivalent of Siberia, but with less culture. But, no, I don't think we'll end up sounding like Fargo in another 20 years. I don't know how we'll sound, though. The only constant in New York is change, and sadly, sometimes that means the accent.
Toity toid and toid, for example, something that's cited as the quintessential New York expression, is rarely heard today. A lot of that had to do with film and TV. All in the Family brought New Yorkese across the country, but people found they were being made fun of for it, labeled bigoted or dumb, so a lot of the old timey New York ("little goil") started to fall off. Same thing these days with "fuhgeddaboutit." I know a lot of tough guys whose feelings get kinda hurt because people make fun of them for saying that. Scorsese movies and The Sopranos had the same kind of effect on the Italian New York accent that All in the Family did on the Irish one.
Amy Heckerling, director: "Kish mein tuches."
What do you think we lose when we lose the traditional New York accent?
Part of the film that I've been working on focuses on the new New York--in a lot of ways a safer city, but in a lot of ways it's lost its edge. And I don't mean that I long for the days when New York was like Escape from New York. But I think the pendulum has swung too far the other way, that there is no room for the working class in the city anymore. James McBride, a writer who I interviewed for my movie, calls New York a "hedge-fund ghetto." In developing and developing, Bloomberg has told New Yorkers this city now belongs to people with money.
Part of the reason I have knishes in the title of my film is because A) I really love knishes, and B) it symbolizes a part of New York that feels like a throwback. In much the same way the accent now seems like a throwback.
A lot of the New York accent is the unspoken part, the confidence, the brashness. If we lose that and the accent, then I feel like we lose a lot of our identity, and that intangible character and charm that's all wrapped up in words. I also think this has to do with America being a much more politically correct place, and New York is not the accent of political correctness.
Watch the movie trailer here.