Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New York Accent

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.


Anonymous said...

I haven't lived in NYC for a number of years now. And for some reason I still have my accent. While it makes me stand out where I live as a "northerner", I revel in my "New Yorkese" because it's so very different accent than anyone else's around me. And frequent converstaions with my brother or sister quickly "reprimes" the accent pump.

If New Yorkers lost their "accent" the world would be lesser place.

So while everyone likes to think that all New Yorkers say "fuhgddaboutit", I say to them "getouttahere!"

ShatteredMonocle said...

Visit Palm Beach. You will hear plenty of it there.

Melanie said...

I have one!!A cool one too...if we ever meet you can hear it. Bob Arihood sometimes jests at my accent although over the world I have been told it is great and unique cause it doesn't quite sound like thoity thoity third but has a bit of additional tones from traveling abroad. YO.

Melanie said...

Brooklyn Accents Rock!!!!!!!!!Yo..yuse..love ya..get outta town..what ya want? There's gonna be trouble..hey..what up??

Anonymous said...

One of the things I regret about moving to the suburbs at an early age is the loss of my fledgling outer boroughs accent. I still have a tiny trace, a vestige, that comes out when I'm excited or angry. My dad, on the other hand, sounds like he never left Queens - and his father had a really thick accent of the sort you don't hear anymore except in old movies. When I hear that accent now, I'm transported back to childhood, for it reminds me of older relatives and neighbors who are long gone.

The loss of regional accents in general and the NY accent in particular is something I mourn.

- Storko

Anonymous said...

For years, I have heard young people, born and raised in NYC, speaking with a pronounced "Valley Girl" accent. These whiny, nasally voices are copied and practiced from TV shows such as the Hills, 90210, and stars like Heidi Montag and Miley Cyrus. Young girls especially want to sound Californian, and this phenomenon is even apparent in texting ("OMG", etc.) You should hear my friends' teens, born and raised in Brooklyn, talk...you'd swear they were from Santa Monica.

Shawn said...

I am not a native NYer but I have an accent.

I've discovered that by having learned an accent, which is accompanied by a lot of hand gestures, shoulder shrugs, and general assertiveness in conversation, helps me in most social circumstances - restaurants, the train, in public, at bars, in cabs, and in dealings with the NYPD.

It commands respect, knowledge, and a "Oh, this guy is not a tourist." I never ever get the run around or the shaft from anyone, because they assume I'm from here, due to the accent.

As I work with Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews all day, my Yiddish is not bad, or as we say "nisht gefarlich." Dropping occasional words from that language (schmuck, vous, kishen tookes, plotz, gesheft) in everyday parlance allows me to borrow that culture's brilliant ability to communicate an entire feeling with just a word or two.

But I think there IS a Manhattan accent. And you're right it's barely there.

Several of my buddies, born and raised on the UWS/UES, have it. I know you've heard it. They sound "midwestern" for the most part - without the nasaly bit. But certain words are 100% NYC:


Saying, "Right?" all the time in agreement. Right?

Of course my name, Shawn, is never pronounced with ONE syllable by any native New Yorker. It's "Show-awn" by any interpretation.

Keep the accent alive. It's one of the few real NY things left!

Claude Scales said...

I was going to mention what the third "Anonymous" commenter above did: the "valley girl" speech that, unfortunately, seems to be spreading, not only over New York City (I've heard it used by African American women in Brooklyn and Asian women in Queens) but throughout the country (I've also heard it spoken in Atlanta). It may have its roots in what I used to call "stew-speak", going back to the days when flight attendants were almost all women. Their speech seemed to have a uniform sing-song quality, with deliberately inappropriate stresses, e.g. "THE captain HAS turned on THE 'fasten seat belt' sign." A friend who was flying with me said the airlines taught trainees to speak this way because it sounded "sexy". It didn't work for me, but then, my epitome of sexy woman speech has long been Lauren Bacall.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

I find an accent comes out of me when I'm ranting or cursing...and I'm not a native. It's interesting how the accent sticks with a lot of natives who move away, but has vanished from the younger generation born here.

CalgarySandy said...

I am from Western Canada and I worked in NYC for five years. Maybe my interest in languages has something to do with it but I was aware and loved the different ways the different Burroughs spoke, including Manhattan where I was. It took me quite a while to lose what I gained after I had to leave due to the dot.com crash.

I found it very interesting that the people I worked with, who came from all the Burroughs, did not think that I had an accent. As a westerner I do not speak like an Eastern Canadian with the broad "a" as in "aboot" or using the "eh?" thing. This is no surprise as I am over 2000 miles from the east. I finally figured out what was going on. I speak, as too many do now, like a news anchor. They all sound like they came from the American Midwest. It is a very generic and boring "accent." Actually, there is little accent to it. It is bland and cannot be pinned to any place or people.

City Of Strangers said...


I was thinking the other day how you rarely hear NY accents anymore. Even the black NY accent has lost its distinctiveness and creativity and become sort of generic.

Interestingly, the London accent has gone the same way, flattened into a generic Londonese, distinguished somewhat by area, but essentially flat. No more of that great Cockney rhyming slang, or not much of it anyway. A lot of the same reasons as New York. Both were cities that prided themselves on verbal dexterity, proudly working class.

I wonder where you hear really distinctive accents in the English speaking world now?


Marty Wombacher said...

"I've noticed among New Yorkers that there's a kind of bogeyman idea about Midwesterners"

I have too. I moved here from Peoria, Illinois (cue the laugh track) over 17 years ago, because I visited New York and fell in love with it and I don't like to see "Peoria-like" things popping up here, because I moved here to get away from such things. I don't think I'm the only former Midwesterner who feels this way.

I think this is a brilliant idea for a documentary and can't wait to watch it.

Jeremiah Moss said...

you guys are reading my mind about the nasally, annoying accent we hear everywhere now. been trying to put together maybe a Grumbler post about it...now i'm inspired.

BaHa said...

I've still got my Brooklyn accent, although I can turn it off with effort. There's also rather a metallic (NOT nasal!) tone to a true NY accent, I've found.
Doe anyone besides me still say cai (rhymes with tie)? As in, "Cai I have bite of your pizza?"
My aunts said toy-quoise (the color) and my grandmother said earl (as in what you put in your car). All Brooklyn back many generations.

Jill said...

My New York accent comes out strong and loud when I am talking with other New Yorkers, most especially with my childhood friends and my relatives. My midwestern husband often comments on it.

Good New York accents can actually be found deep in Long Island, Suffolk County, from the people who work out there more than the ones that come into the city to work.

I was noticing just today that the guy's voice on the new electric buses that says something garbled like "attention bus riders, be aware and watch your belongings," has a pretty intense New York accent.

Claude Scales said...

The confusion of "oi" with "er" or "ir" sounds, going in both directions, has been traced to Dublin in the early 19th century. The only other place in the U.S. that I know of where you find this is New Orleans, particularly in a section of that city called the Irish Channel. When FDR visited New Orleans in the 1930s, the only thing the Mayor was heard to say to him was, "How d'ya like dem ersters?"

Jeremiah: I'm all for starting a campaign to stamp out the valley girl accent. Earlier this evening I attended a panel discussion in which the moderator, a woman who looked to be about thirty, had a bad case of it. Every time she spoke, I felt like I was listening to someone drag fingernails across a chalkboard.

BaHa said...

@Claude: Toy-quoise was from the Irish side of my family, earl from the Norwegians. Brooklyn on both sides, though. Perhaps there was some overlap.
@Melanie: Hey, what up? Not Brooklyn, except in bad, bad movies.
@Calgary: I had a boyfriend from BC, not on the coast but from the Rockies, closer to Calgary than Vancouver (played for the NY Rangers) and he did say "eh?" pretty constantly. And aboot, as well. (God, he was adorable.)

Claude Scales said...

BaHa: perhaps the overlap comes from Dublin's having originally been settled by Vikings.

BaHa said...

@City of: Brummies. (Yet another boyfriend.) Dead sexy--yet unintelligible for the first two years--accent.

Shawn said...

100% surefire way to know a NYer, how they say the word "Street"

NY: "Shtreet"
Rest of country: "Streat"

Maria said...

You can still hear the New York accent spoken, undiluted, on Long Island public transportation. The crew members on the LIRR and the bartenders aboard the Long Island Ferry speak genuine New Yorkese.

Anonymous said...

Accents are an endangered species. My 87-year-old father and his friends have a lovely accent, tinged with the rhythms and sounds of the Yiddish that was their parents' first language. I will miss that sound when it is gone.

The advent of radio and tv began the process of homogenization long ago. Keep New Yawkese aloive! Can't wait to see the film.

Anonymous said...

I am a native New Yorker living in London. The Brits LOVE our accent! While I have lived outside of Longisland (said of course like it's one word) for approx 35 years, I still have my accent, though not as heavy. Both my parents grew up in Brooklyn. My accent gets thicker when I am emotional, or tired, or if it is brought to my attention. When I lived in the midwest in my early twenties, I was at first self-conscious of what I sounded like and wanted to change it. Am I glad I decided not to! It's part of who I am.

Anonymous said...

To City of Strangers

You can still hear the wonderful East London accent! I love it! I live (am American) in southeast London, and it is a polyglot of accents. Of course people from all over the world live here. Maybe you are visiting the touristy areas when you go to London, and not the great colorful neighborhoods? Plus of course, in London there are the wonderful accents of Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham for example.

Anonymous said...

Its an honor and privilege to be a native NEW YORKER!!!!!!!

fifilaru said...

Having had a Bronx accent growing up, I do not miss having it now. I do remember an odd incident of meeting a couple of kids from Boston, both with Boston accents, making fun of my Bronx accent. I thought it was odd, since their accents were much heavier.

I did and do love the Dutch-isms that existed in our Bronx lingo though.

Glennis said...

When I lived in Greenwich Village in the '70s, you could tell the neighborhood Italian kids who lived down on Morton Street or Bedford Street by their accents.

Glennis said...

And ditto on the Valley Girl accent, although I don't think that's the right term for it. It's a certain affectation that lots of young American women have, where they direct the voice through their nose and throat, making it gravelly.

I worked with a young woman who constantly said, "egg - ZACT - leh (middle-up-down)" to express agreement, where the "leh" was a drawn out croak. Drove me nuts.

Anonymous said...

I never really had a New York accent even though I was born and raised in NYC. Most people whom I have met through the years (of which many, many were transplants) always commented on my lack of a New York accent. Yet that all vanishes as soon as I get a few in me. Then I seem to resort to pure Queens and Brooklyn.

Anonymous said...

I also want to chime in on that annoying valley girl affectation that seems to be a national problem these days. It is epidemic with girls and women under 30. The two things that grate on my nerves the most are the way every sentence ends sounding like a question. Many young males do this as well. It comes across as very meek and lacks any kind of conviction. The other is what is known as "Vocal Fry". Therer is a female newscaster on FOX news that does it all the time. It is this little rasp that goes hand in hand with valley girl speak. Google it for an audio sample and you see what I am talking about. It too is used towards the end of a sentence and is actually not very good for the vocal chords long term.