Heather Quinlan is the director of the new documentary, “If These Knishes Could Talk: A New York Accent Film.” She has created a project on the fundraising website Kickstarter to earn money to complete her film.
I’ve always had a love of languages and accents, particularly the New York accent. This may have come from having a Brooklyn grandfather who was an actor and speech teacher. Or maybe from my other grandfather, a Bronx bare-knuckle boxer who called jeans “dungarees” and pronounces Pathmark “Pat-mark.”
Whatever the reason, the idea for doing a film about an accent came to me one day. I’d wanted to get into film, wanted to make a documentary — why not make one on the New York accent?
So I set out to explore the topic. The late, great “dialect coach to the stars,” Sam Chwat, became a kind of mentor. From him I learned that accents develop between the ages of about 3 to 7 and are largely determined by your peer group. You develop an accent to fit in, so chances are if you grow up in an Italian-American neighborhood, you will sound Italian-American, even if you come from Korea. Also, there’s really no such thing as a “Brooklyn accent” or a “Queens accent” — it’s more an Italian New York accent or Puerto Rican New York accent or Jewish New York accent.
Learn about the characters in “If These Knishes Could Talk”:
Each ethnic group has put its own stamp on the New York accent. The famous “youse,” for example, may have been coined by Italian-Americans as a way to cope with the lack of a plural “you” in English. (Therefore, you + s = youse.) The lack of a hard “G” in Yiddish led to “goink” for going, “seeink” for seeing and “Longuyland.” In addition, because Yiddish syntax is different, you’ll get sentences like, “A genius, he isn’t,” or, “Already, you’re hungry?”
And the Irish New York accent? The famous “earl” for oil and “terlet” for toilet can be attributed to the fact that the Irish tended to switch the diphthongs IR and ER with OI. (Though this has sharply declined over the generations.)
A trailer for Heather Quinlan’s, “If These Knishes Could Talk: A New York Accent Film.” The film includes interviews with accent experts and New Yorkers including author Pete Hamill and filmmaker Amy Heckerling. Video courtesy of Heather Quinlan.
The one thing all the ethnic groups in New York seem to have in common using their hands to communicate. The New York accent is a very physical one, and talking with the hands — as well as a certain brashness and confidence — often plays as important a role in language as diphthongs and slang.
I also wanted to explore the theory that the New York accent is disappearing as the city changes, and that Neutral American Speech (a dialect free of regional accents) is taking over. Personally, I think the New York accent will survive. Accents are very much a part of who we are. I even interviewed a deaf man from Brooklyn who showed that deaf New Yorkers sign differently than other deaf Americans.
While there are immigrants now who may not be the typical Irish, Jewish or Italian immigrants we’re used to seeing in old Ellis Island footage, they will still continue to proliferate the New York accent. Case in point, my Korean friend Ben who grew up in Staten Island and sounds like Robert DeNiro, and my friend Ayesha who’s from Bangladesh but grew up in the Bronx and sounds Puerto Rican. It may not sound like Jimmy Cagney, but that won’t make it any less New York. When “Knishes 2” comes out in 50 years, we’ll see how the accent has changed then.
The typical sounds of a New York accent:
- The intrusive G, which is possibly Yiddish-influenced because there is no soft G in Yiddish. Examples include: Longuyland; “ing” pronounced “ink,” as in “seeink” and “doink.” Also, the syntax in Yiddish is different than in English, which is why you’ll hear things like, “a genius, he isn’t.”
- Dropped R and intrusive R: New Yorkers are known to drop their R’s after a vowel. Think of the truncated versions of “here” and “there.” But when the R’s are dropped, New Yorkers often put them back in where they don’t belong. So the name Victoria becomes Victorier, Linda becomes Linder, and we get phrases like, “Come heah and bring me a soder.”
- Youse: Possibly Italian influenced as there’s a plural “you” in Italian but there isn’t in English.
- The “aw” sound as in “cawfee.”
- TH pronounced like “T” or “D,” as in “Pat-mark.”
- The dropped “H”: Examples include “uge” instead of “huge,” and “uman” instead of “human.”
- The Irish influence was to switch the diphthong OI with ER or IR, so you get little goil, change the earl, terlet for toilet. The popularity of shows like “All in the Family” doomed this one, as it made New Yorkers self-aware of their accent — and not in a good way.
Ben Lee talks about growing up on Staten Island in the 1970s, and what it was like being Korean with an Italian New York accent. Video courtesy of Heather Quinlan.