Film Tells Story of
New York Accent
By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — Across the U.S., everybody seems to know what a “New York accent” is. Some experts even claim they can tell the difference between a Brooklyn and a Bronx accent, but we’ll leave that alone for the time being.
If you’re interested in where this accent actually comes from, how it has evolved and why it may be endangered, you can come to the Brooklyn Heights Cinema to see a short version of Heights resident Heather Quinlan’s film-in-progress, If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent, on Thursday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m.
Most native New Yorkers would agree that the original working-class New York accent in its most egregious form (“T’oidy T’oid Street” for 33rd Street, “terlet” for toilet) died out gradually, beginning in the 1950s or ’60s, as more people became educated.
If you want to hear the original dialect, listen to the way Archie Bunker speaks in the hit 1970s TV show, “All in the Family.” It likely came from the combined influences of the European ethnic groups who immigrated to New York during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
However, a modified New York accent is still very much with us. For example, a native New Yorker might say “cawfee” for coffee, while someone from another part of the country might say “cahfee.” While this accent isn’t heard that much in Manhattan because there are so many transplants, it’s common in the outer boroughs, says Quinlan.
When this writer, at a community board hearing, heard someone say “Ful-ton Street” rather than “Ful’n Street,” he knew that she was either an out-of-towner or someone trying to be pretentious.
Typical New York speech isn’t just distinguished by pronunciation — it’s louder, one woman from Sheepshead Bay comments in the film. She recalls everyone yelling at each other at the dinner table. Sometimes she had to go to the bedroom and hold her ears just to get away from the noise. A classic example of loud New York speech could be heard in the radio shows of the recently deceased Sirius-XM talk show host Lynn Samuels.
If These Knishes Could Talk has many amusing moments. One, for example, is a montage of Brooklyn residents reading lines from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Another shows a voice coach showing an actress how to lose her New York accent.
And one entertaining scene shows a group of old-time Italian-American “wise guys” from Brooklyn and Greenwich Village talking about how they thought the young Martin Scorsese was a “f——-n weirdo” because he kept trying to film their daily activities.
Quinlan, who grew up in Staten Island and New Jersey, says the traditional New York accent may soon become “a casualty of a city that’s evolved into a vast expanse of banks, H&Ms and glass-blown high-rises.” One of her interviewees puts it another way — he says the city is now “a hedge-fund ghetto.”
She disputes the idea that speaking with a New York accent means that one has a low intelligence, and she plans to film Dr. Daniel Ricciardi, an extremely intelligent Brooklyn Heights physician, to prove it.
All in all, if you want to know more about the traditional New York accent, this film is a good way to get started.
The Brooklyn Heights Cinema showing, which will also feature egg creams and knishes, will be both a fundraiser for Quinlan to finish her full-length version of the film and a way to show support for the Heights Cinema, which may have to leave its longtime home at 70 Henry St. For more information, visit newyorkaccentfilm.com.