http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/d ... -1.1340952
Heather Quinlan’s documentary finds New
York accents are more about ethnicity than areas
'If These Knishes Could Talk' looks behind the famous vocal style of Alan Dershowitz, Ed Koch and many others
By Sheila Mcclear / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Monday, May 13, 2013, 2:00 AM
MARC A. HERMANN
Heather Quinlan, independent filmmaker, got the inside word about New York accents for ‘If These Knishes Could Talk,’ her new documentary.
Whadda youse guys tawkin’ about?
There’s no such thing as a Brooklyn accent, a Queens accent or a Bronx accent, according to a new film about Noo Yawk’s famous inflection.
The unique accents that many believe to be borough-centric dialects have more to do with ethnicity than geography, according to Heather Quinlan, who spent six years creating the feature-length film “If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent.”
In her movie, which premieres Thursday at the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival, the late speech pathologist Sam Chwat makes the case that the seemingly regional accents are actually Jewish-based, Irish-based or Italian-based New York accents. Think Woody Allen, Jimmy Cagney or Martin Scorsese — not Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx.
“I had always assumed there was a Brooklyn accent — I didn’t really question it,” said Quinlan, a Bronx native who speaks with just a trace of a New York accent.
Those distinctive dialects are influenced by different immigrant communities, but they owe a lot of their charm to one surprising place, England, although some may not be happy about that.
“I don’t think people like associating the New York accent with England!” Quinlan says, laughing.
But the Brits did colonize New York, parts of New England and the Deep South. Today linguists call the area the “r-less corridor,” because the accents of New York, Boston and the South share many of the same characteristics as British English, including a tendency to drop the “r” after a vowel (“ask your moth-a!”).
And for every “r” that gets dropped, one gets added.
“They call it an intrusive ‘r,’ ” Quinlan explains. New Yorkers, she says, “will know somehow that they took it out. So they put it back somewhere.”
Ed Koch, one of the New York accent’s leading practitioners, once remarked that it might be good if it just disappeared.
Like the phrase: “Come hea-ah and get me a so-der.”
But hold on. Many agree that there’s more to the New York patois than the accent. It’s also about attitude.
As such, Quinlan cast vocal everyday New Yorkers alongside big-name locals including directors Penny Marshall and Amy Heckerling, attorney Alan Dershowitz, Rep. Charlie Rangel, author James McBride and novelist and former Daily News editor-in-chief Pete Hamill.
“Quick, funny, intense, honest, direct, no b.s. — that’s the New York attitude,” Dershowitz, a well-known lawyer who won fame in the O.J. Simpson trial, says in the film. “One more point — interruption! Never let a person finish a sentence.”
The accent is so much about attitude and physicality that it even carries over to sign language, says Quinlan, who cast a deaf New Yorker named Samuel to show the reach of the city’s regionalisms.
“All the elements of the spoken accent are there in the sign-language accent,” said Quinlan. “He was saying [people in New York] sign faster, there’s more cursing, there’s slang.”
The New York accent is certainly unique, but not everyone agrees with George Bernard Shaw, who thought the city’s dialect was the most pleasing sound in the world — “the ultimate in sophistication in human speech.”
Some find it grating and cartoonish. Even the late former mayor Ed Koch, who dropped his “r’s” left and right, once said he wouldn’t be sad if New Yorkese disappeared.
Many of Quinlan’s subjects, both the big stars and the average Joes, claim they run into negative assumptions as soon as they open their mouths.
“When I first came” to Hollywood, “they said I’d never work because of my accent and my overbite,” says Penny Marshall in the film.
ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS/AFP/Getty Images
Attorney Alan Dershowitz says he never knew he had a New York accent until his first day at Yale Law, when people laughed at it.
Alyssa Chiarelli, a 19-year-old Staten Island resident, found Quinlan’s project while searching online for acting gigs she “could do with this accent.” She claims people question her intelligence because of the way she talks.
“People think you’re stupid,” says Chiarelli. “I have a 4.0 GPA.”
But she is proud of her accent. “I would never try to change it,” she says.
Dershowitz told Quinlan’s camera that he never knew he had an accent until he was called on his first day at Yale Law — and everyone laughed.
“My accent didn’t reflect ignorance,” the Brooklyn native said. “It reflected a lack of culture and sophistication, perhaps, but the kids in my neighborhood were pretty darn smart.”
Love it or hate it, the New York voice isn’t as loud as it used to be. Many of the film’s subjects say that in a rapidly gentrifying Manhattan, they hear the accent less and less. Linguists say younger generations are picking up fewer of its unique features.
“The accent has disappeared a lot from Manhattan,” Quinlan says. “You will hear it in places that are probably never going to be gentrified because they’re way too far from Manhattan. Rego Park in Queens, or Staten Island or Sheepshead Bay.”
But the accent isn’t exactly disappearing altogether, according to Quinlan.
“What is changing is the people who speak it,” she says.
Take, for example, Ayesha — a high school student and Bangladeshi immigrant featured in the film who picked up the New York accent as she learned English.
“The new wave of immigrants — from India, Bangladesh, Korea, China — are going to be the ones who carry on the accent,” says Quinlan. “So you have to change your perception of who speaks it. It stops being Archie Bunker and starts being Ayesha.”