If Knishes could tawk: Documentary explores the New York accent

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“Hey! I’m talkin’ here!”

The New York City accent is a well known cliche from such films as “Midnight Cowboy,” but in a new documentary called “If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent,” the reality of the famous speech of wiseguys, neurotic comedians, and tough-talking broads often labeled “Brooklyn” is much more complicated.

“I think Brooklyn tends to be the borough representing the New York accent the most, certainly more than Staten Island,” said director and Brooklynite Heather Quinlan, who is also a writer for the venerable Brooklyn Heights Blog.

“But there really isn’t a Brooklyn accent — it’s more ethnic than geographic. When people think of a Brooklyn accent they’re thinking more of an Italian accent, like in The Godfather. But there’s also a Jewish-Brooklyn accent, like Woody Allen… Or a Puerto Rican version, like Rosie Perez. Or African-American, like Spike Lee.”

An appreciation for the New York accent runs in Quinlan’s family. One of her grandfathers was a linguist and speech teacher. Another was a truck driver, “a real kind of Damon Runyan-type character.” After both died, Quinlan was nostalgic for that accent.

As it turns out, the accent stretches back to the time of British colonization — both working class Brits and working class New Yorkers drop some Rs and add other Rs where they don’t belong (both might call the president, for instance, “Obamar”).

But ethnicity, of course, is not all-determining. In the film, Quinlan interviews a Korean man who grew up in Staten Island — he sounds like a character from a Scorsese movie.

She also interviews Charles Rangel — who, as she points out, “sounds more Jewish New York than African-American in Harlem New York.”

One place where the accent isn’t found much anymore is in Manhattan – and even northern Brooklyn – leading some to ask Quinlan if it’s disappearing altogether, she said.

“It still very much exists, but it’s been pushed further into the outer boroughs and Long Island and New Jersey,” she said.

Tonight’s show at the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival is sold out, but look for more screenings at the film’s website.

“If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent,” at Founders Hall Theater at St. Francis College (180 Remsen St. between Court and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights, May 16, 7 pm, Sold out.

Reach reporter Jaime Lutz at or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow her on Twitter @jaime_lutz.

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Reasonable discourse

Steve from New Jersey says:
It's misleading to say both Brooklynites and Brits might call the president "Obamar". It's important to note that the "r" only gets added to a word ending in a vowel when it's followed in speech by a word beginning with a vowel. This is a way of avoiding the glottal stop, making the phrase easier to speak.

So each group would say "Obamar is coming" and "Obama went home", but not "Obamar went home".
May 17, 2013, 11:05 am
Chris Abraham from Arlington, Virginia, says:
So interesting, Steve from New Jersey -- that sort of avoidance of the glottal stop -- the adaptation of words according to sentence structure -- is something I only think of when I think of French -- most interesting. Thank you.
July 12, 2013, 9:32 am

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