POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, May 12, 2013
NEW YORK » Years ago, a friend who had moved to New York from Minneapolis to go to college marveled that the people she met who had been raised on the Upper East Side spoke with "no accent." Although she hadn't expected them to sound like Buddy Hackett, she was intrigued by the notion that members of the city's upper classes didn't particularly sound as if they were from anywhere. As someone who had grown up in a well-to-do Midwestern family, she hardly sounded like Marge Gunderson in "Fargo," but there were certain subtle pronunciations and inflections, she argued, that still marked a wealthy Midwesterner as a Midwesterner, signifiers absent in an analogous population here.
By the 1980s, if not earlier, whatever vestiges of the patrician New York accent that were in evidence seemed to reside more or less exclusively in the speech patterns of George Plimpton. That pseudo-British way of talking — exemplified perhaps most famously by Franklin Delano Roosevelt — had fallen away, the consequence of a diluted aristocracy, a 1960s resistance to elitism, an aversion to sounding ridiculous. And yet that accent was a New York accent. A strain of it at any rate, even though it is never what we think of when we think of the New York accent.
This is one of the inferences to be drawn from "If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent," a film in some sense betrayed by its title, because its purpose is to show how multifarious (and mutable) the New York accent actually is. A documentary by a native New Yorker named Heather Quinlan, the film, having its premiere at the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival on Thursday, examines the way that different immigrant groups adapted to speaking in the city, and illuminates the distinctions that were the result. The Jewish accent (Woody Allen) is syntactically different from the Italian accent ("The Godfather"). And, in turn, both are different from the Irish accent, which Quinlan believes was best illustrated — in popular entertainment — in "All in the Family" ("goil," for girl, "terlet" for toilet), and has largely vanished.
In the documentary, Amy Heckerling, a filmmaker who grew up in a building of Holocaust survivors in the Bronx and retains the attendant accent, describes taking a test in elementary school and spelling "idea" as "idea-r." This habit is known in linguistic circles as the intrusive "r" and arises when people ignore the letter where it belongs ("waduh" for "water,") and seek to compensate.
The film, though, is not intended as a sophisticated lesson in linguistics but instead as a tribute to what New York sounded like when the working class stood as a more central cultural presence. Or rather, when they stood as a presence at all, before the vibe of the city came to be dominated by the world of $15 million apartments on the one hand, and housing projects with yearlong waits for repairs on the other.
At another moment in the film, the writer Pete Hamill describes nostalgia as the dominant emotion in New York and it is clear that Quinlan, who grew up on Staten Island and has lived in all five boroughs, agrees. Her grandfather on one side was the son of Irish immigrants and a truck driver, she told me. And on the other, an actor who lived in Borough Park in Brooklyn and had appeared on Broadway in "Three Is a Family," a play by Nora Ephron's parents, Henry and Phoebe Ephron. That grandfather eventually became a speech teacher, but it wasn't until Quinlan was an adult, living in Waterside Plaza, the huge apartment complex in the 20s just east of FDR Drive, that she began to miss and think about the cadences she had grown up with.
"You couldn't be more removed from New York in a place like that," she said.
One vocal complaint in recent years is that the Bloomberg administration's global city ambitions have left New York feeling very little like New York. Although Quinlan's film is wistful for what was, it simultaneously conveys how enduring a certain version of authenticity is. Early in the film we meet a young sanitation worker named Ben Lee of Staten Island. He tells a story about riding in the back of a car and the driver is shocked to discover, when she turns around to face him, that he is Korean-American. Having grown up around Italian-Americans, Lee learned to talk the way they did. He once had a girl obsessed with him because he was, as she put it to him, "an Asian Guido."
In social media, and even in sign language, New York has retained its own distinctive voice despite Bloomberg's agenda. For instance, Jacob Eisenstein, who heads the computational linguistics lab at Georgia Tech and appears in the film, has studied regionalisms on Twitter, and found that the word, "suttin" — meaning "something" — appears 10 times as often in Twitter posts from New York as it does in the rest of the United States. The phrase "odee," which means overdone or overdose, is used 20 times more often. New York has a much longer way to go before it is just another Shanghai.