Learn Ta Tawk: Dissecting a Film About the Disappearing New York Accent

Posted on: October 10th, 2014 at 9:43 am by

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Still photo from “If These Knishes Could Talk.”

Hey youse, I’m TAWKIN’ here, ya might learn a little sumptin’!

That could be the opening line of If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent, a new film by Heather Quinlan which screened at City Lore last week.

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Dom Ferrara and Heather Quinlan. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

The charming and very funny film features interviews with various New Yorkers, including Michele Carlo, Dalton Conley, Pat Cooper, Alan Dershowitz, Dom Ferrara, Joe Franklin, Pete Hamill, Amy Heckerling, Ben Lee, Penny Marshall, James McBride and Charles Rangel. “Knishes,” or ITKCT, analyzes the disappearing New York accent, examining how it’s evolved, how New Yorkers are judged by it and how it is changing along with the rest of New York.

Most New Yorkers of a certain age think that the accents vary with the different boroughs. In the film, Alan Dershowitz delivers the titular line, “If knishes could talk, they’d have a Brooklyn accent.” However, according to the film, the accents actually differ between immigrant cultures in New York, with experts citing Irish, Italian and Jewish roots. Settling into different areas of the city at the turn of the last century, these ethnic groups created mixes of their new and old languages, resulting in dropped “r’s,” a liberal substitution of “aww’s,” and, well, a whole lot of cursing.

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Still photo from “If These Knishes Could Talk.”

All of the subjects in the film were proud of the way they spoke, though most of them did not believe they even had an accent.

A young woman who was born and raised in Bangladesh until her family relocated to NYC (when she was 11), insisted she couldn’t hear her own thick New York accent, even when she pronounced “Manhattan” as “Manhaah-IN.”

A man in the film proudly (and impressively) recited the “to be or not to be” soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, at a rap-like pace with a thick NY accent. As he finished, his wide-eyed friend, who had been standing next to him during the entire speech, turned to him and said, “what the fuck are you TAWKIN’ about?”

Two girls from Staten Island recalled a story about a group of men who came into the pizza place where they work. The guys were thrown by one of women’s accents. She had wished the group a “Happy Eas-TUH,” and one of the men responded sarcastically, “you know, ‘Easter’ has an ‘R’ at the end of it.” In a New York second, she came back with, “If you don’t like the way we talk, fuck you.”

Lawyer Alan Dershowitz told the story of how he didn’t know he even had an accent until he went to Yale Law School. While making a speech, the entire audience started giggling at the sound his voice. Even then, he had no idea they were laughing at him.

Pete Hamill, describing how New York slang seems to seep in everywhere, recalled his favorite headline from the front page of El Diario, which read “Yo No Soy Un Schmuck.”

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Still photo from “If These Knishes Could Talk.”

One of the most interesting interviews in the film was between a woman and a man using sign language. Apparently, New Yorkers sign using different body language; they use their hands more and they curse a whole lot more. (Later on during the Q&A, a woman added that New Yorkers also sign much faster than those from other parts of the country. Why is this not a surprise?)

The film also explored the loss of the New York accent, comparing the evaporating accent with the disappearance of the unique businesses and characters in the city. This was referred to in the film as the “Americanization” of New York, and many said that it went hand in hand with the homogenization and mall-ification of New York.

Writer and musician James McBride’s observation in the film, “New York is now a big hedge fund ghetto,” drew applause and nods from a commiserating audience.

A social media analyst who keeps track of online slang, said that the New York accent might be dying out in the flesh and blood world, however it is alive in the virtual world. Yes, there are NY accents on Twitter. (Dohlink, who knew?) For example, the word “suttin” (something) is only used by tweeting New Yorkers.

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City Lore’s Steve Zeitlin, Heather Quinlan and Dom Ferrara. Photo: Lori Greenberg

After a very comical, insightful and at times, bittersweet Q&A (where this reporter, who has lived in four of the five boroughs, recognized many nuances of various New York accents), Quinlan (who has lived in all five of the five boroughs) and Dom Ferrara – one of the extremely entertaining subjects of the film – connected the dots of disappearing accents with ever-changing New York. “As the accent goes,” said Quinlan, “so goes New York.”

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Knishes were served after the screening. What, you think they would let us go hungry? Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Quinlan has been showing the film at festivals in New York and California, where the response has been very strong. Elsewhere, it’s been a little tricky to find venues. Audience members wondered if people in the Midwest just can’t understand our accents. Maybe us New Yorkers need subtitles?

For updates on the film and future screenings, check out the website.

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