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The New York accent

The New York accent is familiar to us through movies and television. But many believe it is in decline, and Heather Quinlan is determined to record its variety.

Quinlan is a native New Yorker and filmmaker and is recording the accent for her first documentary, If These Knishes Could Talk. Many believe the accent evolved from Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants, but in fact London is where the accent originates, according to sociolinguist Prof William Labov.

“Back about 1800 all the major cities in the eastern seaboard of the United States began to copy the British pronunciation of not pronouncing the final ‘r’ as a consonant, saying ‘caah’ instead of ‘car’.

“But New York didn’t imitate London directly, there were quite a few changes in the vowels so that the New York City dialect began to go in its own direction still following that London pattern of r-less speech.”

Another giveaway that someone is a New Yorker is their broadening of the vowel “a”, saying “awe-ful” instead of “awful”, for example. (Source: BBC News)

With New York City constantly changing, the accent is evolving too. According to Prof Labov, it’s because of the decline in white mainstream speakers and the growth of Hispanic and African-American populations, which have their own dialect. Quinlan is not ready to abandon the old accent though:

“People think New Yorkers are gruff and demanding and short-tempered and that’s kind of how they feel about the accent, but once you get a bit underneath you realize that there is a lot of chutzpah and heart and character and that’s what I want to try and come through.”