You Know It When You Hear It, Film Honors New York's Accent

Steve Inskeep and David Greene report on a documentary film exploring the New York accent. If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent premieres Thursday night at the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, years ago, I lived in New York. I came to think of myself as a New Yorker, though it sometimes seemed there was no such thing as a New Yorker. People were, instead, New Yorkers. People would talk of taking their coat off because it's stuffy in the office on this job.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That would be an old-school New York accent. Residents of the city, of course, know there are many varieties of speech constantly evolving. And those patterns of speech are now the subject of a documentary, "If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IF THESE KNISHES COULD TALK: THE STORY OF THE NEW YORK ACCENT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hey, what are you talking about?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Have coffee at mall at four.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: There's a turtle in the toilet.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Word.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Behave yourself, or you'll get a whack in the (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Forget about it.

GREENE: Forget about it. The accent grows out of New York's mixture of ethnic and racial groups: Irish, Italian and many more. Congressman Charlie Rangel, who's black, spent part of his childhood in a Jewish neighborhood. He didn't realize it affected his speech until he resettled in Harlem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IF THESE KNISHES COULD TALK: THE STORY OF THE NEW YORK ACCENT")

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLIE RANGEL: And they would say, hey, Charlie, talk to this guy again. You know, I said: What the heck are you guys talking about?

INSKEEP: And then there's Amy Heckerling, the Hollywood director who grew up in New York and picked up the city's special relationship with the letter R.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IF THESE KNISHES COULD TALK: THE STORY OF THE NEW YORK ACCENT")

AMY HECKERLING: We had a spelling test, and one of the words was idea. So, I go, I-D-E-A-R, idea. And she marked it wrong, and I was, wait a minute.

INSKEEP: Why? The documentary also features the attorney, Alan Dershowitz, who says that the...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IF THESE KNISHES COULD TALK: THE STORY OF THE NEW YORK ACCENT")

ALAN DERSHOWITZ: Interruption. That's a very important part of the New York accent. Never let a person finish a sentence.

INSKEEP: Whatever. A deaf man also appears in this film, and explains New York's sign language through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IF THESE KNISHES COULD TALK: THE STORY OF THE NEW YORK ACCENT")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Here in New York today, curse words? Yes, in New York, there's a lot of cursing.

INSKEEP: The director of the documentary is Heather Quinlan, a New Yorker, who said the film has been a labor of love. She spent time standing on street corners with a sign asking: Do you have a New York accent.

HEATHER QUINLAN: I'd say, say coffee, coffee, talk, talk. And it's, like, you have a New York accent.

INSKEEP: "If These Knishes Could Talk," premiers at the Art of Brooklyn Film Festival tonight. It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

GREENE: And I'm David Greene.

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