The Shmooze

New York Filmmaker Tries To Capture City's Changing Accent

By Alex Weisler

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Rebecca Spiro interviews a Brooklyn Heights woman about her accent.

As a young girl, filmmaker Heather Quinlan ate her first knish during a visit with her father to the Staten Island Zoo — an Irish family eating a Jewish food in an Italian borough. At the time, she didn’t see the irony.

But now, Quinlan, who hails from the Bronx, is making “If These Knishes Could Talk,” a documentary on the variable New York accent that hopes to trace how the city’s dialect varies by neighborhood and ethnicity.

“People develop an accent to fit in,” she said. “That’s why people will almost sounds more like their friends than their parents. No one wants to fit in with their parents.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Quinlan and her production assistant, Rebecca Spiro, stationed themselves on the corner of Clark and Henry Streets in Brooklyn Heights, asking passersby to put on their best New York accent for the camera.

“The biggest surprise is that people say they have a borough accent,” Quinlan said. “It’s not borough-specific. It’s ethnic.”

She says that extends to the mythical “Jewish accent.”

“Jewish, Yiddish, German … the syntax is different,” she said. “It’s the way it’s said and the order that it’s said that makes the Jewish [accent], in particular, very unique.”

Quinlan hopes to finish filming by the end of the year, in time to enter “If These Knishes Could Talk” in 2011 film festivals.

And don’t tell her that the New York accent is disappearing — she’ll maintain that it’s simply changing.

“I think it’s definitely moved,” Quinlan said. “Now, you have to go looking for it.”


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