The city that never sleeps is renowned for its diverse populace, iconic landmarks, and highly recognizable accent. If you want to learn the pronunciation, inflection, and grammatical subtleties to make you sound like an authentic Noo Yawk tawker, keep reading.
“Taxi Driver” Courtesy Columbia Pictures
Sociolinguist William Labov traces the New York accent back to its London roots. “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,’ ” he says. “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.” Over the years, the city’s inhabitants refined that direction toward the accent heard today.
The NYC accent is easily identified by its unique sound and phrasing, as actor and dialect coach Ivan Borodin explains here:
To create your own best Carrie Bradshaw or Jack Donaghy:
Harden the “th”
If a “th” sound appears at the beginning or end of a word, harden it to a “t” or “d” sound. “The” is “teh,” “there” is “dere,” and “wordsmith” is “wordsmit.”
Forget the “r”
New Yorkers typically drop the “r” from words in the middle and end, replacing them with a more drawn out “ah” or “uh” sound. “California” becomes “Cali-fawn-ia,” “arm” becomes “ahm,” and “actor” becomes “act-uh.”
Master the two-syllable “aw-uh”
If a word features a hard “aw” sound, New Yorkers separate it into a longer “aw-uh.” The key is to make your lips come forward and (very subtly, please) separate the sound into two syllables pronounced quickly: “taw-uhk” for talk and “caw-uhfee” for “coffee.”
In this clip from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” pay attention to the way Margot Robbie says the line “you’ve got an awesome place here.” With her character’s New York accent, it becomes “you’ve got an aw-uhsome place he-uh.”
Add an intrusive “r” at the end (sometimes)
Depending on the specific dialect, some New Yorkers add a non-existent “r” to the end of words—like ”idear” for “idea” and “sodar” for “soda.”
Consider the short-”a” split
This one can be tricky. Depending on the vowel sound, the “a” sound might have a raised, tense sound or a lower, more relaxed one. “This is best described through the example of ‘bad’ versus ‘bat,’ ” writes Justin Ahn. “These two are only differentiated by having either a voiceless or voiced final consonant. However, they are pronounced completely differently in the NYC accent.”
The middle of “bat” remains a short “a” sound, but the middle of “bad” shifts to /eə/ or “ay-uh.” Some other examples are “tray-uhsh” for “trash” or “cray-uhsh” for “crash.” To get the full effect, start by pronouncing the two syllables slowly, and then speed up until they combine one sound. In this clip from “Doubt,” listen to how Meryl Streep says the words “graduate with his class.” Her character being a Bronx native, it sounds closer to “grad-joo-late with his clahy-uhss.”
Speak with speed
As if to reflect their fast-paced lifestyle, New Yorkers tend to speak at a frenetic pace. Speed up your speech to have people believing you call the Big Apple home.
1. Study New York accents
Watch films and TV shows set in New York, such as “Taxi Driver,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Annie Hall,” “Sex and the City,” “Law & Order: SVU,” and “Broad City” to commence your NYC accent education. You can also listen to radio stations and podcasts by New Yorkers and check out a variety of dialects within the accent on the International Dialects of English Archive.
2. Immerse yourself in the accent
If possible, there’s no better way to learn an accent than immersing yourself in it by spending some time in the city. You may find that you pick up some linguistic nuances without even trying. If you can’t make it to New York, voice and dialect coach Rebecca Gausnell suggests playing a sample talker in one earbud, very low.
“You kind of create a café effect,” she says. “You know when you’re in a café and all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Why do I sound Scottish? Oh, I was sitting next to a Scottish person.’ We do tend to mold our accents, some people more than others, into someone else’s. So if you have that running through your ear, very quietly, of someone speaking in the accent, that will help pull you back into it.”
Practice your accent as much as possible. According to dialect coach Paul Meier, repetition is the key to success. “It’s got to be habitual and instinctive by the point at which you commit to a performance,” he says. Meier recommends practicing the accent with a text you know very well, over and over, until “you find what it takes to not think anymore about the accent.”
4. Warm up
Give your New York best for the full day leading up to your audition or performance. Run through a few diction and articulation exercises in the accent. Familiarizing yourself with the physical aspects of how the accent feels will best prepare you when it comes down to it.
5. Consistency is key
Even if you accidentally pronounce a few “r” sounds where you shouldn’t or sound more like a caricature of a New Yorker than a real one, don’t give up—steadiness is the right idear.
“Paid in Full” Courtesy Miramax
- Don’t go overboard: West Coast–bred actors often think if they remember to drop a few r’s at the ends of words, they’re home free. Or they go to the opposite extreme: “Da boidies choipin’ in da trees.” It’s enough to make a Brooklyn girl feel a little verklempt.
- Determine the dialect: Within the greater New York area are many dialects, each with its own traditional version of a New York dialect. After all, New York had at one time the biggest mix of immigrants in the United States, where regional accents developed and stuck. The Brooklyn accent varies from the Long Island accent and the Bronx accent, so it’s imperative that you figure out which dialect your character uses. Certain ones might employ what actor and dialect coach Lynne Soffer calls the intrusive “g,” as in “Lawn-Guy-lind” for “Long Island.” Others may mimic Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny” (“yoots” for “youths”) or Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker (“goils wearing poils and putting erl on their hair”). Dialect may also be determined by socioeconomic class and age. “The heaviest accent is blue-collar,” Soffer explains.
- Take advice from the experts: Soffer recommends John C. Wells’ series “Accents of English,” Jerry Blunt’s “Stage Dialects” and “More Stage Dialects,” and Lewis Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman’s “American Dialects.” She also advises hiring a coach. “But get up to speed before the first day’s shoot; otherwise your speech will change during the shoot.”
- Inhabit the character first, accent second: Finally, “the big thing with dialect is you have to be a human being,” Soffer says. “You have to find out where that New Yorker lives in your body, and believe it. There’s a point in coaching where I have to say to actors, ‘You don’t believe it. Stop trying to do the sounds right and start living the life.’ ”