Why There are Less New York Accents in Movies

The Brooklyn Bridge

Courtesy Ad Meskens

I hate how the mainstream media discusses dialects and accents. Journalists routinely fudge basic linguistic terminology, misquote experts, and indulge in all kinds of classist and/or racist assumptions.

Case in point is this article Academy Award filmmakers need to make movies with New York accent, in New York’s Daily News, which is a tie-in to the upcoming Academy Awards. The thrust of the piece is that are too many Boston accents in movies these days, Boston accents are annoying, and there should be more New York accents in movies.

Wow. It’s a wonder that print media is lagging behind the internet.

And yet this ridiculous editorial poses a valid question: why does it seem like there are so many Boston accents in films, and so few New York City accents?

Just a few decades ago, the opposite was true. In the 1970s, New York accents were everywhere (thanks to Pacino, DeNiro, et. al.). Likewise, I recall few films featuring the Boston accent until very recently. So what gives?

Here’s why I think New York accents are rare in movies these days:

1.) There just aren’t a lot of NYC accents in New York City anymore. It’s hardly a secret that the New York City dialect has mostly moved to the suburbs or to the further reaches of the Outer Boroughs (Canarsie, Bayside, etc.). In other words, it is becoming a suburban dialect. Those gritty New York dramas from the 70s are from a world long gone.

2.) It is hard to set crime dramas in a city without much crime. Local city dialects have usually appeared in films about crime. I’d say 75% of classic New York films feature crime as a central theme: On the Waterfront, The Godfather, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection. Now that New York City is one of the wealthiest and safest cities in North America, it’s not a goldmine for gritty crime sagas.

3.) The Jewish middle-class is leaving the city. Another big source of New York Accents in film was the Jewish Middle-Class. I’m thinking Woody Allen, Neil Simon, and others of their generation. Sadly, much of this contingent has left the city for the suburbs or, if they have stayed in the city, their children are likely to have much milder (or even non-existent) accents.

4.) There aren’t as many local actors. In the 1970’s it seemed like every other actor in films had a New York Accent. The most famous actor training programs in the country were in New York, and attracted lots of local talent from working-class backgrounds. Not nowadays. Almost all of these schools have long since fallen from prestige, replaced by academic graduate schools. Acting in New York has become a profession for the wealthy and educated. And with this change, actors with New York accents have become a rarity.

5.) The Classic New York accent has become stigmatized. Between The Jersey Shore, The Sopranos, and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, popular culture has not been kind to the accents of the tri-State area. (I realize these three examples take place in New Jersey, but that’s because many of the people on those shows are originally from New York).

6.) The rise of multi-cultural New York English. In the poorest communities of New York, something I vaguely term multi-cultural New York English has overtaken the traditional New York City dialect amongs younger generations. Features of African American Vernacular English have been adopted by young people of many backgrounds. New York English is waning fast in the inner-city.

So then, why is Boston English more common in films these days? In my mind it’s a result of various talents “making it big.” There are now several Boston actors who have become major players in Hollywood (Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon) in addition to a Boston author (Dennis Lehane) who has become one of the biggest providers of source material for crime films. I don’t think there is any sudden affection for Beantown amongst Hollywood producers.

It’s interesting, though, how accents go in and out of “popularity” in film. Can you think of any others?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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9 Responses to Why There are Less New York Accents in Movies

  1. Aaron Bauman says:

    Am I mis-remembering old-timey movies where the rich white folks spoke a vaguely British accents? Somewhere between proper British and upper-class Southern. Maybe I’m over-generalizing from thinking of Gone with the Wind.

    You can probably put more appropriate monikers on my layman’s descriptions.

    • trawicks says:

      Nope, you’re not misremembering! Before the 1950’s, Hollywood actors were often trained in something called “mid-Atlantic” English (not to be confused with the other usage of “mid-Atlantic English,” which describes the local accent in Philly). Basically, it just meant all those starlets who arrived in Hollywood from Iowa were taught to speak with a vaguely British accent by studio “elocution” coaches. That is why Joan Crawford spoke like an aristocratic heiress even though she grew up in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

      • John Cowan says:

        Indeed, some of its features were completely unknown to humankind, notably the use of /ɑə/ ~ /aə/ in START words as contrasted with /ɑ/ in BATH = PALM words. No accent that I know of uses /ɑə/ for anything.

        • dw says:

          Edith Skinner’s “Speak With Distinction” went even further, prescribing /ɑə/ for START, /ɑ:/ for PALM and /a/ for BATH. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Theater_Standard.

          No accent that I know of uses /ɑə/ for anything.

          Wells mentions /ɑə/ for START/PALM in New York. Perhaps this is no longer accurate? Before nasals and /l/, /ɑ:/ often sounds to me like [ɑə].

  2. Trey Jones says:

    Why are there fewer instances of “fewer” nowadays in headlines dealing with count nouns?

  3. John Cowan says:

    As someone who comes from just outside the isogloss bundle, but who has been a NYC resident for 30+ years, I certainly agree that certain features of the NYC accent are receding. I meet a CHOICE-PRICE merger speaker perhaps once a week, most of them over 60. But the accent as a whole is still with us. My daughter (born 1987) has significant features of it, though also of AAVE (she’s a person of color, though I am not), and the five people in my household have five different accents.

    As for stigma, the NYC accent has always been stigmatized. The Boston accent spread to half of Massachusetts, though it has receded from its 19th-century limits. The NYC accent has never got beyond Jersey City (there are people in my native state who use it).

    • trawicks says:

      I think the New York accent is still very much alive, but more prevalent in suburban or low density areas of the region. Further into the city, I find that it’s being swallowed by either GenAm or AAVE. When I’ve gone to Nassau County, deep Brooklyn, or Staten Island, I’ve heard the accent all around me in a way that I don’t in neighborhoods closer to Manhattan.

  4. Salamander says:

    Boston accents may be more prevalent in the movies these days, but they are not generally very convincing.

    I grew up in Connecticut, just over the state line from New York, so I’m pretty familiar with Noo Yawk accents. Generally the New York accents I’ve heard in movies and on TV have been accurate.

    Now that I’ve been in Boston for twelve years, I am keenly aware of just how bad most actors are at Boston accents. Though in their defense, it is a difficult accent to master. I’m one of those people who picks up accents unconsciously, just from talking to people, and it’s taken me the better part of a decade to get even a faint Nawth Shoah (North Shore) accent. It is really one of the strangest accents I’ve ever heard.

  5. vypr1 says:

    this must fave been written buy a new yorker “The thrust of the piece is that are too many Boston accents in movies these days, Boston accents are annoying, and there should be more New York accents in movies” thow the statement of boston accents being annoying is true. saying they’re arnt enuff ny accents is stupid….pic up any gangster film set in ny