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New York Is Losing The Accent That Gave It 'Toidy-Toid Street'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You can tell which city some people are from as soon as they say...

DONALD SEMENZA: Come on, forget about it. What are you, serious? You didn't think I know that? Of course I know that.

SIMON: That is not an actor, but a lifelong New Yorker, Donald Semenza. And linguists say the way he speaks makes him part of a vanishing breed. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains.

HANSI LO WANG: Heather Quinlan is accent-hunting at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal in Manhattan.

HEATHER QUINLAN: Do you have a New York accent? Then talk to me.

WANG: She's directed a film about the decline of many of New York's well-known accents. Here are some of the best examples we've heard in movies.

QUINLAN: Irish New York accent would be Jimmy Cagney.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JIMMY THE GENT")

JIMMY CAGNEY: (As Jimmy) Why, the dirty little rat. Did he squeal?

QUINLAN: Jewish, Woody Allen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ANNIE HALL")

WOODY ALLEN: (As Alvy Singer) You know, I was a reasonably happy kid, I guess. I was brought up in Brooklyn.

QUINLAN: Puerto Rican, Rosie Perez.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO THE RIGHT THING")

ROSIE PEREZ: (As Tina) Mookie, the last time I trusted you, we ended up with a son. Remember your son?

WANG: These iconic ways of speaking are becoming more rare, in particular, on the island of Manhattan, according to linguist Dan Kaufman. He curated a new exhibit about this at the City Lore Gallery. Kaufman says a big part of the reason these accents are fading is because more well-to-do outsiders are moving into Manhattan proper.

DAN KAUFMAN: Wealthy people, or middle-class people even, from all over the country speak quite similarly to each other. Working-class people really are the ones who maintain the local dialects.

WANG: Kaufman adds, social pressure to sound more like Middle America has flattened out many accents.

KAUFMAN: People used to say Thoity-Thoid (ph) Street for 33rd Street, goil (ph) for girl in New York City English. And that is actually almost completely dead.

WANG: Well, not quite, says 79-year-old Donald Semenza.

SEMENZA: Yeah, my name's Donald Semenza. I was born in 1934 in New York City. I was born in a place called Greenwich Village.

WANG: Semenza's accent is typical of many of his generation who grew up in working-class Italian-American neighborhoods in Manhattan. It's a way of speaking that he says may have put him at a disadvantage when he worked with stockbrokers with middle-class accents on Wall Street.

SEMENZA: I could read the look of their face like, (laughter), where is this guy coming from? So, a person may view me as a person who can't think. I think that's a mistake 'cause I know how to think.

WANG: Semenza says he's proud of his accent - one his daughters, he adds, didn't pick up.

SEMENZA: If no one ever speaks like me again, who cares? There's always a time to move on. Cultures change. Traditions change.

WANG: Semenza says he's looking forward to hearing other immigrant communities redefine the New York accent that had been prevalent in neighborhoods in Manhattan. But on the island, linguists say, the high costs of living are keeping many immigrants and other newcomers away. That's cutting off new accents before they can emerge and pushing them into the outer boroughs.

Back at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, filmmaker Heather Quinlan says that New York's accents aren't defined by specific neighborhoods.

QUINLAN: What differentiates the accents is not geographic so much, especially nowadays 'cause people don't stay put in one neighborhood their whole lives. It's ethnic.

WANG: Scott Jon of Brooklyn says today you're more likely to find strong New York accents if you leave Manhattan, or even the state.

SCOTT JON: 'Cause all the people that have New York accents, they're moving away. My sisters moved to New Jersey and all my friends are moving to New Jersey. So their kids talk differently, they pronounce the R's now.

WANG: A change that worries Valerie Lauda from the Bronx, who says she's sad that the accent is fading.

VALERIE LAUDA: We need to save it 'cause it's so distinct. You could go anywhere in the country and tell, hey, that's a New Yorker, no doubt.

WANG: And that is a sound of a New Yorker, at least for now. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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