Meet Barbara Mensch, a photographer and writer, reminiscing about her Sheepshead Bay upbringing in If These Knishes Could Talk, a recent documentary about the New York accent, directed by filmmaker Heather Quinlan.

“Everyone in my family was loud. It was just normal to speak loud… Loud-ly,” Mensch says, correcting herself. “It was just this experience of being in Brooklyn that was just so intense.”

“I met Barbara in the Seaport when she had just published a book of photography, ‘South Street,’ about the Fish Market in the ’80s,” Quinlan told Sheepshead Bites. “I met her at a signing at Jack’s Stir Brew on Front Street, which is also where I ended up filming the dinner scene.”

At that dinner scene, Mensch talked accents with three New York City “wise guys,” one of whom recalled his often violent childhood in Little Italy and an observant neighborhood kid name Marty Scorsese.

With most of her “Rs” and “THs” intact, Mensch’s accent may not sound like signature Brooklyn. But, as it turns out, genuine New York accent has less to do with specific parts of the city and more with ethnic influences and local culture. That’s how a kid named Ben, also in the film, born in Korea and raised in Staten Island, grew up to sound like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

If These Knishes Could Talk is also a story of change and gentrification. Always in demographic flux, New York could soon end up without its trademark accent as those who speak with it age or get priced out of the city.

“Word on the street is the New York accent is disappearing,” Quinlan says. “A casualty of a city that’s evolved into a vast expanse of banks, H&Ms and glass-blown high-rises.”

In the film, Quinlan discusses this with an illustrious cast of New Yorkers, among them actors Pat Cooper, Penny Marshall, and Joe Franklin, fimmaker Amy Heckerling, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, writers Pete Hamil and James McBride, and many others.

If These Knishes Could Talk is available on DVD from Amazon. Check out the film trailer for more.

– Steven Volynets

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  • WatchingAndReporting

    “Word on the street is the New York accent is disappearing,” Quinlan
    says. “A casualty of a city that’s evolved into a vast expanse of banks,
    H&Ms and glass-blown high-rises.”

    No Heather, the accent is disappearing because times change. It’s not a casualty of anything. New accents, mannerisms, attitudes, and ways of thinking will develop with the new wave of immigrants that came during the turn of the century and one day those customs will also fade away.

  • I Love Old New York

    New York nowadays is nothing more than a part of the one-the same, “same town” socialized america. Much of New York’s new population are either foreign immigrants or transplants (hipsters) from california or the midwest who have no real ties or allegiance to the New York of the past. I miss the old common New York accent and the griminess of New York’s past. A little dirt, a little sloppiness and imperfections are healthy. Too much cleanliness, and too much gentrification are unnatural and boring. I cannot stomach that sing-songy ultra clear speech that many new yorkers have now adopted

    • Supporter of LeftHand Rule

      I knew we lost the culinary culture war when Dominoes was able to open and thrive on Nostrand Av followed by Papa John’s. If IHOP can make it on 14 Street and in SoHo, how can you expect any local luncheonette or pizza parlor to be around in the year 2525? We will consider “The Bowery Boys” with Leo Gorcey (aka Slip Mahoney) as a documentary in 50 years. Anyways, it was a great ride.

  • Subway Stinker

    I watched the four minute trailer. It is hilarious. She is a real mensch.

  • EndofDaze

    That’s a woman?! At first glances, I thought it was a man with long hair! Then again, mensch are men anyway… Oh, well…

  • joe

    The accents are disappering because all the native New Yorkers abandoned the neighborhood that raised them and packed up and left for the suburbs

    • Supporter of LeftHand Rule

      Message to Joe, The accents and NYC dialect is re-appearing as the native children of the Baby Boomers who fled the City during the era of White Flight are returning to the neighborhoods like Williamsburgh and Red Hook and Astoria. They have packed up from the Suburbs and have moved back to NYC. You don’t believe me??? Ask Spike Lee. Before long, you will think that Myron Cohen has returned.