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How to Do a New York Accent

Jan 22, 2021
new york accent

“New York, New York it’s a helluva town!” Leonard Bernstein may have been onto something: the New York City accent is one of the most unique yet recognizable accents in the entire world. It’s also an accent that is highly in demand in film and television. Some of the most famous performances of all time have included a New York City accent including Rosie Perez in Do the Right Thing, Margot Robbie in Wolf of Wall Street, and Meryl Streep in Doubt. Not to mention the long line of classic Hollywood films set in New York: American Psycho, Goodfellas, The Godfather … Indeed, Hollywood has a true love affair with the Big Apple. 

And it’s a really fun accent to do once you get it right! But there are some things to watch out for along the way: 

  • Because the accent is so well known it’s very easy to slip into caricature. As an actor you typically want to be playing a real human being, not a stereotype. 
  • The accent is not at all consistent with the ‘rules’ so knowing how to work with the inconsistencies is key. 
  • The accent varies wildly between neighborhoods, ethnic groups, class divisions, and even the time period. It’s a common mistake to do the ‘wrong’ New York accent for the character! 

What’s amazing is that the New York accent is so recognizable yet it’s an accent only confined to the city limits. It’s true, New York City has its own unique sound and there’s nothing else like it.  

Read on for tips to perfecting your New York accent like Natasha Lyonne, Lin Manuel Miranda, Jay-Z, Larry David, Cardi B, and Leah Remini. 

The Mouth

Overall the New York City accent tends to sit in the lower jaw. It may help to feel like you’re holding something in your lower jaw in order to access this sensation. I like imagining that I’m holding a caramel in my mouth, but create your own images and sensations as your practice. There will also be quite a bit of movement in the lips, you can even feel as if the lips are helping to shape the sound. 

The Dropped R

The New York City accent is famous for dropping the consonant R. This means that the consonant R will not always be pronounced when it’s written. Try this out on words that end in -er:

The lawyer’s mother wrote him a letter asking him to start remembering her birthday. 

However, this is a bit of a pain point to the New York City accent, because there really is no consistency. Whereas most non-rhotic accents such as Cockney, Northern, or Australian follow a pattern where you only pronounce a consonant R before a vowel, New York City simply does not adhere to this rule. Sometimes the consonant R will be pronounced, sometimes it won’t! Chalk this up to the accent being surrounded by other American accents, which tend to be rhotic (pronouncing the consonant R everytime it’s written). 

For example, contemporary speakers typically pronounce the consonant R in words like NURSE: turn, word, curse, bird, etc. But watch out, because speakers from the early 1900s probably would not! Try this practice sentence:

The bird turned as he ate the worm. 

TH Changes to T & D 

Another change to watch out for is that the consonant TH might change to a T or a D for some New York speakers. This can result in:

  • Them sounding like Dem
  • There sounding like Dare
  • Those sounding like Doze

Again, a little goes a long way. I typically suggest that the actor feels as if the TH is happening on the back of the teeth as to not go overboard. Too much of a good thing can result in caricature, so a balance is key. 

Dealing with Vowels

Chocolate & Coffee

A key feature to the New York accent is the slight roundedness and off glide to the CLOTH & THOUGHT vowels: coffee, chocolate, bought, August, all, etc. Use your lips to round these sounds forward and to elongate and glide the vowels to sound typically New York. Try this out on a practice sentence: 

Give my daughter the orange juice because she doesn’t like the coffee. 

/ae/ as in TRAP

There will be a slight offglide to the /ae/ as in TRAP vowel also. This might feel like a light tensing in the back of your tongue and throat. Try this practice sentence:

What’s the matter with the cat? He looks sad. 

Nasal Twang

A little bit of a nasality can really enhance the big city feel. Indeed, many big city accents have a touch of nasality - think London, Manchester, and Chicago accents as well. This is theorized to be because all the background noise forced a nasal sound in order to cut through and be heard.

My top tip is to sense vibration in the nose, on the bridge of the nose and even on the cheek bones. Try focusing some vibration into this area as you say “Hey! Hey!” and then transition to “How are you, how are you, how are you today?”

But again - a little goes a long way! Slight nasality is good. Too much will send you all the way to Fran Drescher in The Nanny. 

The Music

The Music of the accent varies wildly between speakers, so it’s best to do your homework on this one to get it right. An Italian New Yorker’s accent may feel quite punchy, while a Jewish New Yorker might use a lot of pitch changes, almost gliding between the words. A Spanish speaker such as the famous Boricans will merge parts of their Spanish into English, and an African American speaker might be working with both AAVE and New York City qualities to their accent. 

The glue that holds all of these groups together is the tendency to speak quickly, and the tendency to speak loudly. In fast, you may want to try raising the volume a bit on each word that you stress. This gives a real front-footed feel to this accent, and may be something to incorporate into character. 

Accent Examples

Here are a few examples to get you started. I’ve include a range of New Yorkers from all boroughs, varying ages, and from different walks of life:

Who Won The Best New York Accent Contest? | NYT News

Natasha Lyonne: Say Anything

 Welcome to the Bronx

 Governor Cuomo 

 Do You Have to Speak Spanish to Be Latino?

Master the Accent

The best way to master any accent is to listen, listen, listen. Get your ears on as many real-life New York City podcasts, recordings, and interviews. Then start to mimic. You can start slowly at first, but speaking aloud is key here. It’s necessary to take the accent on the road a bit so the more practice you have, the better. 

If you want to really perfect the accent, the easiest way to do that is with a dialect coach. A coach will be able to point you in the right direction and give you specific actionable tips personal to YOU. Even 1 hour can point you in the right direction. You can find more info about 1:1 sessions with me.

Happy practicing!

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