Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Locals and Linguists Argue that Notorious Queens Accent is Fading Away by BY Leigh Remizowski - NY Daily News

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Fran Drescher, who's title character was a hit on 'The Nanny,' once called the Queens accent 'melodic and mellifluous, with just a hint of nasality.' Corkery/News

There's a slew of ways to prove you're from Queens. Maybe you're a die-hard Mets fan, or you've perfected the art of crossing Queens Blvd., or you recognize the Unisphere from a mile away.

But one thing that won't prove you hail from the borough is the way you speak, insist experts and some notable Queens natives. That, or the Queens English is fast becoming a dead dialect.

"No offense to my brothers and sisters in Queens who feel that there is [a Queens accent], but I really don't think so," said Forest Hills-born actor Hank Azaria.

"I didn't hear it, and I have a pretty sensitive ear," said Azaria, a chameleon of diction who voices several of the characters on "The Simpsons."

But some locals beg to differ.

"I would say I have a Queens accent," said Frank Barone, 62, a cobbler who has lived in Astoria for 44 years. "We all speak New York slang, but there's a slight difference between boroughs."

Despite the fact that proud locals insist their borough has its own dialect - with drawn-out vowels and a distinct nasal sound - it's just a run-of-the-mill New York accent you're hearing on the streets of Queens, said the city's top linguists.

"People claim that there is a difference, but no one has been able to show it," said Michael Newman, a linguist and Queens College professor.

The idea of a Queens-specific accent originates with people like "All in the Family" character Archie Bunker or actress Fran Drescher, he said.

"It's not an accurate description of the way people in Queens talk," Newman said, calling Drescher's distinct nasal twang "the classic New York accent."

Drescher, who grew up in Flushing, disagreed.

Her title character on the hit '90s TV sitcom "The Nanny" also hails from Queens. Drescher called the Queens accent "melodic and mellifluous, with just a hint of nasality."

Life-long Astoria resident Panayiota Pharos said only Queens insiders can detect the borough's signature dialect because it's so subtle.

"It's not so different from a generic New York accent," said Pharos, 30. "Words just take a little longer to come out."

Most linguists said the accent that Queens natives call their own has less to do with location and more to do with other factors.

"It's influenced by ethnic groups, the people in the neighborhood around you and the social group you hang out with," said dialect coach Amy Stoller, who said teaching the Queens accent is one and the same with teaching a New York accent.

"You think you have a Queens accent because you want to believe you have a Queens accent," she said.

This desire has something to do with "positive local identity," said Kara Becker, a doctoral candidate at New York University, who has studied the New York accent on the lower East Side.

"It may be a pride in your borough," she said, adding that people are actually just hearing the different speech patterns of different social classes.

"It makes sense to associate the New York accent with the outer boroughs because there are more working-class people there," Becker said of the accent that has traditionally been associated with white, working-class immigrants.

Andreas Charalambous, 71, said whichever it is - a Queens-specific or a general New York accent - it's disappearing.

"The new generation has less of an accent," said Charalambous, who has lived in Queens for 50 years.

Some experts say the New York accent is shifting to Long Island, and others believe it is just evolving.

"It's not disappearing altogether," said George Jochnowitz, a linguistics professor at the College of Staten Island. For example, he said, fewer people are dropping the "r" at the end of words like "butter" and "father."

"Accents change, that's part of the world," Jochnowitz said.