EAST VILLAGE — Think you know the New York City accent? Think again.
There’s no such thing as a Brooklyn accent, a Bronx accent or any other borough-specific accent, according to the organizers of “Mother Tongues,” an upcoming exhibition at City Lore that focuses on languages in New York City.
"The NYC accent is not geographically specific," said Abby Ronner, City Lore's gallery director. "Oftentimes people think that there's a Brooklyn accent, there’s a Manhattan accent, there’s a Bronx accent, but it’s not related necessarily to the geography of those speakers. What it’s related to is the cultures that reside within those boroughs."
LISTEN: City Lore shared audio clips of three variations on the New York City accent, which will be featured in "Mother Tongues" but didn't reveal the speakers' backgrounds. Can you guess the cultures that influenced each speaker's accent?
The various types of New York City accents are a main focus of “Mother Tongues,” an interactive exhibition that highlights several “endangered” languages spoken by residents.
Like many of the estimated 800 languages spoken in the city, the accent — which has been influenced by the city’s many ethnic groups — is in decline as speakers move towards a “standard dialect,” similar to the way newscasters speak, said linguist Daniel Kaufman, the founder and executive director of the Endangered Language Alliance, which organized the exhibition with City Lore and Bowery Arts + Sciences.
Visitors can hear the different accents and try to guess the speakers' cultural background using clips from the documentary “If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent,” as well as a information provided at the exhibition, Ronner said.
The activity is an access point to the exhibition’s larger theme of endangered languages and the cultural loss that occurs when a particular language is no longer used, organizers said.
A language becomes “endangered” when it loses speakers because it is not being passed down to the next generation, Kaufman said.
“A language can have a million speakers, but if it is not being transmitted to children it will disappear in just a single generation,” he said. Several factors, like industrialization and ethnic discrimination, can influence a language’s “transmission pattern,” he added.
“Mother Tongues” will also include a section called “Meet the Speaker” which will allow visitors to hear some of the endangered languages spoken in the city, accompanied by information about the cultures behind them.
Visitors can also play games in the exhibition’s “Language Laboratory” to learn the linguistic patterns of some languages or add a line to the “Khonsay,” a multilingual poem.
Ronner and Kaufman said they hope to raise awareness about the city’s endangered languages as well as its linguistic diversity.
“When people talk about [the] languages of NYC, they talk about Spanish, Russian, Chinese [and] Yiddish but they have no idea about the many indigenous Mexican languages spoken in Corona, or…Garifuna that's spoken in the South Bronx, Darfurian languages that are spoken in Kensington, or the languages of the Himalayas now spoken in Woodside,” Kaufman said.
“It's those languages and their speakers that make NYC unique.”
“Mother Tongues” opens on Jan. 29 and will through April 16 at City Lore, 56 E. First St., with related events in between. Gallery hours are 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and noon to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Click here for more information.