As a voiceover artist one of the first things you learn is to get rid of any regionalisms, (which is how a person speaks based on location), and speak in a Neutral North American accent (provided you are an American) as this is considered Standard American English in broadcasting. When you use a neutral North American accent in voiceover it generally means you can’t tell where the person is from, which is often preferable for voice-over castings, video productions, TV, film, commercials, e-learning and more! But things are changing and sometimes casting directors do want a talent from a certain location and it’s okay to have regionalisms, and in fact it’s preferred, depending on where the spot is going to air. For example a spot airing in NYC might not want a Southern accent unless of course, the character requires it for the role.
Full disclosure, while I’ve lived in New York City for decades, I grew up in the Metropolitan New York/New Jersey area. My parents are from a mixed marriage, my mother was from Brooklyn and my father from the Bronx. I definitely learned about a New York point of view from my parents while growing up in my suburban New Jersey town.
So what exactly is a New York accent?
photo: ©Nancy Kaszerman
Of course, the most common stereotypes you hear about is ‘Fuhgeddaboudit’ said by Tony Soprano. Except, Tony Soprano was actually from New Jersey. New Jersey itself has several different accents. The Metropolitan area which includes North Jersey resembling New York City, and South Jersey emulating a Philadelphia accent. So much so, that depending on where your New Jersey accent is from may determine the football team you root for with South Jersey generally preferring the Eagles and North Jersey the Giants or maybe the Jets.
Actually, linguists say there is no such thing as a New York accent. It’s more about community. Staten Island, which is the least diverse, is considered the strongest accent. But things are changing with immigrants and transplants from all over the country and the world. New York accents come from a variety of communities including Jewish, Eastern European, Italian, Irish, West Indian, South American, Asian and more!
Wanna cuppa CAWFEE…
In the past, New Yorkers typically use non-rhotic English, which is dropping the ‘R’s’ before a consonant, like in Watta for Water or Doctah for Doctor, however sometimes older New Yorkers might add an R ’s at the end of words like in ‘ideaR.’ The old 1930’s Thoity Thoid and Thoid Street which means 33rd street just doesn’t exist anymore. There are extended diphthongs, dat’s instead of that, and a musicality to classic New York accents. However, there are people more experienced than I who can write about nuanced speech patterns. What interests me, is a New York frame of mind. An in-your-face, boisterous, not taking any crap attitude encompassed in the lyric from the Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’ song ‘If you can make it here you can make it anywhere’ or Jay-Z’s and Alicia Keys love letter to New York ‘Empire State of Mind.’
So what is a New York attitude?
Nowadays, New York is less influenced by accent as in the past due to the influx of people wanting to live in NYC, who come from all over. Rather the New York sound is more affected by attitude. Typically, New Yorkers talk in fast
staccato sentences, quick with an opinion, are pretty confident we are right, resilient, fighters, and tough. New Yorkers are well read so we speak from a certitude based on experience. We know the best spot for pizza, bagels, route to get to the West side. New Yorkers are not rude, but might have an edge. We will speak up for ourselves and love a good debate based on facts.
That’s nice & all but what does that have to do with VoiceOver?
First off, voiceover is all about having an opinion and New Yorkers certainly have one. You won’t hear upspeak or uncertainty from a New Yorker. Sometimes a voice-over needs to sound like it’s from the place the client’s audience is targeting. For example, if the audience is in California you might have a more slower relaxed, chill delivery than an assertive New Yorker. Neither is necessarily better than the other. It’s just a very specific point of view that can help convey the message and audience the client is targeting. Many radio spots, for example, are targeted to regions like the New York Metro Region, which is very different from South Jersey, as previously mentioned above.
photo: Robert De Niro ©Nancy Kaszerman
As a VoiceOver artist and actor, unless the role is a character role like Joe Pesci in ‘Goodfellas’, Rosie Perez in ‘Do The Right Thing’ or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver ‘You talkin' to me?’, you will want to focus on attitude and meaning as opposed to ‘a New York sound.’ A little swagger works, a little in your face, and a tender heart behind the tough exterior. TV shows like ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Gossip Girl’ which filmed all over the city portrayed the elite upscale persona of NYC but used virtually no distinguishable accent.
You don’t have to live in New York to have the attitude, but it helps.
Photo: ©Nancy Kaszerman
Nowadays people want the real thing, even in a seemingly innocuous spot. Same reason, you wouldn’t hire a NY’er for a Texas commercial. If the spot is local, advertising agencies prefer to use regional people for an authentic vibe. That doesn’t mean a New Yorker can't voice a spot for a Texas company and vice versa, but then it's generally preferred to have a neutral North American sound where you can't tell where the talent is located. There is room for all sounds, but is it important to know when an attitude or accent can serve the client’s goal or take away.
Photo: Columbus Circle ©Nancy Kaszerman
A famous acting quote by director Sidney Lumet: ‘In Hollywood actors learn to act from watching television. In New York people learn by walking down the street.’ I would add by riding the subway too.
Just for fun - a few New York movie moments:
photo: Barbra Streisand ©Nancy Kaszerman
Hey I’m walkin’ here’ uttered by Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy by actor Dustin Hoffman, is a quintessential New York moment. Translation: Get out of my way.
Barbra Streisand in ‘Funny Girl’ where she plays vaudeville actress Fanny Brice singing ‘Don’t Rain on my Parade.’ Yes, the movie was filmed mostly in Los Angeles but it’s straight outta Brooklyn.
On the Town, one of my favorite musicals with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin romance their way all over town during a 24-hour shore leave pass, joyfully singing ‘The Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down. The people ride in a hole in the ground. New York, New York, it’s a wonderful town.’
Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good,” which encapsulates the 1980’s YUPPIE movement.
When using a New York voiceover, sometimes it's the accent, but generally that’s more for a specific character. You need to know how to take an accent out of your toolbox if that’s your thing, but more often then not it's all about attitude.
What about you? Have any favorite New York movies or TV moments? Which is more prevalent? Accent, attitude or both? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
If you want to learn more about the New York accent and attitude I recommend a great documentary film on Amazon Prime called “If These Knishes Could Talk: The Story of the New York Accent.’
Nancy Kaszerman is a professional voice talent for over 10 years and is located in NYC. Please feel free to comment, ask a question and connect on social media.
Nancy Kaszerman is a VoiceOver artist and lives in New York City.