Bill the Butcher and the origin of the "Brooklyn accent."

I watched Gangs of New York last night and thought that “Bill the Butcher,” (the character played by D.D. Lewis) had an accent similar to today’s Brooklyn accent. I looked him up on Google and found that he was born in New Jersey to English parents. He was the only character in the movie that had such an accent (though most other characters were Irish anyway). Is there any known history of the development of such a localized accent? Was there some language that lent itself to that “mutation” and started the trend?

Linguistics 101

Also, Yiddish. But that was much later:



The 2 most common examples of ‘classic’ Brooklynese noted by linguists:

Bugs Bunny
Groucho Marx

for UK dopers,
i couldnt help get reminded of kinky john off of the barons nightclub sketches in one of the reeves & mortimer shows on the BBC a couple of years back. day lewis speaks exactly like him as bill the butcher, and im not doubting his acting, cos its excellent, but it kind of stops you from taking him seriously in the film
“whaarh, gemme a bol o JDs der, hong kong tony”

There aren’t any details about how it was done, but the imdb says

Perhaps the DVD will have more information on how they developed the various accents.

Thanks Annaplurabelle, for the site and rundown. Good stuff.

Something that has puzzled me: the use of “youse” for “you.” As in “youse guys.”
De Niro in “Raging Bull;” “I’ll discuss it wit the two a youse later.”
It occurs to me that “youse” is being used as a plural “you,” which does not exist in English (“you” standing in for singular or plural"). So then it might have come from a language that has a plural form of “you.”

Is there a plural “you” in Dutch?

There is in Hiberno- (Irish-) English, which also tends to pronounce TH as D.

Sorry, that should read “as D or T” (depending on context).

I know I’ve posted this on these boards before, but the filmakers used old newspaper articles written in dialect and a rare recording of Walt Whitman to help make up the accent. And they say that Whitman’s accent was very close to classic Brooklynese.

It puzzles me that the wave of Irish immigration is considered to have had no influence on the New York AE dialect. How can this be?
Another quote from my original cite: That’s Linguistics 201 - sorry!

It does credit Appalachian English to the Scots-Irish , but they were English speaking Anglo Saxons, not Celts.


I wouldn’t trust you site Linguistics 201 too much. A quick perusal indicates that the person who wrote the glurge about “Life in the Middle Ages” may have also helped to co-author your site.

It repeats bullshit phrase etymologies such as


These are obviously written by a graduate student or less who merely read internet ramblings which aren’t true.

I don’t mean to impune everything from that site, but how can you trust anything they say when the give out so much false information?

And I"ve only cited the first few obvious examples of false etymology.

I’m going to go with the Dutch influence for $300, Alex. I’m from further up the Hudson River, where a goodly percentage of place-names are Dutch; in fact, I grew up near to where Hendrick Hudson parked his boat. There is not really a particular accent associated with this region, but in the city of Hudson and the surrounding areas slightly to the south of me there is a definite tendency to use the Brooklyn-sounding “d” for “th” substitution and similar Dutch-influenced phonemes. (Hopefully phoneme is the word I’m looking for here…) This is mostly found among the lower classes, since most people think it sounds uneducated and most of the people of my acquaintance who naturally possess that accent make a conscious effort not to use it in their regular speech. (It tends to slip out when they are tired, drunk, or very excited - when they’re not paying attention to how they speak. I even do it myself, to a lesser extent, mostly with the word “dat.”)

I Sing Da Body Electric.
Da armies of dose I love engoit me, and I engoit dem;
Dey will not let me off till I go wit dem, respond to dem,
And discorrupt dem, and charge dem full with the charge of da Soul.

No - please - impune away. Thanks for noting it.
I’d already known about the Dutch and Yiddish influences (I still stand by those), and just googled that site/cite as a net source. After reading through it, I’d have to agree with you. Still trying to find a vetted net source for more info on the Irish influence - I can’t accept the assertion that it had ‘little effect’, although I’ve never found anything that mentions it in any detail. Any Gaelic-savvy linguists on here?

BTW, Groucho’s not from Brooklyn, either (close, but no cigar!).
Bugs Bunny could pass…


Shit, where’s Coldfire when he’s really needed? :stuck_out_tongue:

But if the explanation given earlier, that the Brooklyn accent derives from the Dutch heritage of early New Yorkers, then it stands to eason that a native New orker would’ve had a Brooklyn accent even in the 19th Century. In fact, if anything, I’ll bet it would be even stronger, formal education in English not being such a big priority in those days.

Satisfying Andy Licious said

I think the youse is used in more places than just Brooklyn. But, anyway, I think the youse was just invented to fill in English’s lack separate forms of you for plural and singular. It’s nothing more than you plus the plural s.

My family would say “Yous” or more often “you guys” and we came from Hell’s Kitchen (Manhattan, or as we pronounced it “manhaddin.” My swag on yous is that is not an English variation, but rather a common mistake that non - English speakers made. If their native tongue had a distinct second person plural, and they were struggling, they may have simply made you plural by adding that “s.” That could have caught on whenever someone couldn’t remember or accept that the you is the same for the singular and plural. In college (thirty years ago) my speech professor could more often than not tell which of us came from borough. She gave credit to German and Irish for the biggest contributors to the NYC accents.

That’s a bit self-contradictory, isn’t it? If the Irish began to adopt English in the 18th or 19th century then presumably a fair number of them would have spoken it by the mid-1800s. In fact, I have in front of me a linguistic map of the 1851 census of Ireland which shows over half of the country to be less than 25% Irish speaking, and roughly over 3/4 of the remaining half to be less than 80% Irish speaking (sorry to bury you in percentages there, but you get the point). Even in the areas where Irish was the first language, most of the younger people - i.e., the people most likely to emigrate - would have been able to speak English by the mid 1800s.

That said, I have no idea how much influence they had on American dialects.