Back in the day, being a Know Nothing meant something in NYC, and we weren’t afraid to say it. I’m talking about New Yorkese as spoken before the war, as in the Civil War.
Just as NYC.gov layers our potholed streets with more tar year after year, so is the palimpsest of our language laid down again and again by each generation of New Yorkers.
In previous posts, we’ve listened in on New York dialects as spoken in the past. First we heard the transatlantic accent favored by Hollywood stars and political elites in the age of black-and-white celluloid, now almost extinct. Then we listened in on those holdovers who spoke a dialect from the age before electricity, the language of persuasion used to declaim upon the floorboards in the gaslit New York of the late 19th century.
But as any projectionist knows, once we hear the slap, slap, slap of the lead strip, the rewind is over. The voices of those who spoke before are silenced.
Greater effort is required to fathom the language spoken on these streets before cinema was a glint in Edison’s eye.
Scorsese’s tour de force, Gangs of New York, is the dream of a city that sleeps with the cobblestones underneath a century and a half of macadam. Daniel Day Lewis’s performance as Butcher Bill is a masterful performance that brings the oldest documented evidence of old New York dialect to life. Watch out, though, it’s pure butchery.
For this epic, the dialect coaches were hard at work, and actors of various skills came up with something that no doubt approximated New Yorkese as spoken in 1850. But there is something about Lewis’s performance that jumps off the sound track, since it feels so right, based on four lines of the immortal Walt Whitman reading “America” onto a wax cylinder at the request of the Wizard of Menlo Park (aka Thomas Edison).
The recording from 1889 or 1890 “exhibits a quaint and subtle regional inflection—a soft mix of Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of the contemporary New York accent.”
Listen here and tell me what you think. Whitman, born in Brooklyn, preferred to spend his leisure time in the Bowery, a tough neighborhood, an entertainment district full of cheap theaters and whorehouses, a low-brow version of Broadway before Broadway existed, a world devoted to the amusements of young men called “Soaplocks” for their extravagant sideburns, on streets ruled by the gangs of New York, Irish and Yankee, with knife and fist.
Whitman spoke their language, and we can hear it, at least a snippet of it, in the voice of an old man, as spoken almost two centuries ago.