Updated: Nov 28, 2022
For any actor who wants to convincingly talk like they’re from New Jersey, it can be confusing to figure out how to speak like a native. While the most well-known Garden State accent is the stereotypical mafioso you’d find in “The Sopranos” and “My Cousin Vinny,” New Jersey actually has a diverse mix of accents that vary based on region, ethnicity, and several other factors.
In this guide, learn how to decipher the differences between a North and South Jersey accent, how to speak as a Jersey native versus someone from New York, and helpful tips for pronunciation and proper jaw alignment. Get tripped up over a request for a New Jersey accent again? Fuggedaboutit.
New Jersey accent variations
Accents are always evolving based on changing populations, and New Jersey is no exception. There are many distinct features to New Jersey accents that change based on what part of the state you’re in. According to dialect coach Joel Goldes, these nuances can be so specific that it’s been argued it’s possible to pinpoint the “exact Turnpike exit someone is from” based on their unique accent. Overall, most New Jersey accents can be classified into two subsections—North Jersey and South Jersey—which are both nearly identical to the regional dialects of their closest major cities, New York and Philadelphia, respectively.
Northern New Jersey accent
At a basic level, most speech coaches and linguists agree that a northern New Jersey accent is strikingly similar to a New York City accent, likely due to the region’s proximity to NYC. This is the “Jersey accent” most people are familiar with due to Italian-American stereotypes in TV and film, such as Dustin Hoffman’s famous line “I’m walkin’ he-yuh!” in “Midnight Cowboy.”
Southern New Jersey accents
Not quite as well-known, the South Jersey accent features a long “o” that turns words such as “home” into something like “heh-oom.” The South Jersey accent closely mimics the voices you’d hear in Philadelphia, which is just across the Delaware River. In this accent, words sometimes run together resulting in questions such as “Did you eat?” becoming “jeet?” For example, look no further than Kate Winslet’s pinpoint dialect in “Mare of Easttown.”
New Jersey accent features
Rhoticity and the lack of the “r” sound: Most native American English speakers pronounce the letter “r” when it occurs at the end of a word (as in “floor”) and before consonants (as in “fourth”). This is called rhotic dialect, or “r-coloring.” However, someone with a traditional or classic northern New Jersey accent is likely to drop the pronunciation of an “r” both at the end of a word (“butter” becomes “buttah”) and between vowels (“here” becomes “he-uh”). This is called non-rhotic dialect. You can hear Marisa Tomei use it in “My Cousin Vinny” when she explains the proper ignition timings of a Chevy “64” as “sixty-foe-ah.”
Diphthongs: When you pronounce two vowel sounds together in one syllable, that’s a diphthong—a practice much more common in a North Jersey accent. In southern New Jersey you’d order “coffee,” but head north and you might hear “caw-uh-fee,” with the “aw-uh” sound blended together. (Say it quickly.) According to NYU linguist Laurel MacKenzie, that “awe” pronunciation is one of the biggest distinctions between North and South New Jersey—in northern New Jersey, for example, “talk” will sound like “tawlk.”
Split “a” vowels: MacKenzie also notes that a northern New Jersey (and typical New York) accent can sometimes feature a split when it comes to pronouncing an “aaah” vowel sound. For example, “cat” and “cab”—both one-syllable words—can sound like “kee-at” or “kee-ab.”
That “o”: The way a New Jersey native pronounces a long “o” sound says a lot about the part of the state they’re from. In South Jersey accents, the “o” begins farther forward in the mouth; local speakers might start with an “eh” sound like in the word “dress” before shifting their mouth to use the unstressed “uh.” According to Goldes, this makes words such as “ocean” or “go” sound like “eh-oo-shun” or “guh-ooh.”
“D” for “th”: New Jersey native and Broadway actor George Kmeck tells us one of the biggest parts of losing his accent for roles was dropping the “lazy and fast” way of replacing the “th” sound at the beginning of a word with a “D” sound. “Those” and “these,” for example, become “dose” and “dese.”
How to practice a New Jersey accent
When practicing a New Jersey accent, pay careful attention to your lip placement
Round your mouth in an “o” shape
Keep your jaw open
Flatten your lips for the distinctive “o” sound
Keep your jaw closed and flat
Goldes suggests that, when practicing an unfamiliar accent, “listen for sounds that don’t occur in your natural accent.” Because the brain filters sounds of a new accent through the sounds of your original accent, pronounce any new sounds slowly and deliberately at first. This will allow your brain to form new neural pathways; you’ll be able to hear the new sounds both when you speak and when you listen to native speakers.
Voice and dialect coach Julie Foh says what helps her is talking or whispering along with a voice recording to pattern her speech and movement after what she’s hearing. “The more time you spend building muscle memory in an accent, it will remove thinking about how to perform it,” she says. “You can just slip into it.”
To accomplish this second-nature performance, listen to the accent on repeat—whether that’s from a native speaker or a character in film or TV—in order to master the subtleties. Queens native Susan Sarandon gives a master class of the northern New Jersey accent in “The Meddler.” Listen to her say, “You said you needed a babysittah. I brought bay-gulls,” for a perfect example.
A great example of the rare southern Jersey accent in film is Bruce Willis in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Listen to him say “oo-kay, oo-kay” at the beginning of the trailer.
If you want to hear a very strong southern Jersey accent, watch Bradley Cooper go full Philly with this impression of a local commercial from his youth.
The bottom line is, you can never go wrong by finding and listening to authentic speakers of New Jersey accents in order to get those speech patterns drilled into your head.
As you start breaking it all down, keep these common changes in mind:
Replace “or” or “er” with “uh” at the end of a word: “Sister” becomes “sis-tuh,” “scissor” becomes “sizz-uh,” “over here” becomes “ovah he-uh”
Replace a long “a” sound with “ay-yee” blended together: “Baby” becomes “bay-yee-be,” “paper” becomes “pay-yee-puh”
Replace a short “a” sound with a hard “ay-uh” blended together: “Bag” becomes “bay-uhg,” “rat” becomes “ray-uht”
Replace a short “o” sound with “aw-uh” blended together: “Coffee” becomes “caw-uh-fee,” “rotten” becomes “raw-uh-ten”
Replace an “ooh” sound in the middle of a word with “uh”: “Roof” becomes “ruff,” “hoof” becomes “huff”
Replace a long “o” with “oh-ooh” blended together: “Home” becomes “hoh-oom,” “road” becomes “roh-ood”
Replace an “ill” sound with “ell”: “Pillow” becomes “pellow,” “still” becomes “stell”
Replace (some) long “a” sounds with “eh”: “Bagel” becomes “beg-el”
Replace “water” with “wooder” or “wudder”: This is one of the hallmarks of the South Jersey dialect
Pro tip: No matter which part of New Jersey your character is from, do not ever refer to the state as “Joisey.”