[lg policy] Philadelphia accent changing
haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Apr 29 14:37:02 UTC 2013
Researchers track evolution of Philly's accent
Last updated 12:38 29/04/2013
A University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor says the
Southern-inflected sound of the Philadelphia dialect is moving toward a
more Northern accent. Some of Philly's trademark twangy, elongated vowel
sounds are becoming less so, though others are getting stronger.
"Certain changes have continued in the same direction over 100 years and
everybody's doing it," said Bill Labov, who has studied the Philadelphia
accent since 1971 and recorded hundreds of native speakers born between
1888 and 1992 and living in dozens of neighborhoods. "It doesn't make a
difference if you come from Port Richmond or Kensington or South
With apologies to comedian Jeff Foxworthy, you might be a Philadelphian if:
you say beggle (bagel), wooder (water), tal (towel), beyoodeeful
(beautiful), dennis (dentist) or Fit Shtreet (Fifth Street). Your
pronunciation of your own hometown might come out more like Philuffya, you
call your football team the Iggles, you say "ferry" and "furry" the same
way, and "radiator" rhymes with "gladiator."
Technological advances have allowed Labov and his colleagues to turn their
decades of field recordings into voice spectrographs - computer-generated
visualizations of the human voice like an EKG - to track speech variations
over time. Regional dialects are cemented by adolescence, so a recording of
a 75-year-old Philadelphian made in 1982, for example, should provide a
snapshot of what people sounded like around 1925.
The researchers' recent paper in the journal Language, titled One Hundred
Years of Sound Change in Philadelphia, concludes that the city's linguistic
character is not disappearing altogether - but it is changing, with the
most dramatic shifts occurring in the mid-20th century. The reasons aren't
entirely clear but higher education appears to be a factor, as does simply
being aware that certain local inflections are disparaged by outsiders.
"When we came to one of the most important Philadelphia features, of saying
'gow' for 'go,' it got stronger and stronger," Labov said, "until people
born around 1950, 1960, when it turned around and it went the other way."
The Philly accent is getting thicker in other ways, however. Younger
speakers use sharper "i'' sounds than their parents and grandparents,
pronouncing "fight" and "bike" more like "foit" and "boik," and their "a''
sounds are closer to "e'' so words like "eight" and "snake" are closer to
"eat" and "sneak."
"Children speak like their peer groups, not their parents," said Penn
linguistics doctoral student Josef Fruehwald, so changes tend to occur by
The familiar Philly-ism "wooder" also might be drying up.
"That sound is moving toward 'ah' so instead of 'cawfee' more
Philadelphians are saying 'coffee,' 'wooder' becomes 'water,'" Labov said.
"As people become aware ... they tend to reverse them. They say, 'Oh we
shouldn't talk that way.'"
Not sure if you've heard the Philly patois? Listen to TV commentators Chris
Matthews or Jim Cramer and you'll hear it leeowd (loud) and clear.
"Jackass" star Bam Margera, who is from nearby West Chester, has it. So
does Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his Philly-flecked American
English a vestige of his childhood years in suburban Cheltenham.
Philadelphia characters often sound like New Yorkers - think Rocky Balboa -
perhaps because Philly's nasal twang is tougher for non-natives to mimic.
In last year's "Silver Linings Playbook," Robert DeNiro hung out with an
uncle of co-star (and suburban Philadelphia native) Bradley Cooper to get
the dialect down, though his wife played by Australian actress Jacki Weaver
comes closest to nailing it.
The generational shift in the dialect was evident during a recent school
event at The Franklin Institute, a science museum. Labov and several
graduate assistants conducted hands-on demonstrations including one that
asked, "Does Mad Rhyme With Sad?" Most of the youngsters answered yes, as
in "mahd" and "sahd," while many adults said no, pronouncing "mad" with
what linguists call a "tense a" - sort of like "meeyad."
"I don't know how they can rhyme," said Betty McGonagle, who was on a field
trip with students from the Harbor Baptist Christian Academy in Hainesport,
NJ. "You're mad (meeyad), and you're sad (sahd)." For her teenage students,
the words rhyme.
Mia Weathers, a freshman at the city's Science Leadership Academy, tried
with some difficulty to pronounce "mad" as McGonagle does naturally.
"That is just, wow. That's strange," she said with a laugh.
Now the researchers' goal is answering what Labov calls "the most important
and most mysterious" question about language change.
"How is it possible that people in every neighborhood in Philadelphia are
moving in the same direction?" he said. "We don't have the answer yet."
Harold F. Schiffman
Professor Emeritus of
Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305
Phone: (215) 898-7475
Fax: (215) 573-2138
Email: haroldfs at gmail.com
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