Historically, Philadelphia has had a bad case of cainophobia. Whether we’re talking about building a highway or bumping up trash day, Philadelphians generally don’t react to change too well. “It’s my city,” we say, “I like it the way it is.” Reinvention, alteration—these things are a threat to the very identity of native Philadelphians everywhere. Progressives, generally speaking, we are not.
But take that reinvention and spread it across years, decades even, and almost no one will notice enough to protest. We’ll even go along with it, probably. After all, we’re too caught up in watching the “iggles” or drinking “wooder” or whatever dialectical phrase you’d like to throw in there to really notice. That is, until, some brainiac at one of our local schools aggregates instances of a slow change and writes a report—then we will become defensive.
Case in point: the University of Pennsylvania’s recent study showing that the Philly accent, our beloved hoagiemouth, is fading fast. According to the study, which was headed up by Penn Linguistics Laboratory Director William Labov, around two-thirds (that’s millions of words) of our trademark Philly vowels are undergoing serious change. It’s called “northernization,” and it’s a departure from the usual southern-sounding Philly vowels most of us have come to love. So basically, we’re going to start putting that second syllable into “towel” at some point in the future.
Judging from the response, though, you’d think that someone threatened to kill Jerry Blavat. Comments sections on sites that have picked up the story are roiling with pride in the Philly accent and celebrations of its demise alike. Op-eds, blogs, whatever—you name it, a Philadelphian has used it to defend their beloved accent in the wake of Penn’s revelation. And while that Philly pride has been nice to see on screen, all that defense seems too often to slide slowly into that patented Philly denial.
Take, for example, Shannon McDonald’s Newsworks op-ed about the fading of Philly vowels. “If you think that lady walking up Pasheeyunk Avenue is going to stop saying Ac-a-me just because her neighbor pronounces it Acme,” she writes, “then you must not be a full-fledged Philadelphyin yet.” The message is clear: The Philly accent ain’t going nowhere. And if you think it is, then you’re not a true Philadelphian.
Look, not for nothing, but since 2006, the city’s population has increased by 59,000 people (mostly millennials), forcing our population up past 1.55 million people total. That’s a lot of newcomers over a relatively short period, and that ebb and flow of people has been going on to some degree since before the first Philadelphian thought up “jawn.” With language being a fluid, constantly changing communications device instead of the static monolith Philadelphians apparently view it to be, it only makes sense that the boom would result, at least partially, in an alteration of our hard-to-imitate accent.
So is that lady on Passyunk going to stop saying “Ac-a-me”? Well, no, probably not, depending on her age and when she picked up the accent. But linguistically speaking, it’s inevitable that “Ac-a-me” and the like are going the way of Will Smith—out of Philadelphia. See, people develop their accents around six to 18 years old, and are influenced by those around them. Having nearly 60,000 newcomers and counting, consequently, is going to alter our accent over the coming years in ways that haven’t even yet made themselves known, as our future children (and their children) grow up. It might not seem like the Philly accent is going anywhere too far just now, but give it a few years, and we’ll quit dipping our diphthongs. Then who knows what’ll happen. Blood in the streets, maybe (not really).
We’re a city that clamors for a better life, for more recognition, for a higher degree of respect, and yet we deny and rail against the changes that indicate that those things are happening. People are moving here, we’re getting that recognition and being seen as a city that’s worthwhile to actually live in—not just work in, but live in. The reduction or alteration of the Philly accent as a result of that is merely very minor collateral damage that probably would happen over time anyway. The accent is not the end-all, be-all of our identities as Philadelphians.
That, of course, would be our sports teams.