Why the Philadelphia Accent Is So Fascinating

The traditional Philadelphia accent is disappearing. But how it’s changing continues to make the ‘Fluffyia’ accent so interesting.

shutterstock_mouth-jawn-philadelphia-accentGuess what, folks? The New York Times wrote about Philadelphia again! This time, though, it wasn’t about Fishtown! I’m as shocked as you are. No, the Times‘ published a piece by college English professor Daniel Nester titled “The Sound of Philadelphia is Dying Out.” And he doesn’t mean Philadelphia International Records.

The Philadelphia accent has been in the news quite a bit the last year, stemming from the paper Penn professor and linguistics god William Labov — he of the brilliant 1972 “fourth floor” paper — published with two colleagues, “One Hundred Years of Sound Change in Philadelphia: Linear Incrementation, Reversal, and Reanalysis.” Newsworks’ Zach Seward chronicled Labov’s work last year; over at The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger talked to Labov about his research. The findings, which only apply to white Philadelphians “with deep ties to the city,” are interesting: The change in accent is happening among Philadelphians regardless of background or education level, language change is primarily driven by women, and the Philadelphia accent — once the “northern-most southern city” — is shifting to be more like Northern U.S. cities.

Yes, Philly, we’re starting to sound more like New York and Boston. I know. It’s enough to make you want to get off the pavement and run screaming through the shtreets.




I think the Philly accent is so fascinating because of how weird it is. Nester's Times article makes that point in the intro:

Ask anyone to do a Lawn Guyland accent or a charming Southern drawl and that person will approximate it. Same goes for a Texas twang or New Orleans yat, a Valley Girl totally omigod. Philly-South Jersey patois is a bit harder: No vowel escapes diphthongery, no hard consonant is safe from a mid-palate dent.

This is true! It is a hard tongue to pin down. Take, for example, the Gawker post about the Times and the Philly accent. The headline is "Hey, Jabronis—Learn How to Speak Like A Rill Philly Boy! Jabroni's popularity only dates from the late ’90s and early 2000s; Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, a star during the "Attitude Era" wrestling boom, used the word in his promos. It dates to the 1930s, and means "naive person, immigrant, hoodlum." In the wrestling world it's a play on "jobber," carnie slang for a wrestler who does a lot of jobs — i.e., whose job it is to lose every match he's in. Unless Gawker is referencing the Philadelphia area's storied history as a hotbed of professional wrestling fandom and innovation, it's not a Philly term. It sounds like it should be one, though, but it's hard to get the Philly accent right. There's so much slang and weird pronunciation I use every day and don't even know it.

For those interested in the Philadelphia accent, Jim Quinn's "Philly Speak" story in a 1997 City Paper issue is required reading. It, too, explains the complexities that make the Philly accent so endearing:

Remember Ian and Ann? Most Philadelphians pronounce both as "Ian," something like "Ee-yan" squeezed into one syllable. In the Midwest, all -a's are pronounced like that; it's called a tense -a. In Boston, all -a's have a sound closer to upper-class British: "ah," or a lax -a. Boston: "I rahn from the bahd mahn holding a fahn, a hahm and a hahmmer." Midwest (remember that ran here rhymes with Ian):"I ran from a bad man holding a fan, a ham and a hammer." Philly: "I rahn from a bad man holding a fan, a ham and a hahmmer."

Great, right? Philadelphia mixes the two -a's!

When taking a linguistics class in college, I discovered that I say plan as plahn but planet as planet with the tense -a. I have no idea why. You just learn the rules!

Most of this research is focused only on white people, but there's also research on minority groups. A 1985 Times article about Northeast accents explains:

One study in Philadelphia, according to Mr. Labov, indicated that young Puerto Rican women tended to adopt the white Philadelphia accent while young Puerto Rican men tended toward the black vernacular.

Isn't this so cool? What's fascinating is that choice — to speak with white or black slang — is unconscious; it opens the pathways to so many other interesting research into race and class.

Even among native Philadelphia speakers, there aren't clear rules about Philadelphia slang. From a recent article on Philly slang by the Inqurier's Samantha Melamed:

"A lot of my students who grew up in Philadelphia don't know that others don't know that word," said Muffy Siegel, a Temple University linguist who has written academic papers on the usage of like and dude about the word "jawn."

"Students have gotten into big fights about what jawn means," she added. "Men will tell you, 'Of course, you can use jawn to refer to a woman.' A lot of women would say, 'You'd better not.' And I certainly wouldn't, because it does sort of mean 'a thing.' "

Philadelphia speakers turned "joint" into "jawn" and now can't even figure out how you're supposed to use it. Though the Philadelphia accent is changing — we're starting to sound less like people from Baltimore (or, rather, Ballmer) — we're still inventing new words, phrases and pronunciations that defy characterization. "I like the way it sounds,"Sean Monahan told the Daily News' Molly Eichel last year. "Sure, it doesn't sound refined at all, but it's part of who the city is, and people should be more proud of that."

Yo, that's what's up.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.

Be respectful of our online community and contribute to an engaging conversation. We reserve the right to ban impersonators and remove comments that contain personal attacks, threats, or profanity, or are flat-out offensive. By posting here, you are permitting Philadelphia magazine and Metro Corp. to edit and republish your comment in all media.

  • http://chrissmari.org ChrissMari

    You should have read this out loud to demonstrate the accent

  • Sam

    You should make Jonothon Tannenwald do a video with his pronounciations

  • http://rjwhite.tumblr.com RJ White

    Moved here from MI ten years ago and “jawn” confused the hell out of me.

  • mable

    Bradley Cooper did a great impression of a Philly-area (he’s from Jenkintown) accent on The Tonight Show a few years back, it was spot on. That’s the best example I can think of besides my cousins from the ‘burbs but you know it when you hear it. And “jawn” means a popular thing, like a song (that’s my jawn), a movie (that movie was the jawn). You can commonly replace it with “the bomb”, so as a woman I’m not very offended if I’m referred to as a “jawn”. It’s a good thing.

    • Kelly

      sorry, you are incorrect. “jawn” refers to a thing, that movie was the jawn just sounds stupid. instead, you would say jawn referring to the movie, “that jawn was my favorite”, or “I want to see that jawn”. All of it sounds stupid, but that is how the word “jawn” is actually used

      • mable

        I’m not sure what section of the city you’re from but where I’m from we used it both ways. It does all sound stupid but its part of being from Philly. Kinda proud of it actually.

        • gus

          “Jawn” the waY i’ve heard it usedabsolutely everywhere (in philly that is) just is a replacement for any noun. Can’t think of the word or name for something that’s a noun? It’s that/this/the/those/them/these jawns! It can be good, but it’s never replaced with “the bomb”, you must be from wayyyy out in the burbs. lol

          • mable

            Yo, I’m from deep in West Philly. No ‘burbs here son. I think we’re both saying the same thing though. I agree with what you’re saying but jawn can also be used to explain something really, really good as in “that hoagie was the jawn!” and can be replaced with “the hoagie was da bomb!” That’s what they say around my part, been saying it forever!

          • kyle

            I thought jawn came from jo-han, which came from johanson,
            like
            ” keep passing that johanson to the left”

  • T-Szos

    Gawker is most likely referencing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” with their use of “Jabroni.”

  • Gibby Boonstein

    This article is way off. Most studies conclude that the Philly accent is more derived from a southern dialect. Most likely Carolina ish. Sorry but you put a guy from Philly next to a New Yorker and it’s totally different. Pretty bad article if u ask me

    • kyle

      New York is a mash up of philly and boston

  • kyle

    It’s
    “Ball eh moore”