Why the Philadelphia Accent Is So Fascinating

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.

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Top Five City Lists We’re Happy Philly Didn’t Make

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Photo | Jeff Fusco

Philly doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to negligibly constructed rankings of American towns. For three consecutive years, we came up dead last in the “attractive people” category of Travel + Leisure‘s “America’s Favorite Cities.” (We’ve since risen a few spots — suck it, Anchorage.) Our airport stinks. We’re pretty dirty. Apparently, we suck at saving money — but we’re top 10 in infidelity!

It’s my hope that most people take these types of pieces for what they are — silly, link-baity barroom argument fodder, built with data collection processes that are easy to overlook in favor of the punchline. (Take The Echo Nest’s super-viral “most distinctive artist by state” roundup, which many have taken in passing to mean that Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros is Pennsylvania’s most popular band.) Still, regardless of their value, there are a number of city-list features that either low-rank or completely skip over Philly, and we should be damn happy about it. Here are just a few:
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Philadelphia Named 5th Best City in U.S. for Public Transit

SEPTA-bus-fusco

Philadelphia public transit is great, the line goes, as long as you want to get to something on Broad, Market or Frankford.

Of course, it’s better than that. While the subway and El may just run down three streets, the rest of the system is bigger than you think: The bus system is expansive. Trolleys cover much of West Philly, at least South of Market. While it’s now impossible to figure out where you’re going now that SEPTA has eliminated the R[number] designations, the regional rail is generally pleasant.

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