Features: How to Speak Philadelphian: Lose Your Philadelphia Accent in Seven Weeks
I always thought I sounded like the anchors on the news. Then I heard myself on tape. It was bee-ad. Vurry bee-ad. I needed professional help.
I’m standing in the Whisper Booth. It’s warm and cramped. Like a coffin. The thick foam on the walls is supposed to make it soundproof. When the door closes, the booth seals like a freezer, and the airtight pressure makes my ears feel like they’ve been sucked inside out. I look though the window and see Joanne Joella staring back at me, nodding, her dangling earrings bobbing along as if to say, This won’t hurt a bit. Joanne Joella has promised to heal me. She’s going to rid me of my verbal affliction, that horrible cross I’ve been blaring since I spoke my first words. She is going to cure my Philadelphia accent.
First, though, she needs to hear it. Hence the booth. Hence the enormous softball of a microphone in front of my mouth. Hence the script in my hand — the lines she’s recorded hundreds of clients reading in the two years since she opened JoellaArts in Cheltenham, to help actors and TV personalities lose their local twangs. She’s been a vocal coach for more than 30 years, but lately has noticed more regular folks wanting a spin in her Whisper Booth. In fact, I read in the New York Times in July that average Joes all over the country are hiring voice teachers and speech pathologists for “voice styling.” The Times reporter nailed it: “Why shouldn’t a richer, more sonorous voice be one more item on the checklist to perfection?”
I had many items on my checklist to perfection. My voice hasn’t always been one of them. Growing up, I didn’t realize there was a Philly accent. I heard my dad’s brothers in Roxborough say their “wooders” and “beauty-fulls,” my grandma say “addytoods.” That was just how we talked. I was fine with it.
I relocated all of five miles to go to college at Penn, where I majored in linguistics. One day in class, I’d just finished pontificating on the language diversity in Papua New Guinea when this woman, this Ph.D. candidate in phonetics from someplace far, far away who clearly hated me, smiled smugly and announced to the room at large: “Oh, Katie. Your vowels are so cute.”
My vowels? Was she saying I had an accent? I almost died. Okay, so maybe sometimes when I was sleep-deprived, I said “vurry” instead of “very.” But I was a linguistics major. I was supposed to be a sophisticated speaker. For the first time in my life, I felt ashamed of how I sounded. She wasn’t just commenting on the way I talked; she was commenting on who I was. She was calling me common, provincial, small-town. And for some reason, I bought it. (For the record, I called Miss Ph.D. out later in the semester for stating that the prefix ad came from the Greek instead of the Latin. I mean, hello.)
When I enrolled in Joella’s seven-week, $350 “Freeing the Natural Voice” course, I did it for one reason — to identify the Philly in my voice and yank it out by the roots.
In the Whisper Booth, I take a deep breath. I need to relax, Joella says, so my “regional sounds” can flow. I start to read:
“At Pep Boys, people come in all the time just to get their batteries tested. … ”
I sound anchorly. If there are regional sounds flowing in there, I sure can’t hear them.
“If the battery holds the charge well, the unit display will read ‘good battery.’ …”
Easy. Smooth. I make batteries sound like dessert, like sex.
“If not, it will read ‘bad battery.’ … ”
I finish, push open the door, and look right into the eyes of Joanne Joella, this earthy woman with close-cropped hair who looks very hip, very San Francisco. She doesn’t look like she’s ever said downashore in her life. I look at her as if to say, How about that? Show me the wooder in that.
“It’s the moment of truth,” she announces, in a voice so crisp and sophisticated that she sounds like Greta Garbo. She hits the PLAY button on her computer and — boom! — my voice blasts out of the speakers like I’m yelling into a bullhorn: “A PEP BOIZE, PEOPLE COME IN AWLATIME JUSTA GIT THUR BATT-RIES TESTED. … ”
“Oops!” Joella says. She turns down the volume.
Oops, indeed. The Katie in the speakers sounds much different from the Katie in my head. I immediately suspect that Joella has secretly switched tapes. But then I hear it: “Ahunnertollers.” Volume normal. Clear as the Liberty Bell. Me. My voice. “Ahunnertollers.” I sound like my mom’s cousin Frankie. He’s a cop. He says “Iggles” and means it. I laugh out loud, knowing I’m just being lazy. One hundred dollars. If I concentrate, I can say it just fine.
“Do you hear that?” Joella asks.
“What?” I ask, wondering how it could possibly get worse.
“The nasal quality of that vowel,” she says. And then … oh yes … I hear it: “If not, it will read bee-ad batt-ry.” BEE-AD?
“How did I not know I sounded like that?”
“Most people can’t hear their own accents,” Joella assures me. She pulls out a diagram of the facial muscles and shows me how tension in the chin and jaw creates those nasally sounds. I can fix that, I think. Lighten up the tension. A little chin massage. Easy.
“Then there’s the dark L,” Joella says. What is that? But I hear it when I say all. I’m “back-placing” the vowel sound, she says — gargling it in the back of my throat.
“You need to restructure your tongue’s muscle memory,” Joella says. There are exercises, she explains, and she promises that they’ll work if I do them for a few weeks. But it all sounds difficult and tiring, and creepy in that “Imagine the tongue as an exercise-able muscle” kind of way. Plus, there’s so much more wrong than I expected.
“Also, honey,” Joella says gently. “I think you have a little bit of a lisp.”
Next session, and Joanne Joella is making me trill my tongue. The idea is to move my L-sounds from my throat to far out on the tip of my tongue, where they belong. Trill for 30 seconds. Rest. Trill. Rest. I sound like Catwoman. In heat.
Next comes the Lip Buzz. I am to buzz my lips — in essence, do raspberries — for several minutes a day. This, she says, will strengthen my “embouchure” — the shape of my upper lip — which will make my enunciation clearer. No more hunnertollers. No more lisp.
Joella hands me the Denasality Exercise — a printout of the poem “Lay of the Deserted Influenzaed.” This, she says, will stop me from sending any air to my nasal passages and thus eliminate my bee-ad Philly whine. The poem is written in the voice of one with a severe cold: “Doe, doe! I shall dever see her bore!”
Over the next couple of weeks, as I buzz and trill — while clipping my toenails, while doing the dishes — I start to hear a change. I stop sounding like my mom’s cousin Frankie, which is cool. I suddenly feel more worldly, classier. But I also feel fretful. I’ve stopped sounding like myself.
I pick up a copy of Robert MacNeil’s new book, Do You Speak American? MacNeil traveled around the country to test the popular notion that people are losing their regional accents because of the homogenizing influence of mass media. Linguists dismiss the idea as hooey, and after talking to folks from Texas to Maine, MacNeil does, too. Why? He writes, “People treasure their local accents precisely because where they come from, or where they feel they belong, does still matter.” It gets me thinking: If I no longer sound like myself, where do I belong?
The last time I meet with Joella, we’re sitting across from each other at the big pub-style oak table in her studio. She’s impressed with my progress: I’ve gotten rid of the bee-ad, and my embouchure is much stronger, and my wooder is wider. “Like an athlete,” Joella says, “you can train your vocal cords, your tongue — your speech ah-gans — ” She stops abruptly, looking as mortified as though she has just passed gas. Underneath that Greta Garbo, Joanne Joella has an accent, too. She tells me how she grew up working-class in a college town in southern Massachusetts, where she always felt like “a skunk at the garden party.” But she had a singing voice, and she learned how to use it. She left home — and her accent — at 18, and never looked back. Maybe I’d sound better if I just moved to Boston.
It’s time for me to take the last step in my transformation — to trot my sophisticated new voice out in public. I invite my mom to join me for drinks at my favorite hole-in-the-wall, Archie’s, in Jenkintown.
When the waitress comes over, I purse my lips as I pronounce my order — wings with dipping sauce, please. I’m especially careful with that “sauce.” Soss. Not “so-waz.” Soss. I say it in my head twice before I say it out loud: “With dipping soss.”
“I’ll bring you some wooder, too?” the waitress asks — the same waitress I’ve had every time I’ve come here for the past two years. “’Kay, hon?”
I stare at her. I can’t seem to say anything, because my mind is stuttering, as if it just can’t believe it spent that much time agonizing over how to say the word “sauce.” I’m supposed to be feeling all smart and worldly in my new voice. I don’t. I feel stupid, like I’m wearing too much makeup or something. My perfect pronunciation isn’t impressing anyone here. It isn’t going to make my wings come out any faster. In truth, it’s probably going to make them come out slower. I remember the story Joella told me about one of her students — a hockey coach who wanted to erase his Philly sound so he could be a sports announcer. Only trouble was, when he lost his accent, he lost his cred. No one at his local gigs believed he knew anything about hockey, not when he sounded like Dan Rather. To be taken seriously in Philadelphia, he needed to sound like a Philadelphian. I decide to save my new voice for elsewhere. For linguistics classes and job interviews out of town. I’ll switch when I need to.
“Wooder, hon?” the waitress asks again.
“Yee-ah,” I say.
Katie Haegale is in Dublin this fall, studying English literature and trying to understand their accent. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.