Features: How to Speak Philadelphian: Why Do We Talk the Way We Talk?
Blame it on the Welsh. When those Quaker rebels fled 17th-century England for the sanctuary of William Penn’s New World, they brought their peculiar speech patterns with them. “Settlement history is the single most important factor in dialect differences,” explains Sharon Ash, associate director of Penn’s linguistics lab, which has studied the Philadelphia accent for more than 20 years. “And the Welsh were very different from other settlers.”
Take the way we pronounce “car” or “bar,” for example. Ash says Philly is the only East Coast seaport whose natives have always articulated the R — simply because, unlike New Yorkers and Bostonians, the Philly Quakers had cut off all contact with their Colonial oppressors by the time the Brits started dropping their R’s in the late 18th century. Even our shared traits have a uniquely Philly spin: Like New Yorkers, we have our “bee-ad mee-an” and “glee-ad hee-and,” but for some reason the linguists haven’t figured out, we have an exception — we say plain old “sad.” Up north, the “bee-ad mee-an” is also “see-ad.”
Nowadays, the pervasiveness of Philly-speak proves that the city is still a multi-generational family: Since we form the Philadelphian aspects of our accents in early childhood, by mimicking our parents, only the offspring of natives have a “foighting” chance at true, classic Philadelphia-ese — which, by the way, is getting stronger with each generation. “Philly speech is robustly going on its merry way,” Ash says. “From what we’ve learned, it will be here for a long time.”
Still, even Ash can’t answer the most pressing Philly lingo dilemma: Wherefore “wooder?” Turns out it’s a fluke, a weird two-syllable deviation that has no discernible basis in history. “We don’t even bother to study it,” Ash laughs. “It’s just one word.”