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.

Guess 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.

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