Is Philly’s (or Pittsburgh’s, or Scranton’s) Accent Really So Ugly?

The classist ugliness behind Gawker's "America's Ugliest Accents Tournament."


Bracket via Gawker

Today, I’m pretty proud to be from Pennsylvania.

Not just because we’re now well on our way to expanding the state’s inadequate hate-crime laws (although really, really nice job on that one, guys).  And not simply because we have the most charming autumn this side of a Norman Rockwell canvas (although holy hell, we do — adopt a friend in Berks County and go outside). Our adorable baby steps towards legalizing weed probably has something to do with it, but that’s not why I’m getting all warm and fuzzy today.

You see, three of our fair cities – Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton – made it into the second round of Gawker’s “America’s Ugliest Accents Tournament.” The only state to have more than one accent nominated, we swiftly took down Memphis, Atlanta and New Orleans during the preliminary round in an impressive display of Yankee linguistic dominance.

Personally, I am an accent enthusiast. When I hear Northeast Philly’s signature tensed-up vowels and slight drawl, I know you’re going to send a Mass card and can probably fix my drywall. South Philly’s softened-up version puts me right at home, even though I just moved in. Scranton’s Midwest wink belies their homier, small-town charms, while Pittsburghese bravely declares, “I’m from Pittsburgh, and I lived to tell about it.” (Make no mistake: I appreciate accents, not Pittsburgh. Screw that coal-dusted slice of purgatory.)

I get that Gawker’s contest is, mostly, a tongue-in-cheek stunt written by some very funny, very smart people who have been in New York too long and just want to go back to Kansas and sit on a porch already. I get it — porches are great, and even people who earn their paychecks writing things on the Internet deserve one. The editors at Gawker don’t actually think that New Orleans is a “steaming, fetid stew of aural bile” with “varied, and uniformly ugly accents.” In the context of their playful tournament bracket, this passage about Tallahassee isn’t as awkward and hateful as it seems when excerpted here:

Tallahassee in this case stands in for all of panhandle Florida — home to a true, and truly ugly, Southern American English accent, and has sister dialects in the Florida cracker accent (also known, for obvious reasons, as Florida mushmouth) and African American Vernacular English, and both are as Southern with a slackjaw as a Texan’s.

And yet, yup, pretty awkward.

Because under the jokes and gimmick, there’s an uncomfortable statement about blue collar, working class accents: If you have one, you’re not as good as the people who write for Gawker. If you didn’t bother to drown your accent in college or escape it in a distant city, you’re not in on the joke. That’s the kind of thing I’d expect from Fox, which has no problem assigning worth based on last names and bank statements. But not from Gawker, which is usually incredibly, impeccably PC and progressive under a thin layer of profanity and click-bait.

From a site that’s usually spot-on when defending identity and pointing out this country’s sneaky prejudices, the “Ugliest Accent” tournament is a snobby, tone-deaf line in the sand. Writers, editors, “brand managers” and “strategists” over here; plumbers, cops, farmers and nurses this way, please (not for nothing, only one of these groups is any help in the apocalypse).

Careful, guys — that’s getting pretty close to “This is America, Speak English,” one of Philadelphia’s least endearing exports.

And so best of luck, Pennsylvania. This week, I’m rooting for you and all of your twangy, down-home, swagger-filled dialects. Unless, of course, it comes down to us and Boston — because, full disclosure, that Southie accent makes this Northeast girl weak in the knees.

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