Blinq: Phila. losing its vocal identity?

Posted: April 05, 2013

On the day we moved to Philly in 1976, my two fellow Syracuse emigres and I went to a restaurant and ordered Cokes.

"Three Coe-ewks," the waitress nodded.

I thought she was calling us "kooks" - which we certainly were - but when we asked for directions and she advised us that our destination was "down-y shtreet," we realized our new city was a different universe, linguistically.

Alas, in the same week a venerable Northeast Philly cheesesteakery replaces its slur-ish name, "Chink's," and Philadelphia Daily News columnist Helen Ubinas bravely wonders aloud whether it's time to rename the Italian Market, we also hear that the city's distinctive diphthongs are disappearing.

University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor William Labov and two co-authors have found that the Southern-inflected sound of Philadelphia is giving way to a more generically "Northern" accent. The shift is evident when field recordings of rowhousers in the early 1970s are compared with their current counterparts.

The Labov study, published in the academic journal Language, notes that "sound change in progress in Philadelphia has been facilitated by the application of forced alignment and automatic vowel measurement."

Having long thought of the Philadelphia dialect as a mashup of Southern, Cockney and Tastykake Krimpets, I find this research fascinating.

But I can imagine how the waitress who introduced me to Philly-speak might react to a phrase like "forced alignment and automatic vocal measurement."

"Sounds bohw-gus." - Kevin Riordan

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