A Philly accent? Fuhgeddaboudit

Posted: April 08, 2013

Like most Philadelphia natives, I know the sound of a Philadelphia accent:

"So I tollum straight up, 'Yo, Paulie, your sister's wit me. And we're gawna ride widges down-ashore or this car don't make it past Pashunk Avenue!' "

And like most Philadelphia natives, I don't hear any accent in my voice when ordering kawfee at the Melrose or wooder ice at Rita's. Yanohwaddamean?

Seriously, me? An accent? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Nevertheless, I was disturbed by the recent headline "The Strange Decline of the Philly Accent" in the Atlantic magazine's online site, theatlanticcities.com.

"Sometime around the 1960s and '70s, people in Philadelphia began slowly, subtly to change how they speak," the article began, citing no less an authority than Bill Labov, professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Labov had already established himself as a respected scholar in the field of codifying differences in regional dialects while a professor at Columbia University. But, at age 40, he moved to Penn in 1970 because of the unique and tameless garden of possibilities that is the sound of Philadelphians talking to one another.

"Two-thirds of the Philadelphia vowels are involved in a complex game of musical chairs," he wrote in 1977, describing how simple, one-syllable words are magically transformed into two sounds. In Philadelphia the spoken word home might rhyme with "poem" rather than "roam."

Labov has more than 40 years' worth of audiotapes of conversations with hundreds of Philadelphians born between 1888 and 1991. He spoke to them in their parlors, living rooms, and kitchens, as well as in barrooms and on street corners. This database was used in his most recent study, "One Hundred Years of Sound Change in Philadelphia," which was published in the academic journal Language.

Using a new voice-analysis technology, Labov and Ph.D. candidate Josef Fruehwald showed how the Philadelphia accent is shifting from a more Southern regional dialect influence, spoken by those born before 1940, to a more Northern regional dialect by those born since.

An example of this would be the pronunciation of the words ride and right. Hear the difference in sound? For pre-1940-born Philadelphians, the "i" sound in each word was the same.

"It's hard for a journalist to illustrate the difference in the sound of words by using words or letters on paper," Labov said in a phone interview. "It's not easy for linguistics teachers, either."

The examples he offered of the evolving Philadelphia accent are less of a "yeah" sound in vowels in front of hard consonants like the letters "m" or "n."

In the current Philadelphia accent, that "yeah" sound is not present in the pronunciation of the "a" in the words ran, swam, and began. But you can hear the Philly "yeah" in the words glad, mad, plan, and man. At least you can if you have a Philly accent.

Fruehwald, a native Philadelphian, describes the Philly "ow" sound in the word down as a verbal contraction of the words day and on.

This may be stop-the-presses news in the study of linguistics, but it still doesn't explain why everyone in Philadelphia pronounces the word water as if it were made of wood with an "er" on the end. Why are we the only city in America with water that can give you splinters?

In conversations with Labov and Fruehwald, the mystery of why Philadelphians say water as if you can walk on it remained just that. A mystery. "Philadelphians say 'wooder' and that's that," said Fruehwald, 28, who grew up in Burholme around Cottman and Rising Sun Avenues. He attended Roman Catholic High School and didn't realize he had an accent until he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania.

By "that's that" he meant that the Philadelphia pronunciation of w-a-t-e-r is an anomaly, not a speech pattern. In linguistics, such a one-of-a-kind pronunciation is called "an exception." Fruehwald couldn't resist jumping on to a winding waterslide of speculation about how "wooder" became a "perfect storm" of pronunciation.

"Maybe it had something to do with starting with 'wa,' and ending with 'r,' " he said, his voice trailing off, unconvinced. Or perhaps he anticipated the next inevitable, and ultimately unanswerable, question, asked of any scholar regarding the origin of the Philadelphia dialect: "What the heck is a Wawa?"


Clark DeLeon's column appears regularly in Currents. E-mail him

at deleonc88@aol.com.

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