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Dolores Lombardi gets together with friends every week to play Scrabble. The Foodery in Roxborough, where we found them, isn’t far from where she used to live.
“I’m from Upper Darby now. I lived in Manayunk for about 12 years. I grew up in Bala Cynwyd. My grandparents lived in South Philadelphia,” she says, adding that her family has a 100-year history in the city. She describes her accent as “a little less citified, but I’m still in the same vein.”
The Scrabble group nods knowingly when we ask them about Philadelphia accents. Lombardi, while not bearing an intense brogue, has it.
The Philadelphia accent has got quite the reputation. The New York Times called it “arguably the most distinctive, and least imitable, accent in North America.” A 2013 University of Pennsylvania study analyzed the shifts of the accent; the eldest of the voices were born more than 100 years ago. Some residents say they can guess what part of the city someone is from based on whether they say Acme or Ackamee, Grays Fahrry or Grays Furry. This isn’t how the research breaks it down. It’s hard to say just how many Philadelphia accents there are. While education and gender can shape voices heavily, accents manifest differently based on the person.
“When I get out of South Philly, they say, ‘Oh, you must be from South Philly, I go, ‘Yeah,’” Vince Capella tells us outside of his produce truck. Michael Thompson, a deli cook in the Foodery who hails from North Philly, knows he has an accent, his uncle in the South tells him as much, but places his way of speaking within a more general, citywide style: “When I meet people from like, down South, or maybe somebody from New York… The majority of the time when I meet somebody from Philly, they accent is just like my accent, you know.”
A researcher might say for someone like Capella, listen for how his tongue didn’t seem to reach his front teeth when when he makes an L sound, something that Philadelphians do more frequently. There’s a lot to be said too about what Philadelphians do with their vowels.
Jew see the Vi(l-l)a-noewe-vah gaime la’ist Mondy? We did; it was incredible.
Blacks in Philly have a different overall accent and still carry a lot of Southern attributes with them. Using they rather than their, as Thompson did, is typical to African American Vernacular English more generally. Sabriya Fisher, a doctoral candidate in linguistics at Penn, notes that the manner in which Black Philadelphians use a neutralized short a is special to them, though.“Instead of saying, black or blahik, you’d say kind of like blehck,” she says giving an example.
The way Philadelphians say the au sound is something. For a skit on “Blame Game,” Kanye West brought in an Amber Rose-reminiscent voice actress to reply “Yeezy taught me” repeatedly. What can we say? It was a really great try. “You’ll never be able to describe this without using the International Phonetic Alphabet,” pioneering linguist William Labov told City Paper in 1997. “And I can’t describe it,” the writer, Jim Quinn, continued. “You can hear it everywhere. And you know how to say it: “Come AUWN!” or “Oh no, I cauweaught a cold.”
It can be pretty tough. “I have been living in Philadelphia for nine years now, and while I can tell a Philly accent when I hear one, I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how to do it myself,” wrote Arika Okrent, a linguist and language editor at Mental Floss. “Something about the vowel system gets me all tripped up, and I end up sounding like cockney Tony Soprano.”
Thanks to Penn and Labov, now 88, Philadelphia’s accents are among the most studied in the United States. Still, the research overwhelmingly focuses on white, and to a lesser extent black people, while research on Asians and Latinos appears scant. We were able to find only two studies on Puerto Rican English speakers in Philly. Both reports discuss Puerto Ricans in Philly mirroring certain attributes of black speech.
“A lot of what we know about Philadelphia, it’s focusing on working-class white Philadelphians– not exclusively, but if it was a pie [chart], it would be most of the pie,”Josef Fruehwald, a University of Edinburgh linguist who co-authored the century-encompassing accents study with Labov, says. “Philly’s a diverse place, but maybe not that much has been done.”
How does the accent play out across neighborhoods?
It’s common to hear residents, in fondness and in jibes, identify accents by one section of the city or another. One time, a friend clarified–pridefully and unprompted– he said the North Philly “yo.” The way that Capella might spark some ear recognition, someone from the Northeast could garner similar reactions.
“Truly, in and of itself, the Northeast has its own mystery of how people speak,” says Albert Lee, a Chinatown native.
Despite this, neighborhood boundaries aren’t that helpful when analyzing how Philadelphians speak, Fisher explains. According to research, white Philadelphians, if they have an accent, speak pretty uniformly. Black Philadelphians have a greater degree of variation, but much of that has to do with where they were educated or if their neighborhood was mixed, studies show.
We asked Philadelphians around the city if they detected a difference between Philadelphia accents and if so, what were they hearing? Many said that they did. Lombardi explains that people in South Philly talk “a little more exaggerated. Like, I say yeah, they might say yeah. Like, it’s similar but a little more so, I guess.”
If studies reveal that the variation isn’t really much, why do these perceptions persist?
“This is something that sort of comes up a lot when people are talking about, say, New York City,” says Fruehwald. “Is there a Brooklyn accent? Is there a Bronx accent? Is there a Manhattan accent? And what a lot of it comes down to is that it doesn’t seem like there’s really different neighborhood accents, but different neighborhoods with different socioeconomic qualities to them and that has an affect on accents.”
“You’re not the first person to ever say that people from the Northeast sound different to me,” says Fruehwald, who is from Northeast himself. “I definitely hear that a lot from people when they’re trying to talk about differences within Philadelphia… The Northeast is relatively understudied just because if you’re a grad student at Penn, it’s a pain to get out there. That’s sort of what it comes down to.
“There’s a bit of a void in our description to figure out where, if there are boundaries within Philadelphia that are different from each other, what are they? And how are they different?”
In addition to this, linguistics software is bound to the technology available. Phonemes, or sounds by units of speech, have long been studied, but intonations and rhythmic patterns not so much, says Fisher. Vocal fry, for example, or the creak that some English speakers voice at the end of a word, is something that has been difficult to track digitally. Nicole Holliday, a doctoral candidate at NYU who studies stress patterns explains that one of the programs she uses most has only been around since the ’90s. “Prior to the advent of high quality recording technology and the programs for analysis, it was almost impossible to look at those things systematically,” she writes in an email. “[R]esearchers were basically just relying on their own ears.”
If we’re looking at the quirky vowels that make Philly stand out from the pack, younger white Philadelphians are sounding more and more like standard “Northern” American English. Based on the 2013 Penn paper, there doesn’t appear to be a particular area that’s preserving the accent of our grandparents’ generation. “Certain changes have continued in the same direction over 100 years, and everybody’s doing it,” Labov told the Washington Post. “It doesn’t make a difference if you come from Port Richmond or Kensington or South Philadelphia.”
Beyond waxing philosophical on how things always change, the reasons for this shift aren’t obvious. One theory is that Philadelphians may be aware that their accents aren’t as socially acceptable. In the sound change study, scholars asked participants to rate the Philly spin on certain vowels by job suitability; the more intense examples fared poorly. For those who love Philly accents, that’s a shame.
We ran into City Councilman Bobby Henon at the Grey Lodge while interviewing in Mayfair. (Seriously.) “I think it’s refreshing when you hear someone Philly talk,” Henon says. “It gets to the core of Philadelphians. It gets to the core of blue-collar, working to stay middle-class Philadelphia, and that’s what we should all be proud of.” (When he read a list of words for the camera, he corrected himself once:Rayd-i-ator. Actually, it’s rad-i-ator, that’s how I pronounce it.”)
“Philadelphia is basically the same [dialect,]” Eric Coulter tells us on his way home in Strawberry Mansion. “They talk alike. They even walk alike sometimes,” he says laughing.
This is a common response as well. Some people say you can differentiate by race or neighborhood. Some insist we speak the same. “I feel as though, as Philly, we sound one,” says Thompson.
Fruehwald heard this a lot too during his research. There are certainly racial differences, but “it was my experience that a lot of people are uncomfortable saying that,” he says. “Because for a lot of people the only way to talk about a different accent or variety of English is to say something bad about it. Or at least that’s the only way they experienced people talking about different accents of English.”
It says something larger too about imagined communities, he explains. It’s people who designate the boundaries between mutually intelligible Scandinavian languages or common ground between disparate Chinese dialects. “It’s a way of expressing a unity of identity by saying it’s one language,” he tells Billy Penn. “Saying ‘It’s all the same’ is maybe another way of saying, ‘We’re all Philadelphians.’ Which is nice to hear.”