Share This Page

Researchers track evolution of Philadelphians' odd accent

| Friday, April 26, 2013, 9:39 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Will Philly no longer be a place where residents drink wooder and root for the Iggles?

Gid eowt!

A University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor says the Southern-inflected sound of the Philadelphia dialect is moving toward a more Northern accent. Some of Philly's trademark twangy, elongated vowel sounds are becoming less so, though others are getting stronger.

“Certain changes have continued in the same direction over 100 years, and everybody's doing it,” said Bill Labov, who has studied the Philadelphia accent since 1971 and recorded hundreds of native speakers born between 1888 and 1992 and living in dozens of neighborhoods. “It doesn't make a difference if you come from Port Richmond or Kensington or South Philadelphia.”

With apologies to comedian Jeff Foxworthy, you might be a Philadelphian if: you say beggle (bagel), wooder (water), tal (towel), beyoodeeful (beautiful), dennis (dentist) or Fit Shtreet (Fifth Street). Your pronunciation of your own hometown might come out more like Philuffya, you call your football team the Iggles, you say “ferry” and “furry” the same way, and “radiator” rhymes with “gladiator.”

Technological advances have allowed Labov and his colleagues to turn their decades of field recordings into voice spectrographs — computer-generated visualizations of the human voice like an EKG — to track speech variations over time.

Regional dialects are cemented by adolescence, so a recording of a 75-year-old Philadelphian made in 1982, for example, should provide a snapshot of what people sounded like around 1925.

The researchers' recent paper in the journal Language, titled “One Hundred Years of Sound Change in Philadelphia,” concludes that the city's linguistic character is not disappearing altogether — but it is changing, with the most dramatic shifts occurring in the mid-20th century. The reasons are not entirely clear, but higher education appears to be a factor, as does simply being aware that certain local inflections are disparaged by outsiders.

“When we came to one of the most important Philadelphia features, of saying ‘gow' for ‘go,' it got stronger and stronger,” Labov said, “until people born around 1950, 1960, when it turned around and it went the other way.”

The Philly accent is getting thicker in other ways, however. Younger speakers use sharper “i” sounds than their parents and grandparents, pronouncing “fight” and “bike” more like “foit” and “boik,” and their “a” sounds are closer to “e,” so words like “eight” and “snake” are closer to “eat” and “sneak.”

“Children speak like their peer groups, not their parents,” said Penn linguistics doctoral student Josef Fruehwald, so changes tend to occur by generation.

The familiar Philly-ism “wooder” also might be drying up.

“That sound is moving toward ‘ah' so instead of ‘cawfee' more Philadelphians are saying ‘coffee,' ‘wooder' becomes ‘water,' ” Labov said. “As people become aware ... they tend to reverse them. They say, ‘Oh we shouldn't talk that way.' ”

Not sure if you've heard the Philly patois? Listen to TV commentators Chris Matthews or Jim Cramer and you'll hear it leeowd (loud) and clear. “Jackass” star Bam Margera, who is from nearby West Chester, has it. So does Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his Philly-flecked American English a vestige of his childhood years in suburban Cheltenham.

Philadelphia characters often sound like New Yorkers — think Rocky Balboa — perhaps because Philly's nasal twang is tougher for non-natives to mimic. In last year's “Silver Linings Playbook,” Robert DeNiro hung out with an uncle of co-star (and suburban Philadelphia native) Bradley Cooper to get the dialect down, though his wife, played by Australian actress Jacki Weaver, comes closest to nailing it.

The generational shift in the dialect was evident during a recent school event at The Franklin Institute, a science museum. Labov and several graduate assistants conducted hands-on demonstrations, including one that asked, “Does Mad Rhyme With Sad?” Most of the youngsters answered yes, as in “mahd” and “sahd,” while many adults said no, pronouncing “mad” with what linguists call a “tense a” — sort of like “meeyad.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.