Total Pageviews

Popular Posts

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Philadelphia Accent

What does it mean to talk like a Philadelphian?
Unfortunately, having a Philadelphia accent doesn’t carry the same cache as having a Boston, English or southern accent. A Philadelphia accent is regarded as something to get rid of, like crossed eyes or long nasal hair. The reasons for this are self evident: a Philadelphia accent just doesn’t sound as nice as all those other accents. It lacks the charm of a Georgia draw, and it’s not sophisticated sounding like the English accent, where the “unlearned” sound learned, and where even criminals can sound like they are members of Parliament.
The Philly accent is hardcore, like the sound of breaking glass under the Frankford El. “Where youz going, to get some wooder?” sounds more like a line out of a Pinocchio cartoon than something “real” people would say, and yet it is unadulterated Philadelphese.
“Hey dude, I’m toad-a-lee broke of corders though I need to go to the lie-berry to get a book on IT-lee,” a Philadelphian might say. “Gee, then I gotta go to the Ack A Me cause my Mom’s got Arthur-it is and can’t go downashore.”
Okay, so maybe they don’t speak mouthfuls like this on the Main Line or in Chestnut Hill. While a Main Line clip might not be as “ritzy” sounding as the upper class Boston Brahmin accent with its pretentious British overtones, it has a stuffy quality nevertheless. Come to think of it, Philadelphese only affects folks in the inner city and seems to stop mysteriously at City Line Avenue as if the preponderance of single dwelling homes there, rather than city row houses, acts as a kind of linguistic transformer. Go to any school on the Main Line (Haverford College?) and you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone there who pronounces beautiful, ‘beauty-full,” not to mention replacing the very ordinary sounding “mine and yours,” with the Philadelphese version: “Mayan and Urine.”
The question is: Why do so many of us talk like this? Is it something in the wooder? Our great but ailing city is already too much maligned. Is it our fault that the Philadelphia accent is the only accent in the world (wrongly) associated with stupidity?
It’s interesting to note that Philadelphians who become famous nationally go to great lengths to tone down their Philadelphese. Chris Matthews of MSNBC has small traces of Philadelphese, but I’ve never been able to detect the accent in Philadelphia born Jim Cramer of CNBC’s “Mad Money.”
The big stereotype, of course, is (bubble gum mouth) Rocky Balboa, but Zack Smith, author of (the online) ‘Philadelphia Accent, says that Rocky is representative of the New York working class dialect, not Philadelphia. For the most accurate Philadelphia accent in any movie, Smith says, go to Toni Collette’s performance in The Sixth Sense.
One can try to rid oneself of a Philadelphese but it is not easy. I have educated friends who say “youz” despite the fact that there’s no such word in the dictionary. It’s a fact that most people who have accents don’t even know they have accents. We are “infected” in ways we cannot imagine. All it takes is for one word to slip out, a stray “Yud’ or even mention of a “pros tee tute,” and the dye is cast. At that point you’re likely to hear, “You’re from Philadelphia!”
There are courses devoted to curing Philadelphians of Philadelphese, where teachers recommend that students learn not to distort vowels, and to “move” all L sounds from the back of the throat to the tip of their tongues. This takes some work and effort.
But is this really necessary? What’s wrong with confronting somebody for their “add-e-tude?” Shouldn’t we, as Philadelphians, be proud of who we are and what we sound like?
Perhaps the proof of how proud we are comes with how you’d answer the following question: If you could have one accent in the world, what would that accent be?
Would you opt for French, British, Scottish, ‘Georgia Peach’, an Irish brogue, or how about an exotic Jamaican or Indian accent? Or would you stick with ‘ACK A ME’-laden Philadelphese?

Thom Nickels can be reached at

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.