Philadelphia English is a variety or dialect of American English native to Philadelphia and extending into Philadelphia's suburbs in the Delaware Valley. The geographical extent includes nearby Reading, northern Delaware centered around Wilmington, South Jersey centered around the Atlantic City and Hammonton metropolitan area, and much of Central Jersey. The Philadelphia accent, which has vigorously been in a complicated state of flux since the twentieth century onwards, is one of the best-studied in American English, as Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania is the home institution of pioneering sociolinguist William Labov. The mid-twentieth century Philadelphia accent is very similar to the Baltimore accent; in fact, the local varieties of the two cities together constitute what Labov describes as a single "Mid-Atlantic dialect". Philadelphia English also shares some distinct features with New York City English and Midland American English, although it is still its own unique dialect.
According to linguist Barbara Johnstone, migration patterns and geography affected the dialect's development, which was especially influenced by immigrants from Northern England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Today, a local Philadelphia accent is most strongly heard in Philadelphia's Irish American and Italian American working-class neighborhoods as well as in the surrounding cities and suburbs.
Philadelphia English and New York City English have a common ancestor dialect that likely existed in the 1800s, since both modern dialects demonstrate related accent features that are not found anywhere else in the United States, such as a high /ɔː/ vowel (creating a severe contrast between words like cot and caught) as well as a split pronunciation of the short a vowel, /æ/ (making gas and gap, for example, have different vowels sounds), albeit the Philadelphia and New York City versions of this split are unique, though still related. One important indicator of this is that Philadelphia's short a split is documented as being a simplified variant of New York City's split. Unlike New York City English, however, most speakers of Philadelphia English have always used a rhotic accent (meaning that the r sound is never "dropped").
In the twentieth century, the Philadelphia accent intensely underwent sound shifts in non-linear, complex directions. First, in the very late 1800s until about the 1940s or 1950s, the Philadelphia accent shifted to sound more like one of the emerging (and now-common) regional accents of the American South/Midland, for example in fronting //, raising //, and even some reported weakening of //. However, starting in the 1940s, women led a reversal of these sound changes: a new and opposite trajectory, which became well-established during the 1950s among Philadelphia speakers generally and which has since reoriented younger generations of Philadelphians more towards the regional accents of the North. Moreover, the Philadelphia accent even began retreating away from its longstanding New York City-like features, developing more of its own entirely unique features, discussed further below. Higher-educated Philadelphians born in or since the last quarter of the 1900s are also showing remarkable regularity in replacing the traditional Philadelphia // split with a General American-like tensing of // only before nasal consonants; this probably began around the time the first of these generations attended college. Of the younger Philadelphia accent, "the most strongly supported generalization is that Philadelphia has moved away from its Southern heritage in favor of a Northern system, avoiding those forms that are most saliently associated with local phonology".
The vowels in Philadelphia speech show a remarkable degree of volatility. Labov's extensive research has identified changes affecting over half of the vowel phonemes. In regional terms, Philadelphia shows a mixture of Northeastern and Midland patterns.
- A feature shared by Philadelphians, New Yorkers, and southern New Englanders is the raising and diphthongizing of // to [oə] or even higher [o̝ə]. The raised variants often appear as diphthongs with a centering glide. As a result, Philadelphia is resistant to the cot–caught merger. Labov's research suggests that this pattern of raising is essentially complete in Philadelphia and seems no longer to be an active change.
- One of the features that Philadelphia shares with Midland dialects (and one absent from New York speech) is the fronting of /oʊ/ and /uː/; the resulting allophones are around [ɜʊ] and [ʉu], respectively. Generally, greater degrees of fronting are heard when the vowels appear in "free" positions (i.e., without a following consonant) than in "checked" positions (i.e., with a following consonant). Fronting does not occur in the context of following liquids leading to a significant difference between, e.g., goat and goal. The fronting of /oʊ/ and /uː/ is well established in Philadelphia, though cross-generational data show that it remains an active change. Fronted nuclei in /aʊ/ are well established in Philadelphia speech as in New York. More recent research has noted a tendency among the middle-aged and younger generation of Philadelphians to raise the vowel, resulting in [ɛɔ].
- /ʊ/, the vowel in foot, is sometimes fronted though not to the degree seen with /oʊ/ and /uː/.
- As in New York City English and Baltimore English, historical "short a" has split into two phonemes: lax /æ/ (as in bat) and tense /eə/ (as in bath). Their distribution in Philadelphia along with Baltimore, however, is different from that of New York City: for instance, the words mad (tense) and sad (lax) do not rhyme in Philadelphia or Baltimore, but do for New York City and most other English dialects. Not all Philadelphians have this unique split system and some are beginning to favor the more General American tensing of short a only before nasals (especially under the influence of youth trends and higher education); in fact, as a general rule, native Philadelphians only consistently have this split system if their own parents are native Philadelphians. For more details on the Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York systems see: phonemic /æ/ tensing in the Mid-Atlantic region or click "show" below.
- As in New York, Boston, and most native dialects of English outside North America, there is a three-way distinction between Mary [ˈmeɹi]~[ˈmeəɹi], marry [ˈmæɹi], and merry [ˈmɛɹi]~[ˈmɜɹi]. However, in Philadelphia some older speakers have a merger (or close approximation) of /ɛ/ and /ʌ/ before /ɹ/ (the furry–ferry merger), so that merry is merged instead with Murray (with both pronounced as something like [mʌɹi]). Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 54) report that about one third of Philadelphia speakers have this merger, one third have a near-merger, and one third keep the two distinct. Relatedly, as in New York, many words like orange, Florida, and horrible have /ɑ/ before /ɹ/ rather than the /ɔɹ/ used in many other American dialects (See: Historic "short o" before intervocalic r).
- Canadian raising, as in General American, occurs for /aɪ/ (as in price) but not for /aʊ/ (as in mouth) (Labov, Ash, and Boberg 2006: 114–15, 237–38). Consequently, the diphthong in like may begin with a nucleus of mid or even higher position [lʌik], which distinguishes it from the diphthong in live [laɪv]. Canadian raising in Philadelphia occurs before voiceless consonants, and it is extended to occur before some voiced consonants as well, including intervocalic voiced stops as in tiger and spider. Fruehwald argues that /aɪ/ has actually undergone a phonemic split in Philadelphia as a result of Canadian raising. The raising of /aɪ/ is unusual as the innovators of this change are primarily male speakers while the other changes in progress are led primarily by females. The sociolinguistic evidence suggests this raising is a fairly recent addition to Philadelphia speech.
- Early descriptions of Philadelphia speech indicate lowered and/or laxed variants of /iː/ were common. The recent sociolinguistic evidence indicates a reversal of this trend such that the vowel is now commonly raised and fronted. This raising is heard primarily before consonants (e.g., eat).
- The Linguistic Atlas researchers recorded lax variants of /eɪ/ near [ɛɪ]. As with /iː/, recent research suggests this trend is being reversed by raising and fronting of the vowel often to a position well beyond [e]. This raising occurs before consonants (e.g., paid); in word-final position (pay), /eɪ/ remains lowered and lax.
- Many Philadelphians use a rather high and back vowel for /ɑr/ as in start; something near [ɔ]. The so-called horse–hoarse merger takes place, and the merged vowel is typically mid to high back; it can be as high as [ʊ]. As noted in New York, these tendencies toward backing and raising of /ɑr/ and /ɔr/ may constitute a chain shift. The evidence suggests the movement of /ɑr/ began this shift, and this vowel is relatively stable today, while generational differences are heard in the shifting of /ɔr/.
- /ɔɪ/, as in choice, may be more raised than in other dialects; sometimes it is as high as [ʊɪ].
- /ʌ/, as in strut, may show raised and back variants. In some cases, the vowel is in the high, back corner of the vowel space near /u/. This is reportedly a recent development and is one more common among male speakers.
- Labov's research has indicated a tendency toward lowering of the lax vowels /ɪ/ and /ɛ/. This pattern is not yet well established and is labeled by Labov as an "incipient" change.
- Philadelphia forms the core of the only traditionally rhotic area of the American East Coast. This area runs from Pennsylvania and South Jersey down to Delaware and northern Maryland, and remains fully r-pronouncing today.
- Non-rhoticity (r-dropping) can be found in some areas of Philadelphia, such as among working-class male speakers specifically from South Philadelphia, especially those born in the first half of the 1900s and of Italian or Jewish descent. On the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum, non-rhoticity in speakers from the Philadelphia Main Line may be a result of wealthy families sending their children to expensive boarding schools in the United Kingdom up until the 1960s. Non-rhoticity is most prevalent among black Philadelphians, who largely do not demonstrate the regional speech features of Philadelphia English; instead, many black Philadelphians speak African American Vernacular English.
- Consonant changes, especially reductions and lenitions, are very common in informal conversational speech, so that:
- The sibilant /s/ is palatalized to [ʃ] (as in she) before /tr/. Thus, the word streets might be pronounced "shtreets" [ˈʃtɹits].
- L-vocalization is quite pervasive in Philadelphia speech. Phonetically it may be realized as something like [o] or a velar or labio-velar glide, [ɰ] or [w], or the consonant may be deleted altogether. Among Philadelphians, as in other dialects, vocalization occurs quite frequently in word-final and pre-consonantal contexts (e.g., mill, milk). In a more unusual development, vocalization may also occur inter-vocalically in Philadelphia. This tendency is more common when /l/ appears following low vowels bearing primary word stress (e.g., hollow). This variable also shows some lexical conditioning, appearing, for example, with exceptionally high frequency in the pronunciation of the name of the city (Ash 1997). This, in part, leads to the stereotype of Philadelphia being pronounced as "Fluffya" or "Filelfia."
- As in other areas, the interdental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ are often realized as stops, [t] and [d] or affricates [tθ] and [dð] in Philadelphia speech. This variation appears to be a stable class-stratified feature with the non-fricative forms appearing more commonly in working class speech.
- The yew–hew merger can be found, as in New York City, in which words like human and huge, which begin with an /hj/ cluster, the /h/ is commonly deleted giving [ˈjumən] and [judʒ].
- Consonant cluster reductions, such as removing the "t" sound from consonant clusters, so that "mustard" sounds more like "mussard," or "soft" like "sawff."
- On may be pronounced [ɔən], so that, as in the South and Midland varieties of American English (and unlike New York) it rhymes with dawn rather than don. However, Philadelphia has been noted as featuring, at least among some speakers, the Northern /ɑ/ in on (Kurath and McDavid 1961).
- The word water is commonly pronounced [ˈwʊɾəɹ] (with the first syllable rhyming with the word put, so that it sounds like wooter.) This is considered by many to be the defining characteristic of the Philadelphia dialect.
- The word towel is commonly pronounced the same as tal in the word tally.
- Both long-e and long-a sounds are shortened before /ɡ/. Eagle rhymes with giggle [ˈɪɡəɫ] (as in "the Iggles"); league [ɫɪɡ] rhymes with big ; vague and plague rhyme with peg (pronounced [vɛɡ] and [pʰɫɛɡ], respectively). For some Philadelphians, colleague and fatigue also have /ɪ/ (pronounced [ˈkʰɑɫɪɡ] and [fəˈtʰɪɡ], respectively). However, these are words learned later, so many use the more standard American [ˈkʰɑɫiɡ] and [fəˈtʰiɡ].
- In words like gratitude, beautiful, attitude, Baltimore, and prostitute, the i may be pronounced with a long ee sound [i], as in bee.
- Many words ending in -ow or -o, such as window, widow, tomato, or casino, are pronounced with a schwa ending (like the indistinct vowel sound at the end of the word coda). Thus, windows would be pronounced [ˈwɪndəz] and tomorrow would be pronounced [tʰəˈmɑɹə].
For example, a sandwich consisting of a long bread filled with lunch meat, cheese, and lettuce, onion and tomato, variously called a "sub" or "submarine sandwich" in other parts of the United States, is called a hoagie. Olive oil, rather than mayonnaise, is used as a topping, and "hot" or "sweet" peppers are used for spice. The term 'hoagie' originated in Philadelphia. A similar sandwich toasted in an oven or broiler is called a grinder.
Small chocolate or multi-colored confections sprinkled on ice cream and cake icing, elsewhere called sprinkles are known as jimmies in the Philadelphia area, as well as in the Boston (although only chocolate ones are Jimmies in Boston) and Pittsburgh areas.
Many Philadelphians are known to use the expression "youse" both as second person plural and (rarely) second person singular pronoun, much like the mostly Southern / Western expression "y'all" or the Pittsburgh term, "yinz". "Youse" (often "youse guys" when addressing multiple people) is common in many working class northeastern areas, but is often associated with Philadelphia especially. The pronunciation reflects vowel reduction more often than not, yielding // and // ("yiz") just as often as the stereotypical //. (ex: "Yiz want anything at the store?" "Yiz guys alright over there?"). Second person singular forms commonly are heard as // and //. Although enthusiasts celebrating the accent's distinctiveness like to point out that instances of terminal /z/ in singular use occur, it is inaccurate to say they are common.
Notable examples of native speakers
The following well-known Philadelphians represent a sampling of those who have exhibited a rhotic, Philadelphia accent:
- Chuck Barris — "Barris' Philly accent"
- Bob Brady — "a thick Philly accent."
- David Brenner — "he never tried to dump his Philadelphia accent"
- Jim Cramer — "his pronounced Philly accent"
- Tim Donaghy — "Philly accent remains as thick"
- Johnny Dougherty — "thick Philadelphia accent"
- Joan Jett — "her distinct Philadelphia accent & swagger"
- Joe Kerrigan — "with his curt Philadelphia accent"
- Jim Lynam — "speaks in a fast, choppy tone with a distinct Philadelphia accent."
- Herb Magee — "Philadelphia University coach, whose accent, Irish mug, and hoops pedigree epitomize the hometown he's never left"
- Bam Margera — "Not sure if you’ve heard the Philly patois? ...star Bam Margera, who is from nearby West Chester, has it."
- Chris Matthews — "I don’t think I ever realized I had a Philadelphia accent"
- Mike Mayock — "With his thick Philly accent"
- Kathleen McGinty — "McGinty intones in a Philadelphia accent."
- Patrick Joseph Murphy — "Murphy hasn't lost his thick Philly accent"
Lifelong non-rhotic South Philadelphia speakers
These speakers, primarily of Irish, Italian, or Jewish ethnicity, show the non-rhotic accent local to South Philadelphia in the first half of the 1900s:
- Joey Bishop — "an accent as thick as a porterhouse steak"
- Larry Fine — "mimic Fine’s Philadelphia accent"
- William Guarnere and Edward "Babe" Heffron — "the old South Philly accent"
- Dom Irrera — "distinctive Philadelphia accent"
These speakers retain slight traces or elements of a rhotic Philadelphia accent:
- Gloria Allred — "slightly nasal, Philadelphia-accented voice that can drip with sarcasm"
- Kevin Bacon and Bruce Willis — "two native [Philadelphia] sons, Bruce Willis (Salem County, N.J.) and Kevin Bacon (Center City Philadelphia), who, at least in interviews early in their career, before accent reduction training kicked in, let their diphthong freak flags fly."
- Jill Biden — "She exaggerates her Philadelphia suburbs accent, which is already pretty strong."
- Noam Chomsky — "I speak with the accent from a certain area in northeastern Philadelphia where I grew up."
- "G. Love" Dutton — "a watered-down Philadelphian accent"
- Benjamin Netanyahu — "his Philly-flecked American English a vestige of his childhood years in suburban Cheltenham."
In the media
Actual Philadelphia accents are seldom heard in movies and television, in which actors often mistakenly use a New York accent or simply substitute a General American accent. Philadelphia natives who work in media and entertainment often assimilate to the General American broadcast standard. Speakers with a noticeable local accent include Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC's Mad Money, singer Joe Bonsall, political commentator Chris Matthews, Bam Margera, and several others in the MTV Jackass crew. Venezuelan American actress Sonya Smith, who was born in Philadelphia, speaks with a Philadelphia accent in both English and Venezuelan Spanish.
Movies and television shows set in the Philadelphia region generally make the mistake of giving the characters a working class New York dialect (specifically heard in films set in Philadelphia such as the Rocky series, Invincible, and A History of Violence). A contrary example is the character of Lynn Sear (played by Toni Collette) in The Sixth Sense, who speaks with an accurate Philadelphia dialect. In the film Sleepers, Kevin Bacon, a Philadelphia native, uses an exaggerated Philadelphia accent for the character of Sean Nokes.
The use of geographically inaccurate dialects is also true in movies and television programs set in Atlantic City or any other region of South Jersey; the characters often use a supposed "Joisey" dialect, when in reality that New York-influenced dialect for New Jersey natives is almost always exclusive to the extreme northeastern region of the state nearest New York City. An important factor here is that in the real world, "local" TV, political, and sports personalities in South Jersey and part of Central Jersey are culturally associated with Philadelphia, not New York City.
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