PHILADELPHIA — Will Philly no longer be a place where residents drink wooder and root for the Iggles?
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 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 aren’t entirely clear but higher education appears to be a factor, as does simply being aware that certain local inflections are disparaged by outsiders.
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.
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.
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.”
Now the researchers’ goal is answering what Labov calls “the most important and most mysterious” question about language change.
“How is it possible that people in every neighborhood in Philadelphia are moving in the same direction?” he said. “We don’t have the answer yet.”