Philadelphia English is the variety of American English spoken in Philadelphia and extending into Philadelphia's suburbs in the Delaware Valley and South and Central Jersey. It is one of the best-studied accents of American English since Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania is the home institution of William Labov, one of the most productive American sociolinguists. Philadelphia English shares some distinct features with the New York City English and to a lesser extent other regions of the United States, although it is its own unique dialect region.
The Philadelphia dialect is also similar to the dialects of Reading, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Delaware; and to a lesser extent Baltimore, Maryland, together with which it constitutes what Labov describes as the "Mid-Atlantic dialect". The accent is commonly heard amongst the Irish American and Italian American working-class neighborhoods and its surrounding cities and suburbs.
Due to the fact that the accent is often considered to be the toughest to emulate, actual Philadelphia dialects are seldom heard nationally. Movies and television depictions often substitute a New York or a General American accent. 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 and political commentator Chris Matthews, Bam Margera, and several others in the MTV Jackass crew. In addition, the Philadelphia accent can be heard prominently in many of the songs of the Philadelphia area bands The Dead Milkmen, Bloodhound Gang, and G. Love & Special Sauce. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent much of his youth in the Philadelphia area, and his English is influenced by a Philadelphia accent. 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.
The accent is generally spoken in Southeastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Northern Delaware, but it is not uncommon to hear the accent being spoken as far north as Pottsville, PA and as far south as Lewes, DE.
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 an interesting 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. 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 is situated in the middle of the only traditionally rhotic area of the Atlantic states. This area runs from Pennsylvania and New Jersey down to Delaware and Northern Maryland, and remains r-pronouncing today.
- 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".
- 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, in which words like human and huge, which begin with an /hj/ cluster, the /h/ is commonly deleted giving [ˈjumən] and [judʒ].
- In some areas, such as the Main Line, non-rhoticity can be found. This may be a result of wealthy families sending their children to expensive boarding schools in the United Kingdom up until the 1960s.
- 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 wooder.) 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 rhymes with big [lɪɡ]; 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.
Pizzerias may have been among the first Italian-American eateries, but even at the turn of the [20th] century distinctions were clear-cut as to what constituted a true ristorante. To be merely a pizza-maker was to be at the bottom of the culinary and social scale; so many pizzeria owners began offering other dishes, including the hero sandwich (also, depending on the region of the United States, called a 'wedge,' a 'hoagie,' a 'sub,' or a 'grinder') made on a Italian loaf of bread with lots of salami, cheese, and peppers.—America Eats Out, John Mariani [Morrow:New York] 1991 (p. 66)
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 and Pittsburgh areas.
The interjection yo originated in the Philadelphia dialect among Italian American and African American youths. The word is commonly used as a greeting or a way to get someone's attention. The term is now widely used amongst all ethnicities in the Philadelphia metro.
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 lifelong native speakers
- David Brenner — "he never tried to dump his Philadelphia accent"
- Jim Cramer — "his pronounced Philly accent"
- Johnny Dougherty — "thick Philadelphia accent"
- “G. Love” Dutton — "a watered-down Philadelphian accent"
- Dom Irrera — "distinctive Philadelphia accent"
- Patrick Joseph Murphy — "Murphy hasn't lost his thick Philly accent"
- Frank Rizzo, mayor of Philadelphia, and Frank Rizzo, Jr.
- Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel. Between 1956 and 1958, and again from 1963 to 1967, his family lived in the United States in Cheltenham Township, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, where he attended and graduated from Cheltenham High School and was active in a debate club. To this day, he speaks fluent English and has retained his Philadelphia accent
- Etymologies of place names in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Central Pennsylvania accent
- Northeast Pennsylvania English
- Pennsylvania Dutch English
- North American English regional phonology#Northeastern dialects
- Regional vocabularies of American English
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