I might live in Edinburgh, Scotland now, but I haven't exactly left Philadelphia yet. When I moved here this past September, it was the first time in my life I ever lived outside the city limits of Philadelphia, and aside from my personal life, I have a fairly vested intellectual interest in the city's dialect. I just spent the last 3 years or so, together with William Labov, Ingrid Rosenfelder, Sue Sheehan, and many others, compiling decades worth of fieldwork into an electronic collection of dialectal information called the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus. I even wrote a dissertation on the topic(ish). Here’s a flashy bit of output from that research. Press play (at the bottom left), and watch 100 years of vowel sounds dance around.
Needless to say, my friends and family are keeping me up-to-date on what's going on in town, and this includes the New York Times Sunday Review piece by Daniel Nester called The Sound of Philadelphia Fades Out. In fact, one more person e-mailed it to me now as I was writing this. To be honest, my reaction to it has been more or less, "Eesh."
Nester's main complaint is that Hollywood films that portray Philadelphians rarely do so with accurate accents, and I totally agree. It either has to do with ignorance of film makers, that they don't know what Philadelphian sounds like, or the film makers worrying about the ignorance of the audience, that if the actors were using authentic Philadelphia accents, no one would understand what they were trying to portray.
But except for this scrap of common ground, I just don't like the piece very much. It starts out describing the accent like so:
No vowel escapes diphthongery, no hard consonant is safe from a mid-palate dent. Extra syllables pile up so as to avoid inconvenient tongue contact or mouth closure. If you forget to listen closely, the Philadelphia, or Filelfia, accent may sound like mumbled Mandarin without the tonal shifts.
Not an auspicious start. If you're not familiar with linguistic terminology, this is is all gobbledygook, but it does contain an interesting reversal of most folk dialect descriptions which has us putting in more syllables than usual, rather than dropping them out. I have no idea what it is about syllables as a unit of description and their presense or absence which fixates so many writers like Nester. "But wait," you say, "this is just an opinion piece, not science journalism! Maybe 'facts' and 'accuracy' don't matter." Ok, it sure would be nice to have a bit more of the science journalism treatment for linguistics, but even when it comes to the more touchy feely stuff, I've seen better. Take, for example, Samantha Melemed's piece which appeared in the Style and Soul section of the Philadelphia Inquirer two weeks ago called Translating Philly-ese. It's generally dialect-positive and doesn't resort to simply making stuff up. Or, there's the All Things Considered piece produced by Zack Seward called Dialects Changing, But Not Disappearing In Philadelphia, which I have to say is better than I could have hoped for when it comes to reporting on our recent Philadelphia studies (really, go listen to it).
On that point, the All Things Considered piece, which Nester linked to, is called Dialects Changing, But Not Disappearing In Philadelphia while Nester's is called The Sound of Philadelphia Fades Out. Well, both can't be accurate. The point me, Bill and Ingrid tried to make in our 2013 paper was that the Philadelphia dialect has started moving in a different direction than it was moving before. That means that some things are becoming a bit less distinctive, while others are becoming a bit more. For example, the word days has been raising and fronting over the past 100 years in Philadelphia, to sound a bit more like "deez", while day hasn't budged from having a mid, lax nucleus, creating a fairly distinct split between the two that is (as far as I know right now) unique to the dialect. Another fairly distinctive example is the merger of owl and Al (from which I got the name for my blog, Val Systems from "vowel systems"). It's an old feature of dialect, described all the way back in 1944 by Whitney Tucker, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.
It's actually really difficult to support a claim like Nester's, that the Philadelphia dialect is "fading out", with objective facts. It all depends on what point in time and in what social group you want to fix as being the reference, gold standard dialect. Go ahead and replay the the motion chart above from 1888 to 1950. In 1950, a lot of vowels have shifted around from where they were at the turn of the centry, and people might have accurately described the dialect as "fading away" with regard to how it sounded in 1900. Press play again, and in 1991, the dialect sounds different from how it did in 1950. It's more accurate to say that the Philadelphia dialect (and all dialects) is a moving target, made up of multiple component parts, some of which are more different from surrounding dialects than others, many of which are subject to change. Unfortunately, that message doesn't cash in on the combination of dialect mania that recently struck the Times, and Oscars night.
But what really bugs me about Nester's piece is how it revels in the eye-dialect (e.g. "sewda" for "soda", to indicate the pronunciation), which isn't helped by the graphics department totally whiffing on what a Philly soft pretzel looks like. I'd have to begrudgingly compliment him on his ear, except most of it seems to be borrowed from Sean Monahan's YouTube videos. I didn't feel the same way about Sean's videos back when they were originally posted, partially because he actually knows what he's talking about, and partially because you get the sense that he has a positive attitude and intellectual curiosity about the dialect. Nester's use, like you might expect from the opening paragraph, is really more about exoticizing the dialect.
This is, in fact, a real dialect spoken by real people (and so's Mandarin by the way) who have been generous enough to the researchers at UPenn to have invited us into their homes and told us about their lives. It was important to me, when we were talking to reporters surrounding our 2013 paper, to say that I think it would be a violation of those people's trust for them to be made fun of, or have their accents dragged out into the media like it's some kind of freak show. While Nester tries to make gestures that "I'm just one of yous," the piece is clearly about making a spectacle of the dialect, almost verging on treating Philadelphians as noble savages, their strange and incomprehensible language now a dying tongue.
I normally wouldn't spend so many words on a relatively contentless opinion piece, but I feel like I owe it to the speakers of Philadelphia being lampooned to say something. It is really only through the generosity of their time and stories that I've been able to launch my academic career, landing me in a pretty nice academic position in a pretty wonderful place. I fundamentally consider myself a scientist, not a politician, but as I told Zach Seward for the NPR story, to the extent we can spark any pride in people for the dialect they have, that's a bonus.
Above is a guest post by Josef Fruehwald.