Meredith Tamminga on NPR

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Dave Heller, "Why an actor from Brooklyn can't talk like a Philadelphian", Newsworks Tonight (WHYY), 2/2/2015:

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You may have trouble describing it, but you sure know it when you hear it — the unmistakable Philly accent.

Meredith Tamminga, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania makes it her work to make sense of variations in language. She visited WHYY to tout the tones and words that make Phillyspeak unique.

Listen to the whole thing.

That cute "There's no jawn like home" billboard might not make sense to you if you're not from here — in fact, it seems a bit odd to me to use it on a billboard that's supposed to attract visitors, unless they're trying to lure people who've moved away from Philadelphia back for a sentimental vacation.

So for some local lexicographical color, here's Emily Guendelsberger interviewing Ben Zimmer on "The etymology of 'jawn'" in The City Paper, 3/18/2014:

Jawn's been in the news lately — the Daily News' Bill Bender got the perfect quote from a witness to one of the many worrying building collapses, and "The whole jawn came down" will now live forever. We thought, then, that this was the perfect time to post this interview with linguist, lexicographer, Wall Street Journal columnist and former New York Times On Language columnist, UPenn Language Log-ger and all-around good sport Ben Zimmer, in which he sheds some light on the origins of "jawn," plus "hoagie," "chumpy" and other words from Philly’s regional lexicon.

Or see Janis Chakars, "'Jawn' is one Philly thing New York can't lay claim to", Newsworks 6/21/2013.


  1. John McWhorter said,

    February 2, 2015 @ 10:59 pm

    I grew up in Philadelphia hearing JAWN and never knew how local it was. I once asked my once and forever mentor John Rickford, AAVE expert, about it and he drew a blank — because you have to have grown up in Philly to have drunk it in, apparently. Not that buttoned-up me has ever "drunked" anything, of course — but JAWN was just around. My favorite example, from the early 90s when I was in town for a few days and getting a haircut — a (black, working-class) guy said, hearing an oldish pop song played on the sound system, said "Yeah, that was one of their first jawns!" But then, around the same time, in California where I lived at the time, I mentioned to a friend I had grown up with his tendency to talk about things as SHITS or JAWNS, and our friends there received JAWNS as high comedy, as exotic as some foreign word. And damned if I can trace what JAWNS comes from. It's previous to JONES as in "having a Jones" for something — and the phonetic path from OH to AW is off: AAVE doesn't have BAWNS for BONES. Intuition suggests JOHNS as a source, but my God, how????

    [(myl) Ben Zimmer offers some evidence it's from joint. He doesn't discuss the phonetics, but presumably it's a combination of monophthongization of /ɔɪ/ (part of the "back upglide shift") and final t-d deletion, both documented properties of Southern American English and AAVE. This doesn't explain why the "jawn" development is specific to Philly, though, or why it became lexicalized among people who don't otherwise monophthongize /ɔɪ/ etc.]

  2. Chas said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 12:28 am

    If Meredith is from Philly, then there must be some Canadian-like vowel shifts going on there now. But it says on her LinkedIn page that she went to McGill, so I bet she's Canadian.

  3. Rubrick said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 2:46 am

    I'll note in passing that Meredith is a fairly strong uptalker.

  4. Keith said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 3:18 am

    My first thought on this, when I saw that the article was about a building collapsing, was that it reminded me of an expression that my grandparents (South Yorkshire, UK) used to use and that I had imagined would be spelled "joam" or "jawm".

    Years later I learned it was spelled "jamb" and that most people would pronounce it "jam" (silent "b", like that in "lamb").

    [(myl) I don't think that word is related — jawn just means "thing" — see e.g. the examples in Janis Chakars, "'Jawn' is one Philly thing New York can't lay claim to", Newsworks 6/21/2013.]

  5. John Swindle said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 3:42 am

    A friend originally from thereabouts says "ritler" for "Realtor." Is that a Philadelphia thing or an individual variation?

  6. David Morris said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 4:13 am

    Is this pronounced /dʒɔːn/, or how?

    Last week my class was talking about sleep, and one student asked what '/dʒɔːn/' meant. She'd seen 'yawn' in the textbook, and rather than waiting for the textbook to explain what it meant, she'd entered it into her electronic dictionary and seen '/jɔːn/' and interpreted that as '/dʒɔːn/'.

  7. Alan Palmer said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 4:43 am

    I see Meredith mentions the use of 'pavement' for 'sidewalk'. That's the regular use in the UK as well.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 8:26 am

    From all of the examples given, especially "The whole jawn came down", I immediately thought that it must be from "joint". It might help phonologically that I've been living in the Philadelphia area since 1979, but I can't say that I recall personally ever having heard anyone use the word "jawn". Perhaps that's because my topolects in the region are University City (global English), where I work, and Swarthmore (Quaker English), where my house is. But I must have picked up enough of the sounds and speech mannerisms of different neighborhoods as I move about through the city as a whole that somehow "jawn" just seems natural to me.

    BTW, my first extended encounter with Philadelphia topolect, seven years before I came to Penn, occurred in Taiwan, and is described here:

  9. Victor Mair said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 9:07 am


    I noticed the uptalk tendency too and wondered whether anyone would mention it. Then again, so many young people (and not just young people either), especially (but not exclusively) women, use it that I thought perhaps no one would make a comment about it, in light of the fact that we've discussed it so many times in so many different ways on Language Log that it has become almost unremarkable, particularly when it's not excessive, in which case it almost seems like the new normal, or one of the new normals.

  10. Meredith Tamminga said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 9:54 am

    Thanks for the post Mark! I was a fan of their choice to use the jawn billboard as well.

    I had this whole little metalinguistic thing going on in the back of my head during the interview: I noticed I was uptalking even more than I usually do, wondered why and whether I should try to stop, realized it was because Dave Heller is a strong conversational partner and I was subconsciously asserting the continuation of my turn, decided that was reasonable given the context, and forged ahead. Guess that's what happens when you put a sociolinguist on the radio!

    And yes…I'm Canadian :) good catch @Chas

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

    It seems entirely plausible to me that JAWN comes from "joint" rather than "jones," but it also sounds from the evidence cited that "jawn" emerged fairly recently* — probably more recently than the relevant sense of "jones." From a moment trawling through google books the earliest usage of the relevant sense of "jones" I found quickly was a poem by Robert Elliot Fox published in 1981: "I got a jones for you, girl: madonna of the boogaloo, matriarch of mysteries. I want to get down deep in your deep sugar, dynamite at the center of gravity, gone again." But I suspect it's older than that. (My perhaps incorrect sense is that the core sense of "jones" is or at least originally was the heroin-user one – the feeling of desperate/overwhelming need associated with being dopesick because you're in the throes of trying to kick or just haven't been able to score, with other varieties of strong desire/need, such as being lovesick, being extensions of that.)

    *FWIW I don't remember "jawn" at all from my own Delaware Valley childhood, which doesn't mean it wasn't already extant in inner-city black Philly neighborhoods but suggests it hadn't expanded more broadly in either ethnic or geographic terms. Indeed, while I was certainly not a trained sociolinguistics fieldworker I had even as a teenager enough interest in linguistics to notice distinctive lexical items habitually used by the urban (inner-city Wilm, Del.) black kids bused out to my majority-white suburban high school that weren't, at least originally, in our own teenage lexicon, and that isn't one that was in sufficient use by that demographic in the early '80's to have made any impression on me. How quickly Wilmington AAVE does or does not adopt/reflect innovations from, say, Baltimore or Philly (or rural Delmarva peninsula, since it's not like only urban areas innovate) AAVE, and in what proportions, might be an interesting bit of fieldwork.

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 12:43 pm

    J. W. Brewer: The New Partridge has citations for "jones" meaning "addiction" back to 1962.

  13. cameron said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

    I've heard people from Philly (and perhaps South Jersey?) saw "jawn" but I never really thought of it as a distinct word, just an odd way of pronouncing "joint" – since that's clearly what they meant. I'm from New York.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

    Thanks, Jerry Friedman. FWIW, that edition of Partridge has 1988 as the first date for what I think is the relevant non-Philly sense of "joint" (that seen in e.g. referring to a particular movie as a "Spike Lee Joint").

  15. Martin Rice said,

    February 3, 2015 @ 2:31 pm

    i'm pretty old, 77, and although I've been away from Philly for a long time, everyone who can recognize "Phillyspeak" spots me right away. And I've never hheard jawn until I came across this article today. I therefore assume it's a pretty new construction. But I think it's beauteeful. Oh, and the first time I heard "sidewalk" I thought it was some kind of dance step.

  16. Lane said,

    February 4, 2015 @ 4:36 am

    Meredith, I noticed you used "white rice" for an example of southern monophthongization, but isn't that exactly the divisive example in the south, separating inland from lowland, that diphthong before unvoiced consonants? My people are from central Georgia, so they have [wait rais] and not [wa:t ra:s]. I posted on why Ryan Kwanten/Jason Stackhouse's accent is wrong for Louisiana in True Blood here…

  17. Lane said,

    February 4, 2015 @ 6:43 am

    And to be clear, I realize perhaps you knew that perfectly well and simply don't share my implicit assumption that deep Dixie is the "real South"…

  18. Meredith Tamminga said,

    February 4, 2015 @ 10:10 pm

    Lane, that's right, /ay/-monophthongization before voiceless consonants is characteristic of the Inland South and the phrase "white rice" is, to my knowledge, a bit of a shibboleth. Having never lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line I can't say I have a thorough grasp on the cultural implications, though!

  19. Brendan said,

    February 7, 2015 @ 2:15 pm

    For what it's worth, "jawn" was current (particularly among my Black classmates) in the Philly public school I went to in the 90s. I'd always assumed it came from "joint," as in "A Spike Lee Joint" — "jones" would never have occurred to me as a source for "jawn," as they're not a very good match semantically.

    Another thing I've wondered about for a while is the word "salty," which was ubiquitous (at least in my school) in the sense of "having been made to look stupid," but which I've never heard from any non-Philadelphian.

  20. terry said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

    "salty" definately is a Philly word too.

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