"How Millennials are Destroying the Philly Accent"

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Episode 35 of "The Vocal Fries" podcast:

"This linguistics podcast breaks down Philly’s great, and changing, dialect:  The hosts thankfully get way past 'jawn' and 'wooder ice'", by Adam Hermann, PhillyVoice (11/27/18)

Philadelphia’s accent is unmistakable, and it’s often a source of pride among residents….

The podcast chatted with Betsy Sneller, who did her Ph.D. research at Penn, about what she calls Philadelphia English.

“Philly has such a great dialect,” Sneller said. “It’s got a lot of features that differentiate it from other dialects, and some of those are salient, so speakers from Philly will be able to say, ‘We say this.’ And some of those features are not salient, so it’s basically only linguists who notice it and care about it.”

The segment starts with some pretty typical Philly accent fare — they take brief tours through “jawn” and “youse” and “wooder” — but it gets interesting when they start talking about the Philadelphia A.

People who speak with the Philadelphia English dialect, Sneller explained, use what’s called a “split short-a system,” talking about the sound speakers make when they say a word like “trap.”

Sneller says Philadelphia English’s version of the split short-a system is one of the most complex in English, so you can flaunt that over anyone who thinks Philadelphians talk funny.

Listen to the embedded podcast.  It's a little over one hour long; the Philly accent segment begins at 15:00 and ends a few minutes before the end.

Readings and a watching

[h.t. Ross Bender]


  1. Jim Breen said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 7:23 pm

    Has "dialect" become a synonym for "accent"?

    [And an aside about the LLog comment system, I used to have the option of asking for email notifications when people commented on an article. That's vanished. Is it because of a feral cookie in my browser, or has the option been removed? If the latter, can it be restored?]

  2. Andrew Usher said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 10:30 pm

    They have never been well distinguished in American English study. I suspect that even in Britain it's only in the late 19c. that you see both words being used consistently at all since etymology doesn't really support it – both could mean 'way of speaking' (though only 'accent' is ever applied to a single person, as much as I remember) in broad terms.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  3. Jerry Packard said,

    November 29, 2018 @ 10:54 pm

    Fluff ya.

  4. Philip Taylor said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 3:15 am

    Doesn't a dialect imply a (usually partially) different vocabulary, whilst an accent implies a different pronunciation ? And I too have lost (and miss) the opportunity to receive e-mail notifications of new comments.

  5. maidhc said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 3:35 am

    For a long time I've heard "dialect" applied to places like Lancashire, Yorkshire, etc. To me it means that that area has certain unique words or grammatical formations. Whereas "accent" means just a particular way of pronouncing various sounds. In Toronto, for example, "little" is often pronounced "liddle". I'd say that's an accent.

    I don't know that much about Philadelphia, but I believe they have a number of unique words like "yinz" that would justify calling it a dialect.

    Of course places with dialects frequently have accents too, so it gets confusing. Estuary English clearly has an accent, featuring frequent use of glottal stops and other features. But does it have enough unique structural features to call it a dialect, the way we would with Tyneside or West Country?

    It does be a canny question.

  6. AntC said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 5:35 am

    Episode whatever of vocal fry

    Kardashianism has reached New Zealand

    Strangely, the research is by a Speech Therapist, an ENT medic and a Communications Disorder-ist: vocal fry is apparently bad for your tonsils (according to a piece just now on NZ National Radio).

  7. Ellen K. said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 10:23 am

    Well, the cited "jawn", "wooder ice", and "youse" are local terms, not local pronunciations of terms used elsewhere. "Wooder" for water is accent, yes, but "water ice" or "wooder ice" is a regional thing. And seems to me dialect includes accent, so talking about accent differences along with unique words would fit under the word "dialect".

  8. Peter B. Golden said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 11:04 am

    As I understand it, the Philly "accent" is part of a larger Mid-Atlantic dialect grouping, stretching from New Jersey to Maryland. Allegedly, the dividing line between two distinct pronunciations of "greasy" (grīsī vs. grīzī) lies in the middle of Trenton. Typical of this dialect are pronunciations like "broit" (bright), mǖv (move) etc. In Philadelphia, I have heard Race Street pronounced as "Rice Street." As a New York City native, I noticed this after I began teaching at Rutgers 49 years ago. We moved to central New Jersey in the mid-70s and I have had a chance to observe a variety of NJ accents, among students and neighbors.
    Local New York City accents used to differ from borough to borough, often with ethnolect variants, e.g. Brooklyn Irish had "berl" (boil), "erl " (oil), and "toity-toid" (thirty-third). I have the impression today that the old borough accents, instantly recognizable, are disappearing.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 11:47 am

    The linked piece claims that "The Philadelphia English dialect region extends all the way down into Baltimore!" Which leads me to wonder if there's some Baltimore-published source making the parallel claim (with more or less the same truth value) that "The Baltimore English dialect region extends all the way up into Philadelphia!" I grew up in between those two metropolises (although much closer to Philly), which maybe makes it easier for me to view some of my own distinctive pronunciation features, as well as some others not in my idiolect but in the idiolect of some of my schoolmates growing up, as part of a regional continuum. I don't have "wooder" for water, but I do have the region's characteristic GOAT-fronting (and the parallel GOOSE-fronting that for some reason seems less prominent in descriptions of the accent).

  10. Allen Thrasher said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 11:50 am

    When I was at Harvard in the 60s, I had a Boston or rather Medford Irish townie frriend, born around 1943, who told me that at one time people in the region could tell what parish you came from by your accent.

    One of the many stories about the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe is that she asked someone, "You're Jesus, aren't you?" "Yes, but how could you tell?" "A matter of prepositions." She was of course referring to Jesus College.

  11. Michèle Sharik said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 1:01 pm

    Just wanted to add my voice to those wondering where the heck the checkbox went to sign up for email notifications of new comments! (I mentioned it before, but received no answer — perhaps because nobody was notified of my new comment? lol)

    PS what is "jawn"? Is that "join"?

    PSS I used to watch old episodes of The Bowery Boys when I was a kid (my dad, born in 1919 in Jersey City, loved them) and always wondered about their pronunciation of Pitts-boig. Then I was in Germany and my cousin (who grew up speaking Plaatdüütsch) said "Papen-boig" instead of "Papenburg", so now I'm wondering if it's a German-immigrant thing?

  12. Ellen K. said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 2:40 pm

    According to Google:

    noun: jawn; plural noun: jawns

    (chiefly in eastern Pennsylvania) used to refer to a thing, place, person, or event that one need not or cannot give a specific name to.
    "these jawns are very inexpensive"

  13. The other Eric said,

    November 30, 2018 @ 6:46 pm


    Yins is very much from the other side of the state—i.e. Pittsburghese.
    I believe the Phila. equivalent is yous.

  14. Levantine said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 11:07 am

    More on "jawn": https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-enduring-mystery-of-jawn-philadelphias-allpurpose-noun

  15. Topher Cooper said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 11:50 am

    Re: Michèle Sharik question about "boig"

    Nothing authoritative to contribute, but years ago I read somewhere the claim that "boig/boid/toid/etc.") was a holdover from the Dutch. In particular (so it was claimed) the wealthy Dutch who remained after New York went to the English constituted an early "upper crust" whose accents were imitated. As far as I know, (not that I know a whole lot about Dutch dialects) this is not a current feature of any Dutch accent, but that hardly signifies much — it may have been a local accent, or an accent derived from a limited region of the Netherlands, or it may have simply been lost, or I may just be ignorant.

  16. Michèle Sharik said,

    December 1, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    @Topher — that makes sense, because Plaatdüütsch (at least as spoken in Emsland (where my family is from) and near Papenburg), incorporates many elements of Dutch. I have a children’s book written in Plaatdüütsch, which also includes Hochdeutsch subtitles, and it looks very much like Dutch.

    Fun fact: Papenburg has a radio station that still broadcasts in Plaatdüütsch. (And yes, that’s how it’s spelled in Plaatdüütsch.)

  17. Rose Eneri said,

    December 4, 2018 @ 11:07 am

    I grew up in far NE Philly (SKS parish/Archbishop Ryan HS) and moved to Baltimore. The accents are so different that I often had a hard time understanding people. I am totally mystified how these 2 accents could be considered the same. In particular, I could never tell whether someone was speaking in the affirmative or negative, since there is no difference in Baltimore in the vowels of "can" and "can't" (both are tensed so much so that the vowel is an exaggerated diphthong). In Philly, only "can't" is tensed. And in Baltimore there is no difference at all between the vowels in Mary/merry/marry (again, each of these 3 words is pronounce identically with exaggerated tensing.)

  18. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    December 5, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

    @Rose: “And in Baltimore there is no difference at all between the vowels in Mary/merry/marry“

    Fascinating. My sister (almost two decades my senior) grew up near Baltimore and so has a Balmor accent. She pronounces merry different from Mary and marry. She also pronounced berry different from bury which is different from Barry. And fairy is different from ferry.

    I, however, do not. Mary/marry/merry are the same in my idiolect. Berry/bury/Barry are the same. Fairy/ferry are the same. I grew up in South western Ohio in a small rural town near Cincinnati. (I know how to pronounce them all differently, but it’s not my natural way of speaking.)

  19. BZ said,

    December 6, 2018 @ 12:37 pm

    Regarding "boig/boid/toid/etc.", I know exactly one person who speaks like this. His native languages were Polish and Yiddish. He (and his wife) did at one point live somewhere in New York City if memory serves (currently in South Jersey, though).

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