Sienna Miller's southeastern PA accent

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Adam Hermann, "Sienna Miller talks nailing the Philly accent for 'American Woman' on Jimmy Fallon", Philly Voice 6/15/2019:

British actress Sienna Miller has an accent when she talks, but it's decidedly not something you normally hear from an eastern Pennsylvania resident.

For the film "American Woman", which comes out next week and is set in "a small, blue-collar town in Pennsylvania", Miller had to figure out what people from around here talk like.

It wasn't easy, because the Philadelphia accent is so dang weird, but she clearly had some help, because she kind of nailed it.

More from the article:

Last year, linguistics expert Dr. Betsy Sneller talked about the Philly accent on a linguistics podcast, where she explained 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."

Miller said she needed a few words that would help her get into the accent. She used "poster" and "boat". The way she said these two words was a little dramatic, but we'll let it slide.

In the film clip Miller played for Fallon's audience, she's a waitress asking Aaron Paul's character about his order. She confirms his order, which is also pretty Philly-area:

"So, Bud draft with a cheesesteak, fried onions. Ketchup?"

Aaron Paul's character says yes. There you have it: Philadelphia is all weird vowels and cheesesteaks. What a place.

More about the Showtime series here: Lacey Rose, "Fox News, The TV Show: On Set and Inside Showtime's Battle to Bring Roger Ailes 'Back From the Dead'", Hollywood Reporter 4/11/2019.



25 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 8:51 am

    "British actress Sienna Miller has an accent when she talks" — Not to me, nor (I suspect) to most southern Britons. What I hear sounds like completely normal General British / Standard Southern British, with no trace of an accent whatsoever.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    Philip Taylor: I'm more comfortable with the idea, which I think is popular here, that everyone has an accent when they talk. I'll take your word that Sienna Miller's accent is the standard one in southern Britain. That avoids making accent relative to the listener, which is required in your usage—"Not to me".

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 9:39 am

    By the way, I have some experience of Philly accents, but not those of small blue-collar towns in [eastern, I guess] Pennsylvania. Do you really learn the latter by studying the former?

  4. Tom Dawkes said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 10:02 am

    I support Jerry Friedman in his view of "accent". We ALL have an accent: it's just that for British speakers — and I am one — the accent conventionally known as R[eceived] P[ronunciation] was regarded as the 'neutral' (correct?) way of speaking from which all other accents deviated. Think of Shaw's 'Pygmalion'… The British are far too concerned with accents.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 12:27 pm

    My speech is a mix of Philadelphia, Western Pennsylvania, central Connecticut, and California.

    I think I do that split-a thing, "maen" for man but "manij" for manage. I've never noticed anything Philadelphian about that and had to say it about 5 times to be sure, and I'm not sure I'm not adding it just because I'm thinking about it, as I *can* say both "man" and "maen." I think I say "faemly" not "famly" for family, though. Again, not certain.

    Is there a geographic location for split "route"? As in, "Take that route" (rout) but "Take Route 66" (root)? I've got that. I sometimes split "creek" as well. "I was down by the creek" (crick or creek) but "I was down by Jones Creek" (creek). I'm guessing that's Western Pennsylvanian as I had a discussion with someone there about that phenomenon in my youth.

  6. Bloix said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 3:12 pm

    Did you watch the clip at the very end of the interview? It's a convincing generic American accent but it didn't seem Philadelphia to me.
    This may not be her fault. IMHO, the Baltimore/Philly range of accents are among the most unattractive – the least sexy – American accents. Perhaps rural Tennessee/Georgia is worse, and Minnesota is about the same, but Baltimore/Philly is close to the top.
    I can't see the director allowing the spectacularly gorgeous Sienna Miller to speak in what is to most of us a comic accent in a movie where she's the dramatic lead.
    I'm curious to see what others think.

  7. Julian said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 6:23 pm

    We all have an accent, but we don't normally notice our own. Like a fish doesn't notice that it's in water.

  8. Doug said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 7:20 pm

    Chas Belov said:
    "I think I do that split-a thing, "maen" for man but "manij" for manage. I've never noticed anything Philadelphian about that"

    The split of the "short a" is found elsewhere in the northeast (certainly including my native Long Island), not just in Philadelphia.

    The details of the split vary from place to place, so, as I understand it, an expert could tell if Sienna Miller actually got the Philadelphia variety right, or missed and hit LI or someplace.

    William Labov discusses this split at length somewhere in his multi-volume "Principles of Linguistic Change," but my books are so disorganized right now that I can't give you a citation.

  9. Martha said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 7:25 pm

    Chas Belov – My dad does that with creek, and he's from Oregon.

  10. Eli said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 8:40 pm

    I'm from Lancaster County. If you're in southeastern PA but not in the immediate area of Philly, you're not really going to hear a stereotypical Philly accent; I don't have the expertise to correctly describe what the difference is (I just lurk here), but it's different, flatter somehow. But for that matter, what you'll hear in Philly is generally pretty far from the exaggerated whatever-it-is that many people know from "Rocky" or whatnot (which might be what Bloix meant by "what is to most of us a comic accent", although I wish he would've stuck to speaking for himself). There are lots of ethnic variants of course, but for instance Toni Collette in "The Sixth Sense" is very realistic.

    So anyway, in the film clip, I'd say what Miller is doing is reasonably like something you might hear somewhere in that quadrant of the state, which seems appropriate since it sounds like the setting of the film is vague. It doesn't sound like a different state to me, at least. I would guess that she's just saying "Philadelphia" in the interview because that's the most obvious landmark for someone who doesn't know the area and that's how the filmmakers explained it to her.

  11. Lisa said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 9:01 pm

    I agree with Jerry Friedman that a "small blue-collar town in Eastern PA" accent is not the same as a "Philadelphia accent" — and with Bloix that the film clip demonstrates the former, not the latter.

  12. eub said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 9:58 pm

    Misattached modifier headline of the day:

    "FDA warns of infections from fecal transplants after death"

    https://www.upi.com/amp/Health_News/2019/06/15/FDA-warns-of-infections-from-fecal-transplants-after-death/3761560618618/

  13. rosie said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 12:51 am

    @Jerry Friedman "everyone has an accent". That's a fair way to put it, and that shows the silliness of Hermann's "British actress Sienna Miller has an accent", which was Philip Taylor's point. No point saying someone has an accent, unless you're more specific about it.

    @Tom Dawkes "The British are far too concerned with accents." In my experience, it's not the British, and it looks as if it's Americans. When someone is rude about someone's accent, but identifies that accent only by the country, it's often "British" or "Canadian" or "Australian" but seldom if ever "American". When Americans talk about each other's accents, then they take the trouble to be more specific.

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 5:55 am

    Since the traditional term for the Philadelphia/Baltimore set of regional accents ("Middle Atlantic") always gets muddled up with the quite different quasi-British "Mid-Atlantic" accent affected by mid-20th-century Hollywood personalities etc., perhaps we should adopt Ms. Miller's proposed nomenclature of "Mason-Dixonesque" for the former?

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 6:31 am

    "the quite different quasi-British "Mid-Atlantic" accent affected by mid-20th-century Hollywood personalities".

    Fascinating. From our perspective (i.e., that of the British), a "mid-Atlantic" accent is exactly the opposite — not a "quasi-British" accent at all, but a quasi-American one, adopted by Britons (typically singers) who seek to portray themselves as at least partially American.

  16. mollymooly said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 6:37 am

    Adam Hermann must be assuming that a certain base accent (call it BA) is "no-accent", and that a certain accent used by Sienna Miller (call it SM) differs from that.

    * Is BA Adam Hermann's own accent, or that of the typical "Philly Voice" reader, or General American?

    * Is SM Sienna Miller's natural speaking voice, or her accent on Jimmy Fallon, or her accent in "American Woman"?

    Perhaps the answers to these questions are obvious to the typical "Philly Voice" reader. Not to me.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 10:16 am

    Philip Taylor is certainly right that which direction you need to move in to reach the middle of the Atlantic depends on which shore you are starting from. But I will beg indulgence for my Americo-centric account on the grounds that the particular confusion (Middle or Mid-Atlantic meaning somewhere halfway between North American and Europe, in one usage, and meaning a particular geographical region of the U.S. along the Atlantic Seaboard neither too far north nor too far south) is much more likely to arise in an AmEng context. That said, even if "Middle Atlantic" is understood to mean the intra-US geographical region it is still probably a suboptimal name for the dialect or set of related dialects, both because the outer boundaries of that geographical region are somewhat fuzzily and inconsistently defined and because the dialect region is only a limited subset of the geographical region however defined. But we don't have an alternative standard way of saying "Philadelphia and Baltimore and their (perhaps fuzzily-bounded) surrounding regions, considered as a unit distinctive from anything further away," which is what you want for dialect-geography purposes, which is one reason "Mason-Dixonesque" might actually meet a felt need.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 10:31 am

    In terms of Ms. Miller's actual demonstration, the GOAT-fronting in words like "poster" and "boat" (which is the most notable regionalism in my own not otherwise highly-regionalized ideolect) is probably easier for an outsider like Fallon to mimic quickly than the split-short-a feature.

    But I have a separate question about the difference referenced above by other commenters between a "core" Philadelphia-proper variety of English and the related-yet-distinct varieties one would expect farther afield in southeastern Pennsylvania. It is a classic shibboleth of Philly English narrowly defined that the idiomatic way to order a cheesesteak is by simply saying wit' or witout, with the preposition's object "grilled onions" being understood in context and thus not uttered out loud. For Ms. Miller to recite back the customer's order by saying "fried onions" out loud but with the wit' implied but not uttered has that idiomatic usage completely backwards. But maybe that's the alternative standard idiom if you get out towards Lancaster Co. or wherever? Or maybe it's just bad screenwriting by outsiders?

  19. peter said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 4:16 pm

    @Tom Dawkes:

    Conversation overheard in a diner in Irving, Texas, in 1997:

    Lady customer of a certain age, speaking to waitress: "Where are you from?"
    Waitress: "Kansas, Ma'am."
    Customer: "I knew you were not from round here, because you have an accent."
    W: "Yep"
    C: "I'm from here, so I don't have an accent. Texans don't have accents. Only people from out of state have accents."

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 6:14 pm

    Which reminds me of something I read in Dreyer's English only yesterday (story shortened, assume characters as above but speaking in reverse order) —

    "So where y'all from ?"
    "I'm from a place where people don't end their sentences with prepositions".
    "OK, so where y'all from, bitch ?"

  21. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 18, 2019 @ 12:28 am

    In related news, due to some kind of tendency towards [jæ] (?), the lead actress's TRAP vowel in Mary Poppins Returns struck me as perhaps the most distracting accent issue in the history of cinema, but Googling suggests I may be the only one who took Emily Blunt for a native speaker of perhaps Russian :D. I can't find good instances in clips but sung "splash" (and "imagine" just following) at the link below are illustrsative-ish. Perhaps more familiar commenters will know if this is really totally unremarkable and/or somehow justified by period (c. 1930s) realities.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eG8yZCGhedo&feature=youtu.be&t=368

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    June 18, 2019 @ 6:23 am

    /trjæp/ is, I would suggest, historically accurate if the speaker is aiming for U-RP typical of the 1930s. It can almost certainly still be heard today in the appropriate social circles and locales (Henley, the more traditional hunts and so on).

  23. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 18, 2019 @ 10:05 am

    Aɰight, one o' yinz gwadda redd up Wikipedia — 'em jagoffs're ʟumping "Central Pennsylvania Accent" in with "Western Pennsylvania Accent" 'n'at: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Pennsylvania_English).

    This is clearly not the case — WPA doesn't extend past Cambria County. In Huntingdon County, for example, just ask the residents to say "County". They'll pronounce it like Sienna & Jimmy pronounce "poster" & "boat" in the clip. So, "Aʟʟegheny Cahnny", but "Hunningd'n Caunty".

    I think this chart hits closer to the mark: http://www.evolpub.com/Americandialects/PennaDialMap.html

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    June 18, 2019 @ 10:46 am

    Sienna Miller's father is an American who lived in New York before the family moved to London when she was one year old. So she has probably been exposed to some kind of American accent all of her life.

  25. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 18, 2019 @ 11:10 am

    According to the map posted by Benjamin Orsatti, Ms. Miller's demonstration of "boat" and "poster" should at least be consistent with anywhere in the regions marked "Delaware Valley" or "Lower Susquehanna," which gives a fair range of possibilities although maybe the film itself doesn't get any more specific than "small-town Pennsylvania." Apparently the on-location shooting for the film was done in Brockton, Mass., where the local accent is rather different and where ordering a cheesesteak might be overly adventurous.

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