Language change (about to be?) in progress

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Current big news around here is the collapse of an elevated section of Interstate 95 due to a tanker truck fire.

As Wikipedia explains, I-95 "is the main north–south Interstate Highway on the East Coast of the United States, running from U.S. Route 1 (US 1) in Miami, Florida, north to the Houlton–Woodstock Border Crossing between Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick". It's also an important connection between the Great Northeast and the rest of Philadelphia, which enables this linguistic joke:

It's a good joke, but of course there are lots of other travel options, though they will no doubt be even more crowded and slower than usual.  And a few months of difficult travel, or even total disconnection, would probably not have a measurable linguistic effect.

Historical linguists, dialectologists and sociolinguists have speculated over the decades (and even centuries) about the effects of more-or-less permeable geographical barriers on language change. Here's a map showing the dialectometry of the Netherlands (taken from Martijn Bartelds' forthcoming dissertation):

Visualization of language varieties spoken in the Netherlands.
Similar colors indicate varieties that have similar pronunciations for a large set of words. The map is based on dialect data from the Gabmap web application.

Leaving aside the considerable body of relevant scholarship, inspection of a highway map suggests that current ease of automobile travel probably doesn't play a causal role in the pictured dialectometry.

For a sketch of the current state of Northeast Philadelphia speech, see "Side effect of the highway collapse: A perfect example of Northeast Philly hoagiemouth", Billy Penn 6/11/2023 — also discussed in "I-95 collapse may snarl traffic for months. But a media legend was born", MarketWatch 6/12/2023. And as it happens, the Gabmap introduction movie features Pennsylvania along with the Netherlands, so a convenient foundation is there for a dialectometric re-evaluation in a year or so.

Meanwhile, other on twitter have pointed out an important geographical connection to recent political history: Four Seasons Total Landscaping is less than two blocks from the site of the collapse:


  1. ~flow said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 7:22 am

    One should maybe add that train traffic in the Netherlands is a very well organized, affordable and popular option to get around. Now the map above is incomplete in that the Afsluitdijk—the causeway that separates the North Sea from the IJsselmeer—is drawn incompletely; the linked Google map shows it correctly. Unfortunately, when it was built in the 1930s, a railway line was not put onto the dam with the consequence that to this day you have to go quite a few extra miles when going from a western coastal location to an eastern one, as can be seen here:

    Not sure this 'explains' dialectal differences though but of course difficult-to-navigate terrain is known to separate populations and, by extension, lead to linguistic diversity. Looking forward to a new language emerging in the cut-off hinterlands of NE America!

  2. Benjamin E. Orsatti said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 7:25 am

    Re Gabmap video — Hard to trust a voice telling me about phonetics that pronounces “LEE-high” as “le-HIGH”

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 7:55 am

    Yesterday morning at 10:10 AM, I was merrily travelling northward on I-95 out of Philadelphia when I got to a point not far from where the bridge collapse occurred and there were police cars all over the place. They shunted all of the thousands of cars on I-95 off onto the streets of Northeast Philadelphia. I had no idea where I was. Since I don't have GPS, it took me a very long time to recover and get back on I-95 far north of where the overpass explosion and fire occurred. Even people with GPS were having a hard time navigating through the sprawling neighborhoods of Northeast Philadelphia.

    As I wandered the warrens of Northeast Philadelphia, attempting to find out from the local denizens how to get back on I-95, I began to suspect that they were home to considerable linguistic difference from South Philly, through which I had passed earlier that morning, or Swarthmore, where I live.

    Finally, i happened upon Linden Ave. and was mercifully dumped back onto I-95, and things returned to normal.

  4. Cervantes said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 8:41 am

    Just to be clear, I-95 in Philadelphia is actually a spur off of the main north-south east coast route. People hauling good or their asses from New York and points north to Baltimore and points south depart I-95 in Mansfield, New Jersey and continue south on the New Jersey Turnpike, then connecting with I-295 and ultimately rejoining I-95 in Delaware. So I-95 in Pennsylvania carries mostly relatively local Philadelphia area traffic. That will be a major PITA for the area, but not such a huge blow to interstate commerce beyond the Philadelphia area. Why the architects of the highway system chose to designate the roads in that way I cannot say, but I'm guessing that stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike was built later.

  5. Cervantes said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 8:44 am

    BTW Prof. Mair, I attended Swarthmore college and later became a community organizer in South Philly, Fishtown, and North Philadelphia. So I became multi-lingual. It wasn't that difficult, mostly some culturally specific terms. But indeed, there is no such thing as a single Philadelphia accent or topolect.

  6. Pamela said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 9:23 am

    Seems like it makes it hard to get to the airport, is that so? Yes, traveling between DC/Baltimore and NYC would not use this part of i95, unless you want to actually go to the airport (or Swarthmore). Or, will traffic to the airport not be disrupted?

    I know those little warrens in Philadelphia, not from being dumped from i94, but from being dumpted from 676. They are infinite. You find your way back onto a throughway only when the universe is done having fun with you.

  7. Cervantes said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 9:38 am

    You wouldn't use that part of I-95 to get to Swarthmore from anywhere along the east coast. In fact I don't think I've ever been on it for any reason. What I usually did coming from CT is take 295 to the Commodore Barry Bridge to Chester, PA, south of Philadelphia. You can also take the Walt Whitman Bridge and join 95 south of the bridge collapse. So there are several workarounds. No doubt some of these routes will become overcrowded, but the highway network is dense.

  8. Pamela said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 9:46 am

    been reading about about this now, really interesting. i was born in western ohio and lived there till age 14, then in eastern Pennsylvania, and of course from age 18 in Swarthmore. this sounds a bit like what we thought of a Jersey accent, but also a bit like a Baltimore accent. if you go north toward Allentown, the accent is very different, and still has swirling elements of Pennsylvania Dutch (as the public calls it). looks like you need a bit distance (like, Hollywood) to see Philly speech as a thing. it basically sounds like the way we thought yobbos spoke, though not yobbos from any place in particular. Arlen Spector was a Kansan by birth and upbringing, but to me he always sounded like something between Philadelphia and Baltimore. this is very enlightening.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 10:11 am

    A young man who lives quite close to the location of the collapse has suddenly become a social-media hero of Philly-accent enthusiasts for the fine form he displayed while being interviewed as a quasi-eyewitness by local tv (scroll down – there are two different clips reflecting interviews by two different local stations):

    The part of I-95 that runs through Philadelphia was one of the last parts of the whole thing to be completed and wikipedia reminds me that the last gap in the planned route only got filled in in '85.

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 10:21 am

    @Cervantes: the N.J. Turnpike is significantly older, so the political history is complicated. The part of I-95 that cuts north in Delaware away from the route from Md. to the N.J. Turnpike was completed as far as the Pa. state line by the end of '68, when I was three years old (and lived within a mile or two of the route), but was still not completed all the way to and through Philly when I moved away for college in '83. Generally, the authorities in charge of the Interstate system were and are hostile to charging tolls, but were generally willing to make an exception and grandfather existing toll highways and bridges etc. in the northeast rather than build around them (e.g. the Pa. Turnpike is for much of its length I-76, part of the N.Y. Thruway is I-87, etc.). I-295 got built in South Jersey substantially later on as largely duplicative of the Turnpike, maybe as a toll-free alternative to adding additional lanes to the Turnpike at that latitude, and/or to try to separate through traffic from more local traffic?

  11. Cervantes said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 10:53 am

    Yes I always found 295 and the Jersey Turnpike to be redundant and repetitive. But again, it would be much simpler and wouldn't confuse people if they called that whole thing I-95 and the Philadelphia spur something else.

  12. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 11:34 am

    It is quite normal for the "main" interstate to go straight through the middle of the city. Take a look at I-70 through Columbus and Indianapolis. This makes perfect sense if the purpose is to take you to the city, as contrasted with through it. Hence I-95 through Philadelphia, though the local geography is more complicated than with cities surrounded by corn fields. Bypasses and beltways get another digit stuck on the front. In theory a bypass that parallels the primary road gets an even number, while a spur that is more or less orthogonal to the primary road gets an odd number. But this is notional. One should not be so giddily optimistic as to expect consistency, any more than we get from the absurdly misnumbered I-99, the result of the founding fathers' negligent number of I-79 and I-81, not leaving a proper odd number between the two.

  13. Cervantes said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 12:31 pm

    I-95 goes around Boston. There's no consistency to it.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 3:18 pm

    When I first came to the Philadelphia area to live about 45 years ago, I took the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike a couple of times, but was so confused and terrified that I only went on them once or twice again in the ensuing four decades, when I was forced to take them to get to a specific appointment.

    It's not just the Garden State Parkway and the New Jersey Turnpike that left me trembling, it was the dizzying traffic circles and the maze of overpasses and underpasses zigzagging all over the place, and the bad drivers. Today, for example, as I was heading south on I-295 in New Jersey, a white space Corvette of the future or a low-slung Maserati came soaring up behind me so quickly (I was going about 70-75) that I thought I was standing still and it was going to hit me from the rear so I couldn't help but instantly swerve to get out of the way, whereupon he roared around me and flew in and out around a few other cars, then vanished in the distance ahead of me.

    A further note about I-95. For the first 10-15 years while I was in the Philadelphia area, it disappeared into a big swamp as it approached the airport, and it went right by the Philadelphia southwest wastewater (i.e., sewage) treatment plant, so you had to thread your way through a bunch of side streets and back avenues, and hold your breath for minutes on end.

    I will avoid all my other Philadelphia and New Jersey traffic horror stories because there are too many and it would take far too long.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 3:34 pm

    I-95 was supposed to go right through Boston but the plans got successfully blocked by local activists. I guess they could have taken the earlier-constructed highway (built before the activist-blockers had developed as much NIMBY power) that goes straight through Boston and is signed as I-93 and reassigned it to 95 with a bit of a lateral jog to hook it up to the route coming up from Providence, but for whatever reasons that wasn't done and wouldn't have really changed the facts on the ground since Route 128 was already there regardless.

    From the Washington D.C. area through the Boston area, I-95 is often within a few miles (sometimes a few dozen yards) of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor route, which was of course designed to go through rather than around major cities, and that includes the passage of both through Philadelphia. I'm not sure what the maximum gap between the two anywhere along the way is, but yeah when you get to what Amtrak still calls "Route 128" station maybe two miles short of the city limits, the railroad keeps going straight into Boston en route to South Station but the 95-signed highway goes in a different direction.

  16. Pamela said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 3:48 pm

    depending on the direction i am traveling, i reach Swarthmore I-95 to 476 to Baltimore Pike etc. I guess that is not the right way.

  17. Scott P. said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 8:04 pm

    and the bad drivers. Today, for example, as I was heading south on I-295 in New Jersey, a white space Corvette of the future or a low-slung Maserati came soaring up behind me so quickly (I was going about 70-75) that I thought I was standing still and it was going to hit me from the rear so I couldn't help but instantly swerve to get out of the way, whereupon he roared around me and flew in and out around a few other cars, then vanished in the distance ahead of me.

    See, that's not bad driving per se, just typical Philly aggressive driving. They can reliably be predicted to do whatever gets them where they're going as quickly as possible.

    Contrast with drivers in, say, Michigan, who will regularly undertake maneuvers that slow them down as long as it slows you down too.

  18. Steve Morrison said,

    June 12, 2023 @ 8:15 pm

    On the other hand, I have read that there is a new regional variety of English coming into being in Miami and thereabouts.

  19. Victor Mair said,

    June 13, 2023 @ 6:56 am


    1. did the driver of the truck survive?

    2. what cargo / fuel was he carrying?

    3. how did the accident occur?

  20. Cervantes said,

    June 13, 2023 @ 7:05 am

    Professor, your questions have been answered in recent news reports:
    1) No.
    2) Gasoline.
    3) Excessive speed on the offramp, hit wall and rolled over.

    On another subject, I-95 disappears when it hits the DC Beltway, designated I-495, and reappears in Springfield, VA. It does pass through the Baltimore city limits, but only peripherally. You have to take state highway 40 to get downtown. 95 does however go straight through Richmond. But basically, it's not consistent.

  21. Robert Coren said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 10:01 am

    As a longtime resident of the Boston area, I can say that the whole nomenclature arrangement of I-93, I-95, and MA 128 seems to be designed to be as confusing as possible. (Just one example: a couple of years ago, the exit numbers in MA were changed to meet the Federal standard of corresponding to mileage rather than using strict numerical sequence. But the first 36 exits of Route 128 are "hidden" by the fact that that section of 128 is also I-95. Furthermore, I-95's "Exit 64", which is where the northernmost part of 128 diverges from I-95, does not feel like an exit to the driver; it takes extra effort to stay on I-95 northbound.)

    But to the earlier point: Yes, I-95 goes around Boston (following the original path of 128), but I-93 goes straight on through, and that part of it is parking lot more often than not.

  22. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 1:21 am

    This same type of accident happened in the San Francisco Bay Area about 15 years ago or so*. Completely fubared the traffic, which was already terrible to begin with. I hope Philadelphia can get it repaired quickly!

    *The company that won the bid to repair it got the job done under budget & ahead of schedule, which impressed everybody so much that that company was subsequently awarded the contract to finish a crucial connection to Yerba Buena Island on the new Bay Bridge, which they also completed ahead of schedule and under budget. Maybe Philadelphia should hire them to repair it.

  23. Victor Mair said,

    June 18, 2023 @ 8:37 am

    In your efforts to circumnavigate the blocked portion of I-95, DO NOT TAKE I-295! It is a crazy, cockamamie route, lengthy portions of which labeled SOUTH that actually go NORTH and lengthy portions of which labeled NORTH that actually go SOUTH.

  24. Robert Coren said,

    June 18, 2023 @ 10:18 am

    @Victor Mair: Roads that go in other than their labeled "directions" are not uncommon, and not surprising, given that roads are rarely completely straight. When I drive on the "northbound" section of I-95/MA 128 that I referred to above, I'm pretty consistently going east.

    If you enter Cambridge, MA, from the west on MA 2 and continue onto Alewife Brook Parkway, you will be simultaneously going east on MA 2, west on MA 16, and south on US 3 for the next mile or so, if you believe the labels (actual direction is more or less southeast).

  25. Rodger C said,

    June 19, 2023 @ 9:48 am

    On highways in the Great Valley of East Tennessee, "North" consistently means east, "East" means south, etc. It's a matter of compass directions vs. mental map.

  26. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    June 21, 2023 @ 12:43 am

    In the SF Bay Area, there is a stretch of interstate that is simultaneously I-80 West & I-580 East, which actually travels south.

    And of course the northbound side is simultaneously I-80 East & I-580 West.

  27. Victor Mair said,

    June 25, 2023 @ 6:43 am

    Yesterday afternoon, I drove northward on I-95, including right over / past the part that had collapsed two weeks ago.

    Could barely tell that anything had happened there.

    An amazing feat of government, engineering, and construction.

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