"Tortured syllables"?

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"Language change (about to be?) in progress" (6/12/2023) linked to media commentary on divergent features of Northeast Philadelphia speech, e.g. "Side effect of the highway collapse: A perfect example of Northeast Philly hoagiemouth", Billy Penn 6/11/2-23. Some of the characterization was extremely evaluative:

The Billy Penn article was gentler and more descriptive:

You can really hear the accent in the elongated roundness of all the “ooo” words he speaks, the way he drags out the end of others, and how he softens each and every consonant (“phouen,” “tex messagessss,” “schreenshoz”).

But in fact, none of the commentary describes this man's speech in an accurate way.

The whole 41-second audio track from the original tweet is here, if you want to listen to it in a non-Twitter context.

I'll now take it (partly) apart. And the most striking feature, in my opinion, is what the speaker does, not to "each and every consonant", but to (some) non-syllable-initial  instances of /t/, /d/ and /n/ — "coronal" stops. Similar lenition (often unto deletion) of coronal stops is ubiquitous in most varieties of American speech, but this speaker takes (certain cases of) this to an extreme. I'll note a few other things in passing, but most of the description will focus on coronal step lenition.

Here's the start of the recording:

Dude so I was passed out and I woke up
to nothing but text messages, phone calls.
I had no idea what was going on,
man, I got dressed, I came out.
I looked down, and I smelled like a smokey smell.
And I'm like damn, dude, so…

In the first word — vocative "dude" — the final /d/ is weakened and/or merged with the following /s/, to the point that the sequence sounds like "deuce" if taken out of context:

I'll skip over the the reduction of "and" and the loss of the final /t/ in "text", because those are common to most varieties of American speech, and focus on a few features of the next bit:

In the sequence "…what was going on, man, I got dressed", the final /n/ of "man" is at most a wave of the tongue in the general direction of the alveolar ridge:

In the sequence "got dressed I", the /t#d/ sequence of "got dressed" is not very different from what it would have been if there were no /t/ — try hearing it as "Ga dressed". And the the final /t/ of "dressed" is lenited unto extinction:

The sequence "I smelled like" might as well have been "I smell like", though the context makes it clear that the speaker had a past tense form in mind:

Moving on:

no, so I got all those text messages,
screen shots, I'm like

The first word, "well", exhibits the expected vocalization of /l/ (and rounding of the preceding vowel):

Strikingly, the final /t/ of "got" in "got all" is again at best a t-ward wave of the tongue:

Zeroing in on "got all":

And usual for Americans, "text" is pronounced as "tex", with the post-s /t/ lenited to oblivion:

Moving on, we can hear that "everybody" is reduced to two phonetic syllables:

Everybody's like
yeah, where's this at?

Zeroing in on "everybody" (≈ [ˈɛɹˌbʊɪ]):

And in what follows, the last two syllables of "nobody" are similarly merged:

like nobody get-
how do I get the right like
so I was like

In the next phrase, we get (I think) an interesting performance of "brother" — reminiscent of (what probably gave rise to the spelling) "Brer Rabbit":

((I)) look out my window,
((I)) see a bunch of cops, I'm like
((brother)) that's right by my apartment.

Finally, there's this:

oh, dude, I was passed out when that happened

Again, the final /d/ in "dude" is elided, and the vowel is completely fronted (and mostly unrounded):

And the final /t/ of "that" is also missing:


  1. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 10:26 am

    For my UK-biased ears almost all of those "dropped" /t/s are glottalized (in the sense of manifesting as creak in the vowel).

  2. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 10:29 am

    And, BTW, there are similar instances of what we call "glottal replacement" of intervocalic /t/ in the interviewer as well ("came ouʔ and saw it", "figure ouʔ and realize"). OK, on a closer look they're pre-nasal (which is typical of AmE), but still there's no alveolarity left in the acoustics.

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 11:02 am

    Speaking of lenition and US/UK, in interviews like the below I was struck to hear /k/ lenited to ~[x] in Scouse not just word-finally but medially or indeed initially given connected speech… but I guess I am just out of touch…

    You see how well I *c*an stri*ke* a ball

    It's wor*k*ing well


  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 11:28 am

    He's not trying to say "brother." He's saying "Bro," which while etymologically and semantically connected is as best as I can tell a separate lexeme in the operative vocabulary of The Young People Today. That said, if you're saying that the GOAT vowel you would expect in "Bro" is at least partially shifted toward something approximating a non-rhotic SQUARE vowel (I assume the originator of the eye-dialect "brer" was Southern and non-rhotic?), maybe you're on to something. The fronted GOAT vowel characteristic of the Philly region is sometimes represented as ɛʊ (although I think mine may be closer to ɛu?), and maybe for this speaker the second half of the dipthong is being reduced to schwa?

  5. Rick Rubenstein said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 4:14 pm

    If I'd heard that clip without context, I'd have guessed the speaker was an Aussie expat.

  6. AntC said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 8:10 pm

    @RickR I'd have guessed the speaker was an Aussie expat.

    Doesn’t sound that way to me. (Ex-Brit, now a NZ-er.)

    Neither am I getting why ‘tortured vowels’, nor tortured syllables. It’s all perfectly understandable. American, but just not the newsreader accents nor creaky-voiced academics I hear most of the time.

  7. Keith Ivey said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 8:50 pm

    As a middle-class mid-Atlantic American, I initially heard that "passed" as "pissed", but then I adjusted quickly and it became fairly normal-sounding, intelligible American.

  8. Harry said,

    June 14, 2023 @ 10:27 pm

    As an Australian, interested in different accents, I wouldn't have suspected anything but American. So not Australian, but certainly the easiest American accent for me to understand. Some other ones need subtitles.

    As put by a tour guide in New Orleans, "If the British had actually won the Battle of New Orleans, we'd all be speaking English here".

  9. Mary Sweeten said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 7:41 am

    Pretty sure he was saying "I smell like," doing that present-tense thing to describe the action. As in the following "I'm like" to indicate he's riffing. (I assume youse linguists have a linguistic term for that.)

  10. Mark P said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 9:01 am

    @Rick Rubenstein, I am unfamiliar with Philadelphia speech; my first impression was that it was British English, although it didn’t take long to disabuse myself of that notion. I think part of the problem with the reporter’s description is that they are not linguists and don’t really know how to describe the language. The bro sounded to me like he just woke up, and might have had a slight hangover. Is that normal Philadelphiaese?

  11. Ethan said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 9:01 am

    "like nobody get-
    how do I get the right like
    so I was like"

    Not a native speaker, but I grew up in the suburbs near here, and am used to hearing the accent – I'm pretty sure what he actually says here is "like nodoby get- had like a direct like location"

    "Pretty sure he was saying "I smell like," doing that present-tense thing to describe the action. As in the following "I'm like" to indicate he's riffing. (I assume youse linguists have a linguistic term for that.)"

    To my ears, he holds the end of 'smell' just an extra beat, indicating an elided '-ed', but I'm like, 60% on that.

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 10:23 am

    For those of you who lack childhood familiarity with the relevant accent who don't want to read scholarly works by Labov et al and decode all the IPA, here's a clip by a comical/pseudonymous youtube personality praising the excellent accent. The accent demonstrated is maybe a bit broad/exaggerated, but not unmoored from reality. To the extent this clip has too much illustration of specific words/phrases you can find other clips by the same character (or the alternate pseudonym "Delco Deb[bie]") using the accent that will be more running discourse. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yymddQNsa9E

  13. rpsms said,

    June 15, 2023 @ 3:14 pm

    I have been in Philly for over 30 years and I can say that, simply by playing the odds, he said "brother" and "smelled." "Bro" is actually not as common as "brother" around here. I think Mr.Liberman got it right.

    My wife always describes the (multiple variations of) the accent as "a mouthful of marbles." Almost like the tongue is hindered and one must speak through the nose and "out back by the molars."

  14. FJ said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 12:48 am

    Everybody's like
    yeah, where's this at?

    Isn't this 'yo' rather than 'yeah'?

  15. AntC said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 6:22 am

    @rpsms, mouthful of marbles is used of many accents — for example of anybody affectedly 'posh' in U.K.

    So as a phonetic description, that's unhelpful.

  16. Alyssa said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 10:45 am

    I'm not convinced the consonant lenition is what is notable about his accent. It's more extreme than average but not really that far out of the norm for American English. It's mostly his vowels and intonation that are striking, and the lack of consonants just make it harder for the listener to adapt and follow along.

    (I also agree that to a General American ear, he sounds vaguely Australian)

  17. Michael said,

    June 16, 2023 @ 5:06 pm

    To me, he sounds distinctly like a California surfer-dude, with very little trace of anything "East Coast" to his accent, and nothing of British or Australian. The "Brother" reads to me as "Bruh or "Bro," the "yeah" like "yo." I'd agree 100% with Ethan about "direct location." The one outlier for me is the "a" in "passed out" – which is drawn into almost an "ae" sound, or even two sounds with "passed" eliding into "pissed" somewhere mid-syllable.
    FWIW, I grew up in New York City and have lived in Oregon much of my adult life, so what I hear/listen for is surely influenced by that.

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