Philadelphia English has a complicated history, with speakers at times showing features shared with neighboring regions as well as uniquely local features. The Philadelphia and New York accents presumably shared certain common linguistic inputs in the nineteenth century, since both accents by the twentieth century demonstrated a high/ɔ/ vowel (which helps to maintain a contrast between words like cot and caught) as well as a phonemic split of the short a vowel, /æ/ (causing gas and gap to have different vowels sounds, for example) not found elsewhere in the United States. One important indicator of this is that Philadelphia's short a split appears to be a simplified variant of New York City's split. Unlike New York City English, however, most speakers of Philadelphia English have always used a rhotic accent (meaning that the r sound is never "dropped").
Despite sharing patterns with the New York City accent, Philadelphia accents in the very late nineteenth century until the 1950s shifted toward certain features of the then-emerging (and now-common) regional accents of the American South and Midland, for example in fronting /oʊ/, raising /aʊ/, and even some reported weakening of /aɪ/. Philadelphians then began retreating from their longstanding New York City-like accent features after this point, and even further developed their own entirely unique phonological features. Next, higher-educated Philadelphians born in or since the last quarter of the twentieth century have been showing a process of dialect levelling towards unmarked Northern American English (General American English) features. This includes notable regularity among this demographic in replacing the traditional Philadelphia /æ/ split with the more General American tensing of /æ/ only before nasal consonants; this probably began around the time the first generation of this demographic attended college.
As of today, "the most strongly supported generalization is that Philadelphia has moved away from its Southern heritage in favor of a Northern system, avoiding those forms that are most saliently associated with local phonology". In the city of Philadelphia proper, the dialect has evolved further, especially among younger residents, and the "White Philadelphian dialect" is now spoken by a numerical minority of all Philadelphians within the city of Philadelphia itself, though it remains strong throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan region in general.
The vowels in Philadelphia speech have shown volatility across the last century, as Labov's research has identified changes affecting over half of the vowel phonemes.
THOUGHT vowel: A feature unique to Middle Atlantic speakers (including Philadelphians and New Yorkers) and southern New Englanders is the raising and diphthongization of /ɔ/, as in THOUGHT, to [oə] or even higher [ʊə]. The raised variants often appear as diphthongs with a centering glide. As a result, Philadelphia is resistant to the cot–caught merger. Labov's research suggests that this pattern of raising is essentially complete in Philadelphia and seems no longer to be an active change.
LOT–CLOTH split: Similarly, the single word "on" has the vowel of "dawn", and not the same vowel as "don". Labov et al. regard this phenomenon as occurring not just in the Mid-Atlantic region, but in all regions south of a geographic boundary that they identify as the "ON line", which is significant because it distinguishes most varieties of Northern American English (in which on and Don are rhymes) from most varieties of Midland and Southern American English (in which on and dawn are rhymes).
Southeastern vowel fronting: One of the features that Philadelphia shares with dialects of the whole Southeastern United States (but absent from most New York accents) is the fronting of a variety of vowels. This includes /oʊ/ and /u/; the resulting allophones are around [əʊ] and [ʉu], respectively. Generally, greater degrees of fronting are heard when the vowels appear in "free" positions (i.e., without a following consonant) than in "checked" positions (i.e., with a following consonant). Fronting does not occur in the context of following liquids leading to a significant difference between, e.g., goat and goal. The fronting of /oʊ/ and /u/ is well established in Philadelphia, though cross-generational data show that it remains an active change. Fronted nuclei in /aʊ/ are well established in Philadelphia speech as in New York. More recent research has noted a tendency among the middle-aged and younger generation of Philadelphians to raise the vowel, resulting in [ɛɔ]. /ʊ/, the vowel in foot, is sometimes fronted though not to the degree seen with /oʊ/ and /u/.
Short-a split: As in New York and Baltimore accents, historical "short a" has split into two phonemes: lax /æ/ (as in bat) and tense /eə/ (as in bath). Their distribution in Philadelphia along with Baltimore, however, is different from that of New York City. Generally, in the Philadelphia–Baltimore system, the vowel /æ/ is tensed (towards [eə]) before the consonants /m/, /n/, /f/, /s/, and /θ/ in a closed syllable (so, for example, bats and baths do not have the same vowel sound, being pronounced [bæts] and [beəθs], respectively), and in any words directly inflectionally derived from root words with this split. Therefore, pass and passing use the tense [eə], but passage and passive use the lax [æ]. The lax and the tense reflexes of /æ/ are separate phonemes in these dialects, though largely predictable using the aforementioned rules. There are exceptions, however; the three words bad, mad, and glad become tense, and irregular verbs ending in "-an" or "-am" remain lax. The words mad (tense) and sad (lax) do not rhyme in Philadelphia or Baltimore, but do for New York City and all other English dialects. (In the Trenton area, an intermediate system is used, falling between the typical Mid-Atlantic and the New York City system.) Not all Philadelphians today have this feature and some are beginning to favor the more General Americantensing of short a only before nasals (especially under the influence of youth trends and higher education); in fact, as a general rule, native Philadelphians only consistently have this split system if their own parents are native Philadelphians.
^In New York City, certain lexical exceptions exist (like avenue being tense) and variability is common before /dʒ/ and /z/ as in imagine, magic, and jazz. In New Orleans, [ɛə] additionally occurs before /v/ and /z/.
Mary–marry–merry three-way distinction: As in New York accents and most native English accents outside North America, there is a three-way distinction between Mary[ˈmeɹi]~[ˈmeəɹi], marry[ˈmæɹi], and merry[ˈmɛɹi]~[ˈmɜɹi]. However, in Philadelphia some older speakers have a merger (or close approximation) of /ɛ/ and /ʌ/ before /r/ (the furry–ferry merger), so that merry is merged instead with Murray (with both pronounced as something like [ˈmʌɹi]). Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006: 54) report that about one third of Philadelphia speakers have this merger, one third have a near-merger, and one third keep the two distinct. Relatedly, as in New York, many words like orange, Florida, and horrible have /ɑ/ before /r/ rather than the /ɔr/ used in many other American dialects (See: Historic "short o" before intervocalic r).
Canadian raising occurs for /aɪ/ (as in price) but not for /aʊ/ (as in mouth). Consequently, the diphthong in like may begin with a nucleus of mid or even higher position [ɫʌik], which distinguishes it from the diphthong in line[ɫaɪn]. Canadian raising in Philadelphia occurs before voiceless consonants, and it is extended to occur before some voiced consonants as well, including intervocalic voiced stops as in tiger and spider. Fruehwald argues that /aɪ/ has actually undergone a phonemic split in Philadelphia as a result of Canadian raising. The raising of /aɪ/ is unusual as the innovators of this change are primarily male speakers while the other changes in progress are led primarily by females. The sociolinguistic evidence suggests this raising is a fairly recent addition to Philadelphia speech.
FLEECE, FACE, and DRESS vowels: Traditional Philadelphia speech shows lowered and/or laxed variants of /i/ were common: [ɪi]. The recent sociolinguistic evidence indicates a reversal of this trend such that the vowel is now commonly raised and fronted. This raising is heard primarily before consonants (e.g., eat). The Linguistic Atlas researchers recorded lax variants of /eɪ/ near [ɛɪ]. As with /i/, recent research suggests this trend is being reversed by raising and fronting of the vowel often to a position well beyond [e]. This raising occurs before consonants (e.g., paid); in word-final position (pay), /eɪ/ remains lowered and lax. Both of these can lead to nonstandard phonemic incidence (see "Phonemic incidence" section).
Labov's research has indicated a tendency toward lowering of the lax vowels /ɪ/ and /ɛ/. This pattern is not yet well established and is labeled by Labov as an "incipient" change.
Many Philadelphians use a rather high, back, and perhaps even rounded vowel for /ɑr/ as in START; something near [ɔ]. The so-called horse–hoarse merger takes place, and the merged vowel is typically mid to high back; it can be as high as [ʊɚ]. As noted in New York, these tendencies toward backing and raising of /ɑr/ and /ɔr/ may constitute a chain shift. The evidence suggests the movement of /ɑr/ began this shift, and this vowel is relatively stable today, while generational differences are heard in the shifting of /ɔr/.
/ɔɪ/, as in CHOICE may be more raised than in other dialects; sometimes it is as high as [ʊɪ].
/ʌ/, as in STRUT, may show raised and back variants. In some cases, the vowel is in the high, back corner of the vowel space near /u/. This is reportedly a recent development and is one more common among male speakers.
Philadelphia forms the core of the one fully rhotic major region of the traditional American East Coast. This area runs from Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey down to Delaware and northern Maryland, and remains fully r-pronouncing today.
Non-rhoticity (R-dropping) can be found in some areas of Philadelphia, however (presumably as a recent innovation after the nineteenth century) such as among working-class male speakers specifically from South Philadelphia, especially those born in the first half of the twentieth century and of Italian, Jewish, or Irish Catholic descent. On the other side of the socioeconomic spectrum, non-rhoticity in speakers from the Philadelphia Main Line may be a result of wealthy families sending their children to expensive boarding schools in the United Kingdom up until the 1960s and thus acquiring a "Transatlantic" accent". Non-rhoticity is most prevalent among black Philadelphians, who largely do not demonstrate the regional speech features of Philadelphia English; instead, many black Philadelphians speak African-American Vernacular English.
Consonant changes, especially reductions and lenitions, are very common in informal conversational speech, so that:
The sibilant /s/ is palatalized to [ʃ] (as in she) before /tr/. Thus, the word streets might be pronounced "shtreets" [ˈʃtɹits].
L-vocalization is quite pervasive in Philadelphia speech. Phonetically it may be realized as something like [o] or a velar or labio-velarglide, [ɰ] or [w], or the consonant may be deleted altogether. Among Philadelphians, as in other dialects, vocalization occurs quite frequently in word-final and pre-consonantal contexts (e.g., mill, milk). In a more unusual development, vocalization may also occur inter-vocalically in Philadelphia. This tendency is more common when /l/ appears following low vowels bearing primary word stress (e.g., hollow). This variable also shows some lexical conditioning, appearing, for example, with exceptionally high frequency in the pronunciation of the name of the city (Ash 1997). This, in part, leads to the stereotype of Philadelphia being pronounced as "Fluffya" or "Filelfia."
As in other areas, the interdental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ are often realized as stops, [t] and [d] or affricates [tθ] and [dð] in Philadelphia speech. This variation appears to be a stable class-stratified feature with the non-fricative forms appearing more commonly in working-class speech.
The yew–hew merger can be found, as in New York City, in which words like human and huge, which begin with an /hj/ cluster, the /h/ is commonly deleted giving /ˈjumən/ and /judʒ/.
Consonant clusterreductions, such as removing the "t" sound from consonant clusters, so that "mustard" sounds more like "mussard," or "soft" like "sawff."
On is traditionally pronounced /ɔn/, phonemically matching the South and Midland varieties of American English (and unlike most New York accents), thus rhyming with dawn rather than don. However, the Northern /ɑn/ has also been reported.
The word water is commonly pronounced /ˈwʊtər/ (with the first syllable rhyming with the word put, so that it sounds like "wooter" or "wooder"), rather than the more standard English /ˈwɔtər/. This is considered by many to be the defining characteristic of a Philadelphia dialect, even among young Philadelphians.
The word towel is commonly pronounced /tæl/, like tal in the word tally.
Both long-e and long-a sounds may be shortened before /ɡ/. Eagle rhymes with giggle/ˈɪɡəl/ (as in "the Iggles"); league/lɪɡ/ rhymes with big; vague and plague rhyme with peg (pronounced /vɛɡ/ and /plɛɡ/, respectively). For some Philadelphians, colleague and fatigue also have /ɪ/ (pronounced /ˈkɑlɪɡ/ and /fəˈtɪɡ/, respectively). However, these are words learned later, so many speakers use the more standard American /ˈkɑliɡ/ and /fəˈtiɡ/.
In words like gratitude, beautiful, attitude, Baltimore, and prostitute, the i may be pronounced with the ee sound /i/, as in bee.
"Be done + noun phrase": The grammatical construction "be done something" means roughly "have/has finished something". For example, "I am done my homework" and "The dog is done dinner" are genuine sentences in this dialect, respectively meaning "I have finished my homework" and "The dog has finished dinner". Another example, "Let's start after you're done all the coffee", means "Let's start after you've finished all the coffee". This is not exactly the same as the standard construction "to be done with something", since "She is done the computer" can only mean "She is done with the computer" in one sense: "She has finished (building) the computer".
Many Philadelphians are known to use the expression "youse" both as second person plural and (rarely) second person singular pronoun, much like the mostly Southern / Western expression "y'all" or the Pittsburgh term "yinz". "Youse" or "youse guys" is common in many working classNortheastern U.S. areas, though it is often associated with Philadelphia especially. However, unlike in other Northeastern U.S. areas, the Philadelphian pronunciation of "youse" reflects vowel reduction more often than not, frequently yielding /jəz/ and /jɪz/ ("yiz") rather than the stereotypical /juz/ ("youse"). (ex: "Yiz want anything at the store?" "Yiz guys alright over there?"). Second person singular forms commonly are heard as /jə/ and /jɪ/.
A sandwich consisting of a long bread filled with lunch meat, cheese, and lettuce, onion and tomato, variously called a "sub" or "submarine sandwich" in other parts of the United States, is called a hoagie. Olive oil, rather than mayonnaise, is used as a topping, and "hot" or "sweet" peppers are used for spice. The term 'hoagie' originated in Philadelphia.
A similar sandwich toasted in an oven or broiler is called a grinder.
Small chocolate or multi-colored confections sprinkled on ice cream and cake icing, elsewhere called sprinkles, are known as jimmies in the Philadelphia area, as well as in the Boston and Pittsburgh areas. (In Boston, and among some older Philadelphians, only chocolate sprinkles are called jimmies.)
Another distinctively Philadelphian word is jawn. According to Dan Nosowitz, jawn "...is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people."
Notable examples of native speakers
The following well-known Philadelphians represent a sampling of those who have exhibited a Philadelphia accent:
These speakers retain slight traces or elements of a rhotic Philadelphia accent:
Gloria Allred — "slightly nasal, Philadelphia-accented voice that can drip with sarcasm"
Kevin Bacon and Bruce Willis — "two native [Philadelphia] sons, Bruce Willis (Salem County, N.J.) and Kevin Bacon (Center City Philadelphia), who, at least in interviews early in their career, before accent reduction training kicked in, let their diphthong freak flags fly."
Jill Biden — "She exaggerates her Philadelphia suburbs accent, which is already pretty strong."
Philadelphia English spoken by native speakers is seldom heard in films and fictional television shows. Films and television shows set in the Philadelphia region generally make the mistake of giving the characters a working-class New York City dialect (specifically heard in Philadelphia-set films such as the Rocky series, Invincible, and A History of Violence). Contrary examples exist, such as the character Lynn Sear (played by Toni Collette) in The Sixth Sense, who speaks with an accurate Philadelphia dialect. In Sleepers, the character Sean Nokes (played by Philadelphia native Kevin Bacon) speaks in an exaggerated Philadelphia accent. The use of geographically inaccurate dialects is also true in films and television programs set in Atlantic City or any other region of South Jersey; the characters often use a supposed "Joisey" dialect, when in reality that New York-influenced dialect for New Jersey natives is almost always exclusive to the extreme northeastern region of the state nearest New York City.
Philadelphia natives who work in media and entertainment often assimilate to the General American broadcast standard. Speakers with a noticeable local accent include Jim Cramer, the host of CNBC's Mad Money, singer Joe Bonsall, political commentator Chris Matthews,Bam Margera, and several others in the MTV Jackass crew. Venezuelan American actress Sonya Smith, who was born in Philadelphia, speaks with a Philadelphia accent in both English and Venezuelan Spanish. Local television, political, and sports personalities in South Jersey and part of Central Jersey are culturally associated with Philadelphia, not New York City.
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^Labov, Rosenfelder & Fruehwald 2013, p. 173, In NYC and the Mid-Atlantic region, short-a is split into a tense and lax class. There is reason to believe that the tense class /æh/ descends from the British /ah/ or 'broad-a' class..
^Gordon, Matthew (2004). "New York, Philadelphia and other Northern Cities". In Edgar Werner Schneider; Bernd Kortmann (eds.). A Handbook of Varieties of English: Morphology and Syntax. Vol. 1. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Company KG. p. 290. ISBN3-11-017532-0.
^Kenneth Finkel, ed. (1995). Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen's Manual. Philadelphia: The Library Company of Philadelphia. p. 86.
^"Philly Via Italy". thirty fourth street magazine. April 17, 2007: 9. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
^Eames, Edwin; Robboy, Howard (December 1967). Edwin Eames; Howard Robboy (eds.). "The Submarine Sandwich: Lexical Variations in a Cultural Context". American Speech. 42 (4): 279–288. doi:10.2307/452990. JSTOR452990.