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The Yankee-fication Of The Philly Accent

Remember Sean Monahan’s great video from a couple of years ago exemplifying the classic Philadelphia accent? I lived in Philly for two years, and rarely encountered that accent, except for the time I went to dinner in an Italian restaurant out by the ballpark. Most of the time, the people I met in Philly sounded a lot like me, or rather, I sounded like them. Put another way, we sounded a lot more like each other than either of us sounded like people with the classic accents of our home regions.

The Atlantic reports on research done by Penn linguists finding that the Philadelphia accent has been steadily moving away from its Southern-ish sound toward a more uniformly Northern sound. Excerpt:

In all of these patterns since the 1970s (meaning among people born in the city roughly after World War II), the one common denominator is that the Philadelphia dialect appears to be realigning with its northern neighbors. Language evolves through relationships between people, but the changing sound of the city also has much to do with Philadelphia’s relationship to broader parts of the country.

So what exactly happened in the period after World War II that sparked this realignment? There was no massive influx of people from the city’s northern neighbors then. There was no dramatic population change. We do know, though, that as Southern dialects have been retreating in general, they have also become among the most stigmatized.

The big question of why language changes lies beyond everything we do,” Labov says. “So we attack it by breaking it down into small steps.”

Let me ask readers from Philly and elsewhere: do you notice the accent changing where you live? In what ways? Any idea why this is happening?

I notice the distinct Southern-ness of the accents around where I live fading, though they’re still easily recognizable as Southern. I don’t hear it changing at all among black folks, but among whites — at least middle-class whites — it’s getting softer. All I can figure is that this is the effect of television, but then again, everybody watches TV, so that can’t be it. Perhaps it’s the case that middle-class white people have internalized a stigmatized view of the Southern accent. For me, in the 1980s, forcing myself to speak as clearly and as unaccented as possible — especially saying my g’s — was a form of rebellion. Now I really wish I had more of a Southern accent than I do, but to speak as I did as a child, which I haven’t done for more than half my life, would be putting on airs. But just get two or three drinks in me, and I get all drawly and mushmouthed, and don’t even realize it’s happening.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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