The Overlooked Philadelphia Accent

The Liberty Bell

Liberty Bell, Philadelphia (Wikimedia)

I should really know more about the Philadelphia Accent than I do. I have several friends who live in Philadelphia, my lovely girlfriend was born in the city (and raised nearby), and I’ve lived most of my life in the Northeastern United States. But it wasn’t until very recently that I could so much as identify a Philadelphia accent.

So what does English sound like in the city of Brotherly Love? Reports vary. It’s been described (only semi-accurately) as “the New York accent, only milder.” More on-point, it’s part of a small dialect area called the Mid-Atlantic, which stretches from Southern New Jersey to Coastal Maryland.

Given the city’s geographical location, the actual features of the Philadelphia accent seem to borrow from both North and South:

*Like New York City Accents, Philadelphia English features a raised pronunciation of words like thought and coffee (“kaw-fee” or IPA kɔəfi). Also like Big Apple natives, Philadelphians have a complex system called the tense-lax split, whereby the /a/ in certain “short-a” words–such as bad, path, pan, and ask–is pronounced  more “tensely” (impressionistically speaking, this means that “bad” may sound a bit like “bed.”).

*But like some American Southern accents,  the vowels in GOOSE and GOAT are fronted (pronounced closer to the center of the vowel space — i.e. IPA gʉs and gɜʊt).

But there are other aspects of Philly speech that are quite unique. For example, the /ey/ sound in the words face and the /ey/ in the word day are not pronounced alike. When this diphthong occurs in closed syllables (i.e. before a consonant, as in “face”), this sound becomes an “eh” (i.e. IPA fe:s). When the sound occurs before an open consonant (as in “day”), it is slightly closer to the sound in “die” (i.e. IPA dæɪ).

Examples of true-blue Philadelphia accents are few and far between. Probably the most famous person with a marked accent would be television commentator Chris Matthews:

I’d also point to these two excellent samples on the International Dialect of English Achive: this middle-aged speaker and this younger speaker.

Listening to both Mr. Matthews and the two IDEA samples, it strikes me that the features of the Philadelphia accent are quite variable within individual speakers. (Note, for instance, that Mr. Matthews’ “oo” sound–as in “goose”–varies in terms of frontness).  While I’ve heard New Yorkers who seem to have every posssible New Yorkism in the book, I’ve never met a Philadelphian with every feature of the Philadelphia accent.

Like New York, though, there are apparent sub-dialects in Philadelphia. For example, I’ve heard rumor of a “South Philly” variant which differs from other Philadelphia accents in that it is non-rhotic (i.e. the ‘r’ is dropped at the end of words like butter or car).

Alas, I couldn’t find a clip of anyone identified as being from South Philadelphia, so I went with an interview with local celebrity/cheesesteak entrepreneur Joey Vento, of South Philly’s Geno’s Steaks fame. (Disclaimer: Vento is an extremely controversial figure in Philadelphia, as will become apparent from this clip. He does not represent the fine city of Philadelphia, nor the political views and/or dietary habits of its populace):

I had a hard time tracking down a bio of Mr. Vento, although one site I visisted suggested he’s from West Philly, not South. Nevertheless, as an Italian-American he is of the demographic that apparently maintains the “South Philly” ethnolect. Indeed, I noticed two non-rhotic pronunciations: his repetition of “dollars” at 0:51 (“dolluhs”) and his pronunciation of “opportunities” at 3:03 (“oppahtunities”).

I’m not sure, though, why such non-rhoticisms may (or may not) linger in the speech of Italian-Philadelphians. Perhaps there was a stopover in New York City before this group settled in Philly?

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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52 Responses to The Overlooked Philadelphia Accent

  1. Austin says:

    I was watching Jim Cramer’s show, Mad Money, the other night and he seems to have a nice Philadelphia accent. That’s the only other example I can come up with though.

  2. Austin says:

    I think the Baltimore accent is very much like the Philly accent too.

    • trawicks says:

      It is, yes. And it’s a bit more extreme in some respects: for example, l-vocalization (which is found in Philly as well), seems more consistent in B’More.

      I totally forgot about Jim Cramer!

  3. Erica Walch says:

    People from Philly are the only ones I’ve ever heard who use the expression “needs [verb]ed” the way I would use “needs [verb]ing” or “needs to be [verb]ed” — for example, “My chair is broken, it needs fixed”

    • Scottie says:

      I’ve only ever heard that in western Pennsylvania.

      • Erica says:

        I wonder if my friends came from there before moving to Philly? We’re out of touch now, but the first speaker I heard use this was one of my friends who grew up in Philadelphia and then moved here to Western Mass — his friends and relatives would often visit (from Philly) and I’d hear all of them use this expression, and it struck me as odd.

        • trawicks says:

          I spent a weekend in Altoona, PA a few weeks back, and noticed that it was a feature there. Being located precisely on the Eastern Edge of the Alleghenies, the town is basically right on the border between Western and Central PA. It might still be thought of as Western, though.

          Still not sure how native it is to Philly, though!

      • James says:

        I’m from Philly originally, and dated someone from Erie. The “needs swept” thing is from Northwestern PA. I don’t think people from Pittsburgh (Southwestern PA) do that, and Philadelphians don’t do it. I’ve heard this comes from German immigrants.

        I think Italians like Joey Vento might be more prone to use the non-rhotic sounds because of the high profile of the “Rocky” movies in tough-guy South Philly culture. It’s possible that Rocky, having actually done more of a New York accent, may have gotten copied by people over time. I can’t be sure of this since I was born after the movie was filmed, but I intuitively got the sense that only men talked this way, and only men who identified with a sense of “toughness”. I’ve also, conversely, heard that the non-rhotic speech comes from Italians rolling Rs, getting made fun of for it, and thus, dropping Rs.

        Strangely, I’ve also noticed that some African-American Philadelphians drop some Rs from a few words (mostly street names, I think, like Girard (“Garahhd”) and Westminster (said like “Westministuh”). I wonder if this comes from the Great Migration? I don’t notice this to be a general trend in AAVE/Philly speak, but it is there on certain words, and maybe it’s from people’s whose families specifically came from Charleston/Atlanta area?

        Interesting.

        • Carol Trevathan says:

          It is interestng to learn that the “needs swept” construction goes as far noth as NW PA. It is completely normal in south central PA, Lancaster, York, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin counties, and more. The porch needs painted. Those clothes need washed. It extends down toward Baltimore andnthe Rastern Shore of MD as well. I have heard it here in Philly, but rarely.

    • Rhino1515 says:

      The ‘needs [verb]ed’ phenomenon was new to me when I first ventured into southern Illinois for school. I heard it there for the first time when a neighbor said, “The lawn needs mowed.” I eventually learned to like the construction — which is leaner: ‘needs to be mown’ or ‘needs mowed’?

    • Vanessa says:

      I am a Philly native and I never *ever* in my entire life heard anyone drop the infinitive (as in, “this needs verbed”) until I moved to Pittsburgh. After living in Western PA for a decade and marrying a Pittsburgher, it seeped into my own speech patterns. Problem–I moved back to Philly this fall and I’m still doing it! I try to catch myself but I’m on the verge of giving up. Native Philadelphians who hear it definitely think it is plenty weird.

      To my knowledge, it is definitely NOT a Philadelphia thing. Western PA and Ohio are where it’s really prominent, in my experience.

      • Kim Breen says:

        I agree, Vanessa. My ex-husband was from Carlisle, Pennsylvania (Harrisburg area) and used the “needs verbed” all of the time.

        • Carol Trevathan says:

          Defintely the norm in Hanover-Carlisle-Harrisburg corridor. That’s home territory for me, and pretty much everybody says it that way. The house need painted. The grass needs mowed. The dishes need washed. Etc. I do not hear it much in Philly.

  4. trawicks says:

    @Erica, Scottie,

    I’ve heard that from a few Pennsylvanians, but I’m not sure where the boundaries of that are geographically. I had a friend some years back from more South/Central PA (perhaps closer to Hanover?) who mentioned it as feature of the local dialect there. I can’t say if it’s a feature of Philly English or not.

    • m.m. says:

      I’ve been under the impression that “need’s X” was common in the midlands dialect, even seeing a map of where uses occur, but I can’t seem to find it.

      Language log seems to agree with ‘middle westerners’ via scots-irish settlement.

      • Thomas says:

        I’m from West Central Illinois and I never heard “needs verb-ed” in my part of the Midland. We would say “needs to be done” or “needs doing” (even that sounds a bit weird), but never “needs done”. I can’t speak for the rest of the Midland though. Western Pennsylvania is sort of Midland although it has a completed low back merger.

        • m.m. says:

          Voila: http://i.imgur.com/AJWfv.png

          The map was from the atlas of north american english DUH! I need to upgrade my memory xD

        • Thomas says:

          Of course there are no speakers from West Central Illinois on that map. No surprise there.

        • m.m. says:

          TIL ‘west central illinois’ = north west illinois, and that its basically inland north territory, not midlands.

          http://i.imgur.com/UQA3C.png

        • Thomas says:

          No it’s definitely Midland territory. It’s just not included. But that’s what I would expect from a place called Forgottonia.

          P.S. What do you mean by “TIL”?

        • m.m. says:

          but… the north !!
          http://i.imgur.com/8ypC9.png

          totally part of the north :b
          TIL = today i learned.

        • Ellen K says:

          This is totally off topic, but, MM, I do wonder why you are insisting that “west central Illinois” refers, not to the western bulge, which would logically be described as “west central Illinois”, but to another region not logically described that way. And, considering you just learned this supposed fact, maybe your information was wrong?

          But, regardless of what someone else might mean by it, I’m pretty sure we should take Thomas’s word for it on what they mean by it. West = west, not northwest. Central does not equal a corner.

  5. Thomas says:

    Uhmmm…no it’s definitely not a part of the North on that map (and it isn’t in reality either). There isn’t a single circle, representing a speaker, from my region on that map unfortunately. I really don’t want to argue with a complete stranger about this, but I can assure you that I know where I’m from :)

    P.S. West Central Illinois ≠ north west Illinois The people who told you that do not know what they’re talking about :)

    • m.m. says:

      Nvm, I see now, a minor misreading didn’t help either ^_^; It’s like with kentucky all over gain. You states need to get your acts together when it comes to your cardinal directions :b

      • Thomas says:

        I really didn’t want to keep going with this, but what did you mean by, “It’s like with kentucky all over gain. You states need to get your acts together when it comes to your cardinal directions :b”?

  6. Aaron Bauman says:

    I didn’t find any “genuine” renditions, but here’s a pretty accurate (believe it or not) parody of the South Philadelphian dialect from 1812’s Jen Childs as “Patsy”:
    https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=75424330947

    Here’s another (exaggerated) version of what’s referred to as “Midatlantic Dialect” that comes, in parts, very close to “South Philadelphian”:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3lZFiyd_-0

    Philly sports not only its own accents, but also some unique words (or at least unique uses):
    * “jawn” (generic noun meaning, roughly, “thing”)
    * “yous” (plural or “you”)
    * “jimmies” (sprinkles, like the kind that go on water ice)
    * “fire plug” (known as a “fire hydrant” elsewhere)

    Finally, I would be remiss as a South Philadelphian if I did not point out that, although he is a South Philadelphia business owner, Vento makes his residence in Shamong, New Jersey, according to the intertubes.

    • trawicks says:

      Wow. Isn’t moving to the Jersey suburbs the Philly equivalent of high treason?
      (When my significant other reveals the bedroom community where she grew up to somebody from Philly proper, she is immediately greeted with some permutation of “Yeah. NOT Philadelphia.”)

      • Aaron Bauman says:

        Yeah, more or less. Although to be fair I don’t think South Jersey is necessarily considered more treasonous than any other suburb.

        • Leigh says:

          Many Italians born and raised in South Philly have relocated to South Jersey in recent years due to the influx of other immigrant populations and gentrification in general. We have neighbors who spend their weekends on our South Philly block, but technically live in Jersey. I wonder what that will mean for the Jersey dialects!

          I should also mention the most commonly mocked/misunderstood Philly accented word in my life is the pronunciation of water. Sounds much more like wooder.

        • trawicks says:

          That sounds a bit like the New York Irish/Jewish/Italian exodus to Long Island. I’d be curious to see if, as is the case with New York, the actual Philly accent eventually migrates to the suburbs, leaving the urban core mostly to General American English or various transplanted accents.

          Regarding the “water” = “wooder” thing, I think that’s because Philadelphians (well, Philadelphians with strong accents) have a very “close” vowel for words like “thought,” “raw,” “coffee” and yes, “water.” Basically, that means that the vowel here is actually similar to the vowel most Americans use for “could,” “would” and “look,” as you suggest. (It also means the word “fought” is probably pretty close to “foot!”)

  7. I’m skeptical of any claims of sub-dialects of Philadelphia. There is certainly 1) class stratification of the dialect and 2) some ethnic differentiation. So, r-lessness is largely associated with working class Italians. They also happen to have historically lived in South Philly.

    So in Philly, much like New York, most discussion of sub-regional accents is really veiled discussion of class distinctions.

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  9. another philly accent says:

  10. Beth says:

    I have lived in the Philadelphia area for 40 years and two of the oddest things I hear people say are 1) “I’m done it,” meaning “I am done with it” and 2) I’m going down the shore,” meaning “I am going down to the shore.” The seem to do away with prepositions. Could this have German roots?

  11. Glen says:

    There is a clear South Philly accent if you put certain words together, like “G’down Pashunk Ave to Antiny’s wooder ice, and get a churry wooder ice and a cheesesteak half wit half witout wit wiz. Then g’downashore.” Which translates to: Go down Passyunk Avenue to Anthony’s water ice, get a cherry water ice and a chessesteak with cheese wiz, half with onions and half without onions. Then go to the beach (usually Wildwood, NJ).

  12. jess says:

    Earlier in a few posts it was suggested that Philadelphians landed in New York first which is why they sound similar. The reason new Yorkers and south philadelphians sound so similar is because the Italian immigrants largely shaped both areas. The way Irish immigrants largely shaped the accent in Boston. I think certain ethnic groups settled in certain areas and brought a particular flavor to that area which then became an accent.

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  14. bobby jones says:

    I don’t understand what’s so “controversial” about the Vento guy. The things he said make sense and Americans these days get so anal whenever someone mentions anything that involves race lol.

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  21. CRR says:

    I was raised in Northeast Philadelphia (Mayfair). I went to Chicago for undergrad, and I was harassed for my Philadelphia Accent. Many times people thought I was from Australia. I will say, without a doubt, that Philadelphia accent(s) vary depending upon neighborhood.

    Because I left home, I came back to Philadelphia and really started to pay attention to how people here talk. Some funny things we all say.

    1) Gaw-head (this means “go ahead”), usually used when you are trying to let someone go in front of you with a shopping cart or a car. This is said with a higher pitch, and is usually in a polite manner.

    2) K’ive (this means “could I have”) “that pretzel looks great, k’ive one?”

    3)the common “Yuze” (you guys) In just about any neighborhood, you’ll here someone call out the pick up basketball score, “It’s 5-4 yuze!” Meaning, “Your team is winning 5-4.”

    I have noticed a “k” sound at the end of words ending in -“ing” from South Philadelphian’s, its usually how I know that some one is from South Philadelphia. “I went shoppingk on…..”

    My grandparents call it a cellar (that is dying out) and a “pa-ler” for parlor (also dying out), bay rad-EE-a-der (radiator) is still going strong. What’s really weird about radiator (rhymes with gladiator) is it is only used for what heats one’s home, but your car has a ray-DEE-a-tor (the correct pronunciation of the word).

    I will also say, if you talk to people from neighborhoods that no longer exist they way they once did, they have totally different accents than some of the other Philadelphians. Olney, Logan, Germantown.

    Just thoughts theta seemed worth sharing.

    • John says:

      “Many times people thought I was from Australia.”

      Why is Australia always the go-to guess when people don’t know where an accent comes from? :)

      I can’t say I’ve ever heard radiator stressed on the 2nd syllable. I’d like to hear it though.

  22. Jon DeVos says:

    I am from deep in the south jersey shore and I have on many occasions been asked if I was from England

  23. Jon DeVos says:

    It is interesting that someone from Philadelphia was asked if they where from Australia. I was reading on one article on the linguistics of the mid-Atlantic accent that it did have similarities to Australia. I think deep along the jersey bayshores the English is closest to the English brought over from England. The people that thought I had an English accent where actually visiting from England. My daughter has been asked if she had an English accent. One thing, no movie or tv show about Atlantic city has ever gotten anywhere near a correct Atlantic city accent

  24. Ivey says:

    I’ve lived in Los Angeles for eleven years now and I’m often mistaken for an English native because of my accent. Many people I’ve come in contact with love my accent (Upward Inflection can only go so far to others’ ears). When I tell them I’m from Philly, they look incredulous.

    I also agree that Philadelphians proper, not suburbanites, differ, according to class, education, and ethnicity. So, while the accents generally exist, variations are expected.

  25. Kathie says:

    I’ve lived in Center City Philadelphia for the last 3 years but lived in South Jersey (just outside Philly) for most of my life. One word that I’m shocked wasn’t brought up in the article (not sure if any posters commented on this or not) is the word “water.” That’s the one word that rarely varies in pronunciation in this area by native Philadelphians & S. Jersyans alike (pronounced “wooter”). I purposely pronounce it as “water,” b/c it’s a dead giveaway as to where I’m from.

    The word “yous” is only used by some Philadelphians from Northeast & South Philly. I’d never heard anyone say that until I came to work in Center City years ago. I couldn’t believe people actually used that word in a serious manner.

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