Northeastern PA’s “Un-Northeastern” Accent

While a college freshman, I assumed one of my classmates to be from Minnesota or Wisconsin (my accent-dar was unsophisticated back then). She hailed from Scranton, Pennsylvania, however, a city a mere two hours from New York City. You might forgive my error after listening to former Scranton police chief Dan Duffy:

If the Great Lakes-ish sound of Scrantonians puzzles you, remember that The Electric City is only two hours from Syracuse. Even so, this is a remarkable testament to how rapidly accents change on the Eastern Seaboard–a town less than a hundred miles from both New York and Philadelphia is closer, speech-wise, to Chicago than those Northeastern megalopoles.

Scranton is also in the “highlands,” so to speak, where I find speech patterns to be especially diverse (there is more geography to impede the transmission of accent features). This seems especially true in the mountains of Northeastern PA.

For example, Scranton is only about 30 miles from Hazleton (as the crow flies), yet having spent time with Hazleton natives, I find the two accents quite distinguishable. For instance, whereas in Scranton the vowel in “lot” seems to be fairly central and unrounded (i.e. a), this same vowel is back and occasionally rounded in Hazleton (cardinal ɑ or ɒ). Listen to words like “common,” “stop” and “top” in this interview with Hazleton mayor Lou Barletta to get a sense of the difference*:

Bordering most major regions east of the Mississippi, PA exhibits lots of linguistic variation. But it’s still remarkable that one state encompasses an accent often mistaken for Brooklynese (South Philly), accents similar to the Great Lakes (Northern PA), accents that verge on inland Southern (Southwestern/Central PA), and at least one accent that resembles little else in the English-speaking world (Pittsburgh). It’s ironic that the state with arguably more dialect areas than any other has so few regionalisms recognizable to the rest of America.

*This is clearly inconsistent, though. Hazleton seems to be on a kind of border between the back, rounded vowel typical in Central/Western mountain towns like Altoona and the advanced, unrounded vowel more common East of the Alleghenies.

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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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9 Responses to Northeastern PA’s “Un-Northeastern” Accent

  1. Phil Dillard says:

    I am puzzled by Mr. Duffy’s accent. My dad is from Chicago, so I’m quite familiar with that type of accent, but that guy’s accent still sounds a bit odd to me. Lou Baretta sounds kind of New Yorkish to me. That seems to be a stereotype about Italian Americans (and Jewish Americans too of course). Do you have any videos of people from PA with “accents that verge on inland Southern”? I can’t say I’ve heard any like that myself, but then again I haven’t heard every accent.

    • Kristin A. says:

      I hear some “New Yorkishness” in Baretta’s accent too. For example, the way he says marriage [ˈmærɪdʒ] and dollars [ˈdɑləz] at 4:54 and 4:56, respectively. But it’s not just those things.

    • Chris says:

      I grew up in rural southern Chester County, PA (bordering both Maryland and Delaware) and I can vouch for the “southern” accent. Many of the people I grew up around had a very definitive “drawl” to their accent.

  2. m.m. says:

    funny, it never crossed my mind that one might think NEPA would sound like the northeast. im guilty of mistaking NYC with Philly though. i didnt even know where philadelphia even WAS until i gained my lect-dar, which leads me to agree that a state with a good amount of accent divirsity is pretty much off the laypeoples radar

    regarding “verge on inland southern”, you have to consider that the /aɪ/ monophthongization that occurs in that region is generally exclusive to /l/ and /ɹ/ environments, where as inland southern does in all contexts. its more vague than verge southern

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  4. birdie numnums says:

    Pennsylvania has so many wonderful dialects for such a disjointed state. My perspective on why the state is so disjointed is because no one wants to be associated with any of the other regions — they all look down on each other. At any rate, I grew up in a well-t0-do family in Pittsburgh. I don’t consider myself to have aPittsburgh accent, but of course, having been raised there I have some subtle hallmarks that my Bostonian husband finds entertaining (pronuncing pool/pull and fool/full identically; pronuncing bagel and Las Vegas as “beh-gel” and “las veh-gas” and, as you have notied before, the dropping intonation of the last wod in a question “is it cold outside?” — which is similar to pronuncing DE-pressed or UM-brella as words with a strong emphasis on the first sylabble and dropping intonation ). At any rate, all this is to say that I rarely identify with the rest of Pennsylvania in many ways including accents; however, occasionally I hear an individual who I assume is from Pittsburgh and am surprised to learn that they are actually from Philadelphia. I’m not sure precisely what it is in their speech that is the same, but I think it is that neither Pittsburghers nor Philadelphians dipthong very well? I’m not sure, perhaps you have a better perspective. But this is an interesting post for those of us from the Keystone State.

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  6. Cats says:

    As I live and have always lived just a few miles away from Scranton, I hear no accent.
    Probably because that’s exactly the way I sound when I talk.

  7. Cats says:

    Or, to be clearer, I didn’t know our accent was considered to be,”Un-Northeastron-ish”.

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