On rare occasions while writing a post, someone brings up my chosen topic in the comments and I end up discussing what I’m writing about before hitting “publish.” So this post repeats somewhat an excellent discussion I had recently with commenter “Fred Meyer.”
One of the most salient features of contemporary Philadelphia English is what might be called the “day/date split.” In a nutshell, for folks with marked Delaware Valley accents the vowel in words like “face” shifts in two different directions: for an “open” vowel like “day,” the vowel sounds (sort of) as if this word were “die.” For “closed” words like “date,” however, the vowel sounds sounds as if this word were “deet.” (By “sounds like,” I mean it sounds that way to many other Northern Americans; it’s obviously subjective).
I’m not entirely exaggerating about “date” sounding like “deet”. As I mentioned here the other day, I once mistook “slave driver” for “sleeve driver” when talking to a woman from the Philly area. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone quite reach the cardinal vowel [i], but there are definitely some strikingly close and peripheral pronunciations.
Anyway, if you’ve lived in various parts of the Northeast, you’ll likely notice that this feature is hardly confined to Philly. I’ve heard it in Northern New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester County, and (if my memory serves) Connecticut. My rough impression is that it is spreading, but I couldn’t tell you why or from what direction.
One finds something slightly similar in variants of Belfast English, in which “days” is pronounced close to dɛ:z, and “daze” diəz (not my personal impression, but John Wells‘). The Philly/NJ/NY version is different, though, because morpheme boundaries often don’t seem to matter. Around Philly, at least, I’ve heard people say the word “day” so it’s dɛɪ in one sentence, but pronounce “days” dez in the next.
So when did Northeasterners start saying “deet” or “det” instead of “date?” Labov, Rosenfelder and Fruehwald’s recent Philadelphia accent study seems to suggest the change has increased greatly over a good century (or at least according to the description on Penn’s website; I don’t have access to the article itself). In places like Long Island and New Jersey, the innovation strikes me as much more recent.
Indeed, this feature seems to be one of a number of splits that have emerged in the Northeast corridor over a period of several decades. There is Philly’s “ride-right split” (the latter is pronounced something like rəɪt), for instance, and younger people in New York suburbs seem to have an interesting split between “go” and “goat,” with the former pronounced gʌʊ (or some other open diphthong) and the latter got*.
I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with these developments over the course of my lifetime. Will they fade? Will people in these areas start to pronounce all “face” vowels with a monophthong?
*In Southeastern Pennsylvania, I’ve noticed an unusual variation of this split, in which closed vowels tend toward a centralized monopthong, so “home” can approach something like hɵm. It’s pretty infrequent, though, and I have no idea if it will emerge as a widespread shibboleth.