The Day/Date Split

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.

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About Ben

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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15 Responses to The Day/Date Split

  1. Tyra says:

    Ben, I like your blog and loved it on blogionaire.com

  2. Tom says:

    And yet there is a subset of people in the Philly area (I haven’t figured out the geography of it) that pronounces “day” like “dee” if it’s at the end of a day of the week, like “MUN-dee”. I’d say this is dying out, though, so maybe it’s generational.

    • Tony says:

      I speak with a British estuary accent and pronounce the days of the week with a ‘dee’ on the end, ‘day’ on its own though is pronounced normally.

      • Rodger C says:

        I also pronounce days of the week like that, though the feature seems to be regressive in America.

    • Nico says:

      My father, who was born in Portsmouth, Virginia but lived all over because he was a navy brat, pronounces the days of the week as so. However, I do not despite growing up in Fairfax, Virginia. I personally have never met anyone my age (Millennial generation) who pronounces ‘day’ as ‘dee’ in the days of the week. In fact, I doubt anyone younger than my father (a Baby Boomer) does.

      • Angus-Michel says:

        I have met old-fashioned speakers here in Canada who also do this, but as you say, no one younger than Baby Boomers.

  3. oneblankspace says:

    Same vowel, different geographical location:

    I remember on a visit to West Tennessee back in 2000 hearing /e:/ come out as [εj], gliding from the open-mid front fowel upward.

  4. Ed says:

    This is interesting. I think that something similar was present in England, somewhere around Staffordshire.

    I’ve had a quick look at the Incidental Material from the SED. Note this under “Sayings and Customs” for Alton (the third site listed).

    “I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw a bull by the tail”
    ɛɪ wʊdnə trʊst ɪm əz fɜ:r əz ə kud θrʊ: ə bʊl bɪ θ ti:l

    Notice how unchecked “I” has ɛɪ whereas checked “tail” has i:

    • AW says:

      That’s a different issue, FACE and FLEECE are the result of vowel mergers which had not necessarily taken place in some traditional dialect.

  5. Ngamudji says:

    About 30 years ago, a doctor I know (who has a general Australian accent) was spending a year gaining specialist experience in a US hospital. She was called in to see the doctor in charge who said that a serious allegation had been made against her: “Did you speak to a patient – Mr ….? He is very upset.”

    “All I said was that there was good news – he is going home today.”

    “So you admit it?”

    “Admit what?”

    “You told him he was going home to die?”

    I heard this story from the doctor herself. The incident could have had serious consequences. As Chuck Lorre would say, not funny then, funny now.

    • oneblankspace says:

      That reminds me of the Englishman who was dining in an American restaurant:

      ‘Waiter, what is this?’
      “It’s bean soup.”
      ‘I don’t want to know what it’s been, I want to know what it is!’