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The city is the “gold standard” when it comes to studying language patterns, largely because of William Labov, the famed University of Pennsylvania linguist who for decades has been recording how Philly talks.
His work has helped to set up a corpus, or database, that researchers can use as a diving board for other important linguistic work in Philadelphia, from looking closely at who exactly is changing the white accent to American Sign Language in Philly to the Puerto Rican community and African American English.
“Everybody has an accent,” said Josef Fruehwald, co-author of a landmark 2013 Penn study on Philly’s changing dialect. “Even people who don’t think they have an accent. It’s just nobody comments on their accent, but everybody’s got a distinctive way of speaking.”
Here’s a look at what researchers are learning about how Philadelphians communicate.
Linguists say young women tend to be at the forefront of language changes — in Philadelphia and across the globe.
In some ways, why is a “million-dollar question in sociolinguistics,” said Meredith Tamminga, assistant professor of linguistics at Penn and director of the university’s Language Variation and Cognition Lab. A 2012 New York Times article on the subject noted, “as Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.”
Interested in the influence of an individual within the group, Tamminga homed in on young women by analyzing conversational speech in pairs of young, white women ages 18 to 29.
“We said, ‘OK, well, if we’re going to pick one group to focus in on and learn about how changes are driven forward, we might as well pick the group that is sort of at the forefront of these changes,’ ” she said.
Tamminga and her team are beginning to look at the findings, analyzing the relationship between words that many Philadelphians are saying more distinctively over time — like plate, pronounced more like pleete, or fight like foit or tooth like t-eww-th — and the words that are becoming less distinctive, like thought, home, and down.
“The idea is basically to say ... so we’ve learned all these things about the way the groups differ, now pick just one group and look inside of the group and say, how do those people differ from each other?" she said.
American Sign Language in Philadelphia
Jami Fisher, senior lecturer of foreign languages and director of the ASL program at Penn; Tamminga; and Julie Hochgesang, an associate professor at Gallaudet University, a private university for the deaf in Washington, began the Philadelphia Signs Project about five years ago to document ASL in Philly.
“Sometimes people say that [the Philadelphia ASL variation] is strange or weird, which you don’t often get, or you don’t regularly get for like, Indianapolis, for example, or Rochester,” Fisher said, noting the variation is fading. “You just don’t have deaf people say, ‘Oh, those people in Indianapolis sign so weird.’ ”
What she can say is that there are lexical variations. Older signers might extend the same sign for Wanamaker’s, the now-closed regional department store, that they’d use for “store” — like the way “Coke” can sometimes mean soda.
Right now, the data are used to understand ASL generally, but more will be known about Philly’s variety with additional information, including more African American and Latino signers.
“Ultimately, our long-term goal is really to understand what makes Philadelphia signs Philly, and in order to do that, we need more data, not just in Philadelphia participants, but just in general," Fisher said.
African American English
African American English in Philly has been researched by Labov and others, and an online corpus outside Penn is being built to record regional varieties, but there needs to be more done to compare what’s happening in Philly with what’s happening elsewhere, said Sabriya Fisher, assistant professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences at Wellesley College and a recent Penn graduate.
“Many people have found there’s a tendency for African Americans in a given location to approximate the local white accent, but we’re starting to find some cases where they’re doing something completely different,” she said.
“There’s more going on in Philly linguistically than what we know about the white community.”
Obviously, there are words like jawn that originated in the city’s African American community, but Sabriya Fisher also said that what’s known to researchers as a neutral /ae/ system is characteristic of the African American community in Philly.
Though Sabriya Fisher hopes to research more distinguishing factors, her recent work found that ain’t used in the past tense instead of didn’t — as in, “at that time, I ain’t really know what it was" — had increased over the 20th century. She examined speakers in Philly, but it’s not a finding isolated to region.
“There’s more going on in Philly linguistically than what we know about the white community, which we have quite a bit of information on — the white Philadelphia dialect compared to what we know in the African American community," she said.
Philly’s Puerto Rican community
Philly is home to one of the biggest communities of Puerto Ricans in the United States.
Grant Berry, a language engineer for Amazon who studied the community as a visiting scholar at Penn in 2017, analyzed vowel patterns used by Puerto Ricans in North and Northeast Philly, looking in part to determine whether the white Philly accent was influencing Puerto Rican English speakers.
“Everybody has an accent. ... everybody’s got a distinctive way of speaking.”
Berry also found that younger and more educated white Philadelphians are trying to back away from the vowel that makes wooder so distinctive to the area. Though Puerto Ricans are also backing away from that vowel, the way they do depends on their sex, with men using a well-known pattern called the “caught/cot merger."
“So the vowels in cot, like a bed, and caught, like ‘he caught the ball,’ merge together and sound the same,” he said.
Berry observed that Puerto Rican speakers were adopting characteristics noted in African American English, like th-fronting, when “th” sounds become "f" sounds, likely because of where Philly’s Puerto Rican communities are — between historically white and black communities.
“There are real practical reasons to adopt patterns of African American speech within the Puerto Rican community, and we haven’t really looked at that yet,” Berry said.
Betsy Sneller, a recent Ph.D. graduate from Penn and a postdoctoral research fellow at Georgetown University, noticed a change happening to what she describes as abstract rules that govern pronunciation in Philly’s white accent.
Her research took her back to high school, where she found differences among three categories.
Students in what she labels “elite public schools” like Masterman School and Central High School are ditching the Philly system, but students in “special-admissions Catholic schools,” like Roman Catholic High School and Nazareth Academy High School, are using both. Students in local Catholic schools, like Little Flower High School and Archbishop Ryan High School, are sticking with the Philly system.
“To me, this was really exciting because it’s the first like real-time recording data that shows, yeah, speakers are able to learn these two complex systems and vary between them,” she said.
The work that’s already been done has helped researchers study the nitty-gritty of Philadelphia English, but researchers agree they can’t say exactly what’s next. Language isn’t a predictive science.
There are more stones to be turned over.
“In terms of language variation and change and patterns of sound change, there’s no city that’s been studied more than Philadelphia,” Berry said. “Yet still, there’s so much more work that needs to be done.”