Twenty-four years ago, slunk behind a large popcorn bucket, I could never have comprehended that the woman on the Riverview big screen would bring my voice to the national forefront. But that was Kate Winslet then, on a big sinking boat. Now she’s hanging out in Delco on HBO’s Mare of Easttown. And when she talks, she sounds … like me.
In 1997, while Kate was dodging icebergs, I was growing up in Port Richmond, where the Delco accent didn’t yet exist in my life. Sure, my Grandmoms said Mondee and Tuesdee, but water was just wooder. A beggle with cream cheese was just breakfast.
When I moved to Delco at the age of 13, I became keenly aware of the Delco accent. To my young teen ears, it sounded weird. I spoke with the Philadelphia accent. Affectionately called Hoagiemouth, the Philadelphia accent will seldom be described as gentle. It’s rough and rounded and ragged.
But the Delco accent is the Jolt Cola of Hoagiemouth, the Pepsi Kona of Mid-Atlantic dialects, the Original Recipe Four Loko of vowel sounds. It’s just a little … off.
People move to Philadelphia from all over the world, bringing with them traditions and dialects of generations before them. This melds and mingles with Hoagiemouth as a living language, constantly augmenting, diluting, and evolving it.
People move to Delco from Philadelphia, bringing the Philadelphia accent. There, it breeds. Like a more potent variant of Hoagiemouth, somehow familiar yet not quite right. If the Philly accent is a Citywide Special, the Delco accent is a high schooler in the woods with a water bottle filled with vodka.
When I moved to Delco, I thought I sounded “normal,” but the longer I lived there, the more my accent changed, the more I sounded like everyone else in Ridley. And just five years later, as I readied for college, remembering how stupid I thought everyone in Delco sounded when I moved there, I became terrified that I would sound stupid when people heard how I talked. I was at one of Pennsylvania’s OKest state schools, dammit, I wasn’t stupid
So I made a decision: Though fewer than 100 miles from home, I would assimilate. I would sand down the rough edges of my accent.
It was bagel (not beggle) and towel (not taaaal) and wooder, the trademark, the stereotype, became a word I never said. At a restaurant? I’ll have a glass of waaaahter. Going to the supermarket? Can you get some bottles of waahter? I’m sure over pronouncing water had me sounding like the Swedish Chef with a head cold, but I was going out of my way to sound what I thought was normal.
I told myself it was because I wanted to work in radio and I needed my show on the college station to sound “professional,” but it always felt like a put-on. I knew I was trying to be something I wasn’t even as I did it.
Only when a Delco friend would call on the phone and I said, “Yeaux, wuts geauwin awwwwn,” it felt like me.
Eventually, I stopped. It became too exhausting. I didn’t feel like me anymore. Because my voice is part of who I am. And that is where I land now. I haven’t trained myself back onto saying wooder full time — the damage may be done there — but I take pride and admiration in my Delco Hoagiemouth accent. After all, Kate Winslet talks like me now.
Jim Adair is a former sports blogger and current dual citizen of South Philly and Delco.