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Pennsylvania, the most linguistically complex state in the country

As any Pennsylvanian can tell you, there’s a huge difference between the state’s two most well-known accents: Philly’s hoagiemouth and Pittsburgh’s “n’at”-laden talk. Most, however, probably can’t tell you the difference between the other three, which technically make us the most linguistically complex state in the country thanks to our five distinct dialects.

As any Pennsylvanian can tell you, there's a huge difference between the state's two most well-known accents: Philly's hoagiemouth and Pittsburgh's "n'at"-laden talk. Most, however, probably can't tell you the difference between the other three, which technically make us the most linguistically complex state in the country thanks to our five distinct dialects.

Slate covered the story this week, calling Pennsylvania a "regional dialect hotbed nonpareil" due to our five dialects, which is more than double the average state's paltry two. Each dialect has unique regional vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation, but, unfortunately, almost no one thinks about how the talk in Erie or, say, Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

Why? Well, according to Slate, Philly and Pittsburgh just overshadow the remaining three dialects we have in-state. Naturally, the piece goes through how we pronounce things different from our Yinzer counterparts, mostly just rehashing examples that we've come to expect thanks to stuff like that New York Times article from last year, or Nick Kroll's skit on the subject from earlier this year.

Why all that is the case, though, is little more of a complicated story, which the Slate piece largely attributes to migration and geography:

According to Barbara Johnstone, a professor of English and linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University, migration patterns and geography deserve much of the credit (or blame) for the variety of speech quirks on display in Pennsylvania. A horizontal dialect boundary that roughly traces Interstate 80 spans the length of the state. The speech and vocabulary of those living north of that line of demarcation, she says, were influenced by those who migrated into the U.S. through Boston mainly from the south of England. "Whereas the people in the rest of Pennsylvania below that tended to come to the U.S. from Northern England and arrived in Philadelphia and other places along the Delaware Valley," Johnstone says. "They came from Northern England and Scotland and Northern Ireland." 

Not only that, but we also appear to be fighting our Northern and Southern influences to this very day:

According to University of Pennsylvania linguistics professor William Labov, the Philly dialect represents a tug of war between the city's connections to, and influences from, different parts of the country. "I think Philadelphia is torn between its northern and southern heritage," he says. The result is a regional dialect that combines many influences to form a one-of-a-kind manner of speaking. 

Still, though, we've been told that the Philly accent is fading out as our number of immigrating residents increases and the city becomes more accepted as a living destination. The New York Times piece, at least, told us that, but the author of the study the piece references begs to differ:

But if you talk to William Labov, who co-authored the study, you'll get a decidedly less fatalistic perspective on the trajectory of the dialect. He refers to analysis of sound and speech changes as "a game of musical chairs," and suggests that making broad pronouncements based on shifts in one element of a dialect is probably not a good idea. "Philadelphia is maintaining its local dialect, and developing in new directions," Labov notes. "I would say that the dialect is in pretty good shape." Monahan agrees. He says the Times piece is too simplistic in its summation of the linguistics involved. "Certain vowels are getting less strong over time," he notes, but "others are getting stronger."

From that perspective, it looks like we have nothing to worry about. That way, we Philadelphians can continue the tradition of technically being grammatically incorrect while still be able to communicate. Take, for example, this instance of Philly's unique phraseology provided by Bucky County's Sean Monahan:

"We have this very unusual grammar quirk with the word done," Monahan explains. "When you say 'I'm done' something, it means the task is done. The rest of the country would say 'I'm done with my water.' But if I say 'I'm done with my water' in Philadelphia, that would mean I've had some, and I don't want to finish the rest. If I say 'I'm done my water,' that means I've drunk all of it. They mean two different things."

You tell 'em, buddy. You tell 'em.


» READ MORE: Slate