We here in the Philadelphia area have long been maligned for drinking "wooder," traveling down "Pashunk Avenue," and taking our steaks "wit" whiz, non-natives cringing all the while thanks to our, ahem, vibrant accent. Love it or hate it, though, science says your hoagiemouth is most likely here to stay—even if you try to get rid of it.
LiveScience recently sat down with Katharine Nelson, chief education officer at language-learning company Voxy, to discuss where people's accents come from and why they tend to stick around even when people attempt to eradicate vocal evidence of their upbringing. As it turns out, past age 5, our brains tend to become less "flexible," making adapting to new language difficult due to the increasing inability to differentiate between the sounds that language requires to operate.
As LiveScience's Laura Geggel explains:
Babies can discriminate among the different sounds people make, but that ability diminishes around 5 years of age, as the brain becomes less plastic, or flexible. For instance, the Japanese language does not differentiate between the "L" and "R" sounds, making it difficult for native Japanese speakers who are not exposed to English sounds until later in life to correctly pronounce words such as "elevator."
"By the time you're 5 or 6, it's hard to acquire a native-like accent, because you just can't hear the sounds the same way," Nielson said.
As a result, people tend to maintain their accents even years after they move to a new state or country—meaning, of course, that you'll probably pronounce "towel" and "vowel" as one-syllable words whether you're living in Bella Vista or Beirut. And working on it doesn't help all that much:
"It's hard to learn to make the different sounds," Nielson told Live Science. "You can't learn a second language the way you learn your first language."
Some actors can learn how to mimic accents with voice coaches, but this is more of a mechanical method, Nielson said.
"They're changing the way they articulate," she said. "They're figuring out how to use their mouths to make different sounds."
The takeaway here: You're not fooling anyone by trying to pronounce "water" correctly. And while you attempt to stuff down your heritage in favor of a more neutral vocal palette, your true accent waits in the dark, growing stronger and more abrasive, waiting for the day to squeak out a "wooder" or "jeetyet."
Yes, it's ugly. But it's ours, and nobody puts hogiemouth in a corner.