'The Sound of Philadelphia Fades Out," read a disturbing headline recently in the New York Times. But it wasn't a revisionist evaluation of Teddy Pendergrass; it was an homage to the way we tawk.
"The Philadelphia regional accent remains arguably the most distinctive, and least imitable, accent in North America," wrote Daniel Nester, an assistant professor of English at the College of Saint Rose. "Let's not argue about this. Ask anyone to do a Lawn Guyland accent or a charming Southern drawl and that person will approximate it.
"Philly-South Jersey patois is a bit harder," Nester wrote. "Some dialects can be transcribed onto the page, but the Philadelphia accent really has to be heard to be believed." Yeah, roight?!
Nester cited last year's study by Penn linguistics professor Bill Labov, who found that the classic Philadelphia accent has subtly shifted to a more mainstream Northern one. But the study didn't address the question of why Philadelphians continue to drink, wash, and swim in a liquid called wooder.
Nester, who lives in Albany, N.Y., grew up in the South Jersey suburbs. He told me he misses the sound of his mother tongue, where "no vowel escapes diphthongery," and where "extra syllables pile up so as to avoid inconvenient tongue contact or mouth closure."
I'm aware of our native speed-talking tendency, and when I do walking tours around the historic district, I warn visitors from China, Brazil, or Wyoming that "I speak Philadelphian, which is a lot like English, only faster."
For instance, Philadelphia is a wonderful spoken word - distinguished, lyrical, important. It's only shortcoming is that it is five syllables, which natives tend to swallow whole like a tuna halfie from Wawa.
By the time this word-poem of a city name emerges our mouths it sounds like Filelfia, as Nester spelled it. I prefer the more syllable-friendly and gulp-like spelling Fluffya.
Years ago, a Philadelphia police officer told me about taking his rookie partner out on patrol for the first time. It was a midnight to 8 a.m. shift. Up and down alleys they drove to check the windows and doors of local businesses. Sometimes they would test a door to see if it was unlocked. Windows and doors all night long.
At the end of the shift, the veteran asked the rookie if he had any questions. "Just one," said the rookie. "What's a winda'?"
What indeed? And what's a chimbley? What's a pixture? What are the kellers of the crowns in a Crayola box? Where's the Free Lie-berry? And where is furniture store pitch woman Ruth Rossoff, "a smart cookie who can save you a lot of da-ough."
Is that an accent or a speech impediment? And do people still talk that way?
According to Wikipedia, the Philadelphia accent "is commonly heard among the Irish American and Italian American working-class neighborhoods." But those neighborhoods no longer exist.
Those ethnic blue-collar rowhouse neighborhoods like Northern Liberties and Fishtown have become infested by hipsters, artists, and young couples with preschoolers. Can the accent survive this influx of college-educated city dwellers?
Boston still has a neighborhood accent that's easy to mimic and recognize. For instance, say PSDS out loud, speaking the individual letters real fast. (In Boston you would need these before you could try on a pair of pierced earrings.) Say it again, PSDS.
Homesick yo'man Nester noticed with disappointment the absence of an authentic Philadelphia accent in two hit movies set here. In Silver Linings Playbook, Robert DeNiro sounded like his character in Analyze This. And none of the actors in American Hustle could pass the "Passyunk: Shtreet or Avenue?" quiz. Even Jenkintown-raised, Germantown Academy-educated Bradley Cooper sounded normal in both movies.
When he wants to, Cooper can do a convincing Full Metal Jacket Philadelphia accent. During a morning talk show interview with NBC10, Cooper volunteered his favorite Philadelphia accent moment.
He was at a nightclub in Center City with some pals, one of whom was drunk and obnoxious. Cooper's eyes lit up as he channeled the doorman, who kicked them out: "Hey, guess what? All youze all can leave."
"All youze all." That pretty much covers it.