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The Philly accent, finally having its mewmint

It’ll never be the Queen’s English, but who says the Philly accent ever had to be?

“The Three Maries” featuring (from left) Deirdre Finnegan, Franklin Anthony, Mary Martello and Josh Totora.
“The Three Maries” featuring (from left) Deirdre Finnegan, Franklin Anthony, Mary Martello and Josh Totora.Read moreCHRISTOPHER SAPIENZA

THE PHILLY ACCENT is having a moment - oops, a mew-mint.

Exhibit A: In November, Penn's Linguistics Department received funds to document a distinctly Philadelphia "accent" seen in American Sign Language. It appears that Philly's deaf community signs some words differently - using unusual hand shapes or gestures - than deaf folks do in other regions of the country.

Could even our sign language have attytood?

Exhibit B: Last weekend, Tina Fey appeared on "Saturday Night Live" in a segment called "Bronx Beat," in which two New Yorkers - played by Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph - interviewed her for their TV show. Fey played Poehler's Philly cousin, Karen, whose over-the-top accent was the envy of the duo.

"Oh my God, Karen. I forgot what a beautiful accent you have!" said Rudolph. "You sound fancy!"

Exhibit C: A hilarious new set-in-Philly musical, "The Three Maries," which opened last week at the Prince Theater, focuses so heavily on the Philly accent, it should be renamed "The Three Ways to Flatten Your A's."

I can't tell you how much I love this clever, frothy homage to the town I love. Not just because it's about the Mummers and a Romanian queen named Marie who actually visited Philly in 1926, and a mother-daughter duo (Big Marie and Little Marie) whose lives change when the queen visits.

But because its creator, Michael Ogborn, required actors who auditioned for the show to do so with a Philly accent. If they couldn't nail the sound, no dice.

"You can't teach that accent," says Ogborn, 55, a Roxborough-born playwright, composer and musician who learned in theater school how to drop his Philly patois but can let it gush like a hose - oops, a hewse - when the mood strikes. "The play had to be convincing to Philadelphians."

Oh, my God, I tell him. THANK YOU.

Thank you for being an artistic type who accepts that a huge number of Philadelphians have nasal intonations that are not caused by a cold, who randomly swallow syllables and who insert an H into words that begin with an S consonant blend (like "shtrength" and "shcrambled").

And thank you for writing a comedy that's an affectionate celebration of our mangled speech, not a sneering derogation of it or - worse - an outright dismissal. The kind that Hollywood has been making for years.

Remember "Silver Linings Playbook," the Philly-centric love story that scored Oscars for leads Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper? Neither of those pretty things had a Philly accent - not a single flattened A or mutilated O between them.

Oscars, my ass - oops, ay-iss.

And I was sew, sew may-id when that roomful of Philly shipyard workers confronted their congressman in the first season of "House of Cards" when they learned they'd be losing their jobs. Most sounded like New Yawkers, because that's the way lazy directors telegraph that a character is scrappy, earnest and salt-of-the-earth. But one woman's accent was so weird, she sounded like a Vermonter via Long Island, with a stop in Biloxi.

It was pathetic, but at least the actors tried. Not so for the cast of "Invincible," the Vince Papale biopic whose stars never once mispronounced "Eagles" - in a movie about the Iggles!

It's understandable, I suppose, that Hollywood defaults to a New York accent when portraying Philly types. New York has been the setting for so many iconic films and TV shows about white working-class denizens, Americans are used to hearing the tones, rhythms and lingo of that city. Philly hasn't been as well represented, so the accent is hard to imitate with authenticity.

"You almost have to grow up with the Philly accent to get it right," says Meredith Tamminga, an assistant professor of linguistics at Penn (and who, with Penn lecturer Jami Fisher, is studying that Philly version of American Sign Language). "In most of the United States, the words Mary, merry and marry would be pronounced almost the same."

But in Philly, each sounds different, says Tamminga. Odder still, when you pair "merry" with "Christmas," it comes out "murry Christmas."

And the words "mad," "bad" and "glad" rhyme in Philly - but if you try to rhyme the word "sad" with them, you'll be dubbed a Philly phraud.

You can think way too deeply about this stuff (as I do), or you can just go see "The Three Maries" and sample the pseudo-linguistics lessons taught by Little Marie (played by Rachel Brennan) to her mom, Big Marie (Kathy Deitch). In one gut-splitting song, Little Marie teaches her mom a new way to say, "I'll take a Cewk anna hewgie ta gew."

Translation: "I'll take a Coke and a hoagie to go."

Later, Little Marie explains to a Romanian count (Jeffrey Coon) the seed of the Philly accent.

It's "a glottal/rhino combination that forces yet restricts the air movement at the same time, requiring the nasal passages to do the work of both the lungs and the vocal cords!" she trills.

"But that's physically impossible; it makes no sense whatsoever!" responds the count.

He masters the accent anyway, falls in love with Little Marie and then the cast leads the audience in the Mummers' Strut. Somehow, it all works.

If you've been trying to lose your Philly accent - as I've been for years, with spotty success - you'll leave this show wondering why you ever tried.

And you'll suddenly crave a Cewk anna hewgie ta gew.


Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly