Why Philadelphia should embrace its accent

Even on the beloved and excellent TV comedy 'Always Sunny in Philadelphia,' native Rob McElhenney doesn't employ a Philly accent.

I have a friend who went to college where he did for, really, one leading reason: the accent.

Sure, he found a nice campus at a respected university with a good reputation and a big price tag, but, ultimately, he sought colleges in and around Boston because he loved that accent.

Boston, most might say, is a culturally distinctive city of 650,000 in a region steeped in history, plagued by all the problems dense places face and respected for its future.

Boston and its portion of New England surely has a lot going for it — in Philadelphia, it’s the city we probably most often compare ourselves to in terms of college graduate retention and sustaining of life sciences business — but I argue one of the strongest, most meaningful reasons for its success that no one seems to talk about is, yes, those broad As of the Boston accent.

So I’m here to argue that one of the greatest ways to continue to bolster Philadelphia’s reputation is to expand its cultural exportation through movies, music and TV, highlighted by that accent that the rest of the country rarely can identify.

Hear a podcast on accents, particularly around the Boston dialect below.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Spurred by the Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Mark Walberg crew that came to prominence over the last decade who made moves like ‘Good Will Hunting’ and the ‘Departed,’ the Boston accent (and the debate over accuracy and authenticity) blossomed and other cultural norms grew in cache in the minds of some, like my friend.

My friend had never set foot in Boston before he decided he wanted to go to college there. Philadelphia culture that is most often exported — like sports and street food — is identifiable but harder to recreate elsewhere, say, over a college application.

What famous people speak in a Philadelphia accent (maybe TV commentator Chris Matthews, as noted in this good post on the ‘overlooked Philly accent’)? Because there are certainly examples most Americans could point to for the Boston accent, from those actors to statesmen like Ted Kennedy.

I’m not suggesting everyone go out and start speaking with one, but, as Philadelphia does start doing a better job of attracting new talent and retaining college graduates, those native accents built over generations are going to become rarer still. It has its faults and many have actively removed the accent, but it’s a part of the fabric and cultural identification with the city that few, if anyone, out of the region knows.

Philadelphia hasn’t, for a mess of reasons I haven’t yet worked through, captivated the minds of enough writers and directors to, when movies are set here (which happens with an increasing and fair amount of frequency) address and include the Italian South Philly quick pace or the colloquial-laden nasal spew from the riverwards.

Why that is, I’m not quite sure, but even in moves like ‘Rocky’ or ‘Invincible’ (starring Walberg) that are meant to dominate locality, I haven’t caught any attempt at the accent.

So on Youtube, people sure have tried:

Real Househusbands of Philadelphia

Philly Tawk

Mid-Atlantic dissection Part One

Here is a video featuring 35 accents in English, including Philly’s, though it’s certainly a subdued one.

A BBC documentary on the contributions from black Americans to the English language, highlighting ‘the Philadelphia ghetto.’

Colloquialisms:
jawn — a pronoun for ‘thing’
hoagie — from Hog Island, they say
There are words like jawn and phrases like nahmean
eHow talks about

2 thoughts on “Why Philadelphia should embrace its accent”

Leave a Reply