[ Back to EurekAlert! ] Public release date: 27-Mar-2013
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Contact: Jacquie Posey
jposey@upenn.edu
215-898-6460
University of Pennsylvania

Penn linguistics researchers document Philadelphia's shift to a Northern accent

A new study by University of Pennsylvania linguists shows that the Philadelphia accent has changed in the last century. The traditional Southern inflections associated with Philadelphia native-born speakers are increasingly being displaced by Northern influences.

"A Hundred Years of Sound Change," published in the March issue of the journal Language, documents Philadelphia's changing accent through an analysis of speech patterns of city residents spanning more than a century.

The study is co-authored by William Labov, professor of linguistics and director of Penn's Linguistics Laboratory; Josef Fruehwald, a doctoral candidate in linguistics at Penn; and Ingrid Rosenfelder, a postdoctoral student at Penn at the time of the National Science Foundation supported study.

Labov and his team developed new computational methods to research the way in which vowels have been pronounced by Philadelphians since 1973.

"This is a breathtaking view of language change over a long period of time," Labov said. Approximately 1,000 people were involved in the study with 380 analyzed so far.

Nearly a million measurements show that two-thirds of the Philadelphia vowels are in the process of change. In one instance, the vowel used in the word "ate" has steadily moved closer to the vowel of "eat," as shown by the speaker's date of birth from 1888 to 1992. The change in progress affects equally people of all educational levels, both men and women.

"A 'snake' in the grass becomes a 'sneak' in the grass as the long vowel 'a' is pronounced with the speaker's jaw in a higher position," Labov said.

The vowel of "out" and "down" has reversed direction, after moving toward a distinctively different Philadelphia sound for the first half of the century. For those born in the 1950s and later, this vowel moved progressively back towards the position it held in 1900.

The paper looks for an explanation of these differences in the relation of Philadelphia to its geographic neighbors. In the earlier period, many Philadelphia features resembled those found in Southern dialects, and these are the changes that have reversed direction.

Those that have not are movements towards patterns heard in the Northern dialects of western New England, New York state and the Great Lakes Region. The "Northernization" of the Philadelphia region is related to other findings on the direction of linguistic change in North America.

Local dialects are receding among younger speakers in the Southern states, while new sound changes are advancing steadily among younger speakers in the North.

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The full study is available at http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/language/v089/89.1.labov.html.



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