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As Philly as a Cheesesteak

Someone just forwarded me one of those online quizzes, and even though those are silly I took this one because it's on the always fascinating subject of language. More specifically, it's about regional accents. When you answer the questions about how you pronounce certain words the thing is supposed to tell you where you're from — or what you talk like now, anyway. Some online discussions indicate that the test gives inaccurate results at least some of the time, which isn't surprising. But I answered the 13 questions and got the exactly correct result: "Your accent is as Philadelphian as a cheesesteak," it told me. Yeeeah, you know it.

I'm telling you about this because one language myth that's taken annoying hold in the popular consciousness is the belief that regional accents are disappearing because of some supposedly homogenizing effect of the mass media. This. Is. Not. True. Accents and languages are constantly shifting, but the variations among our American regional accents have not been erased. (Even in the mass media we hear a variety of accents, for goodness' sake. Dr. Phil doesn't sound like the actors in King of Queens, right?)

In their wonderful book, Do You Speak American?, Robert MacNeil and William Cran travel around the country to talk to people — and listen to them. Throughout the south, in Boston, California, and among so-called Black English spoken in various regions, they learned, again and again, that language differences between people from different regions, as well as different socioeconomic groups and even between the sexes, are alive and well.

The most interesting thing about discussions of regional accents, to me, is the emotional response they get. A great many people feel ashamed of sounding like where they're from, wherever that is and whatever it sounds like. That's one effect that hearing the unbumpy, quote-unquote perfect speech of people like national newscasters does have: It can give you the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that there's a right way and a wrong way to sound, and that you're in the category of wrong. The linguist Bill Labov termed this "linguistic insecurity," a fact I learned while studying linguistics with him at the University of Pennsylvania (which happens to be in Philadelphia, and which is home to his Atlas of North American English. It shows the incredible language variation in this country).

Now, hardcore Philly people don't think I sound like them. As one friend who grew up in South Philly told me, "You don't have the most pungent version of the accent," and that's true, I don't. I won't lie and tell you I'm sorry about that; English spoken in any intense regional accent gets hard to understand ('member Trainspotting?), and it can limit your social mobility. I can modulate my accent when I feel the need to, which is a useful skill. But regionalisms are interesting, and I like mine. When people talk, they're telling you more than just what they're saying, you know? I enjoy hearing the different stories different accents tell. And I feel good when I hear other people talk Philly, too. When you hear your own accent coming from someone else's mouth, you know you're at home.

Still, as Philly as a cheesesteak? I like a nice steak wit wiz as much as the next guy, but how about As Philly as the Love Statue? Or Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed? Or even old Rocky, as indefatigable as my stubborn vowels.

÷ ÷ ÷

Katie lives outside of Philadelphia where she writes and makes zines. Address love letters to katie@thelalatheory.com.

Books mentioned in this post




2 Responses to "As Philly as a Cheesesteak"

  1.  
    Douglas Ahern February 7th, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    katie - do you sound like those guys in that carl's jr. commercial? without subtitles i wouldn't know they were speaking english.

  2.  
    Katie February 7th, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    No, I'm pretty sure you'd know I was speaking English.

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