Uptalk, Vocal Fry, and “Philly Tawk”–What Language Says About Who We Are

What language says about who we are and where we live

Coincidentally or not, Philadelphia’s accent is making the news as part of the discussion on how regional accents are changing and what that may mean.  A former Philadelphian wrote in the New York Times Week in Review that the Philadelphia accent is losing its distinctiveness as “arguably the most distinctive, and least imitable, accent in North America” and “Radio Times” featured a linguist from Penn and a vocal coach on what regional accents mean about who we are and getting a job as a voice over narrator.

I’ll buy the assertion that the Philly accent is hard to imitate.  No less an actor than Robert DeNiro didn’t go near a Philly accent in “Silver Linings Playbook” and either did Philly native Brad Cooper (although, reportedly, he does a mean Lee’s Hoagies TV commercial imitation from the 1990s).  No “Iggles” even.  Go figure.

Marty Moss-Cowain on “Radio Times” widened the Philly accent discussion to include uptalk and vocal fry in terms of how we speak and what that may mean. Her uptalk example featured “Girls” character Shoshanna talking with her roommate about “Sex & the City (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EGrVu1JK4qA).

One guest was a professor of linguistics from Penn, Dr. Mark Liberman, who disputes the fact that the Philadelphia accent is fading, only changing, he said, based on research by his Penn colleague Bill Labov, and says that many regional accents are differentiating more rapidly.

The other guest was a voice coach, Joanne Joella, whose clients include people wanting to get into the voice over industry.  The big takeaway for me was the assertion by Ms. Joella that “the Philadelphia accent has the most heinous reception in the voice over industry.”  “Heinous?”

That’s a subject near and dear to many of us, at least the Philadelphia accent, whether it’s “down the shore,” “Shtreet Road” “the Acamee”, or “tao,” the piece of material you use to dry off after a shower and turned off the “wudder.”

So what’s up with all this?

Years ago, Clark DeLeon wrote amusingly about the accent that defines his city like a hoagie or water ice down the shore does by urging folks to tune into the radio ad by furniture store owner Ruth Rosoff, “the smart cookie who can save you a lot of dough” (I couldn’t find her radio commercial on the Internet, but maybe someone can).  And certainly comedian David Brenner never lost his Philly accent and didn’t seem to suffer any recognizable shortcomings, certainly not in the heinous category.  So what are we talking about when we’re talking “philly” and what does the voice coach mean by “heinous reception?”

According to Ms. Joella, Philadelphia’s tight-edged accent doesn’t sell nationally (as a voice over).  She says that when people hear the Philadelphia accent, they listen to the accent and not the message.  And if you want to do voice overs in your career, she said, you have to talk like everyone else or wait for the part that demands your regional talk and tone, like Mark Wahlberg does in “The Fighter,” recalling his Boston “Southie” roots or British actor Damian Lewis who drops his clipped English accent to become Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody in “Homeland.” Professor Liberman puts it more academically: we allow our cultural and linguistic preferences to color our like or dislike of accents.  The Birmingham, England accent is the least desirable among British listeners but among the most positively received by other Europeans. “Our regional accents are our mode of presentation that we learned from growing up or listening to others in our midst.  It’s how we present ourselves vocally,” he said.

OK, so what do we make of all this in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and Google?

It may be that our accent is like our face.  It tells people more about us. It gives them more information.  It allows them to come to an answer about whether they might like us, hate us, fear us, run from us, or trust us.  It may say we’re more like them than not like them. You can’t tell that from Times New Roman type or a tweet or like on Facebook.  It’s an enduring characteristic of us.  If we go “national” in our choice of pronunciation, are we leaving something behind?  Forgetting where we were born and raised?  Hiding who we really are? Or is it just like shedding our old clothes or hairstyle or ways of behaving from when we were young and just changing with the times and the lives we are living now?  The career counselor might say it’s part of growing up, taking on new responsibilities, widening our experiences and getting ready for a more global stage.  Kind of like, “Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

For me, who can’t do a Philadelphia accent (I grew up on Long Island), I know when I hear a Philadelphia accent that either I’m home or the person I’m talking with probably lives or grew up near where I live now and probably knows a lot of the same people or has been to a lot of the same places I have.

As for the “heinous reception” for the Philly accent, I happen not to know anyone whose accent is in the way of a career in voice over, so I am not aware of the difficulties of managing a career with how one pronounces certain words.  Maybe it’s like a model being told their looks are too ethnic to get national work.  Evidently the way one speaks, as well as they way one looks, defines a lot in how we see the world and how the world sees us. The pieces on regional accents and particularly the “Radio Times” interviews made me smile.  When I think of Clark DeLeon and Ruth Rosoff I think of how local culture and the way people talk is part of who we are and the diversity local dialects, accents, and pronunciations give our culture.  They make it richer and more diverse.  We should cherish what makes us different even though there is great pressure to rid ourselves of some of what comes natural, such as our accents.  Uptalk and vocal fry are different subjects for me altogether, though.

Here’s the piece on “Radio Times”: https://soundcloud.com/whyy-public-media/what-language-says-about-who

On “The Sound of Philadelphia Fades Out”:


The story on the Penn linguistics study and the NPR story on “Dialects Changing, But Not Disappearing in Philadelphia”: http://www.npr.org/2013/04/05/176368267/dialects-changing-but-not-disappearing-in-philadelphia

Sean Monahan’s YouTube “Philly Tawk”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3lZFiyd_-0

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