Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Philadelphian Dialect is Punk Rock

Before there was Youtube and the accent meme, there was, I guess, punk rock.

In this music video from 1988, the Dead Milk Men, a Philadelphia area punk band, give a rather hyper-Philadelphian performance. For the most part, Philadelphians aren't that aware of what marks their dialect as distinct from other regions, nor are most non-Philadelphias aware that there is a unique Philadelphia dialect.

Now, I say hyper-Philadelphian for a few reasons. The lead singer for this song, Joe Genaro, definitely Philadelphia dialect speaker, born about an hour outside of the city in Wagontown, PA.

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But, local dialect features are one of those things that tend to get leveled a little when singing, and there is no hint of that in this performance. Some things even seem exaggerated to me, which is fitting with the song itself, which was shot in Philadelphia, and makes references to culturally relevant locations in the lyrics.

So here is Punk Rock Girl. Dialectal analysis immediately follows.

/ow/ fronting

/ow/ fronting is, perhaps, the most salient dialect feature on display in this song. It's certainly not unique to Philadelphia. In fact, it's what qualifies Philadelphia as the Northern-most Southern city. While Philadelphia has many other Northern features, like a very raised /ɔ/, stereotyped in coffee talk, we depart from the rest of the North by fronting /ow/, and Joe Genaro does this to an extreme degree in this song. Right off the bat at 0:28, he says
And she almost knocked me dead.
Then he immediately follows this up with
I tapped her on the shoulder
And said do you have a beau?
She looked at me and smiled and said she did not know

In fact, all of his /ow/s in this song are incredibly fronted, except for the two tokens in rollin and stolen which, of course, are effected by the following /l/.

Canadian Raising

The song isn't filled with Canadian Raising tokens. In fact, there are only two, but the one is so stressed and clear and wonderful. At 1:01, the waitress says
Well no, we only have it iced.

Canadian Raising continues to be a favorite variable of mine.

Short-a pattern

Philadelphia is known for its complicated pattern of tensing /æ/, which is similar to New York City. The tense version pops up expectedly in
Punk rock girl
Give me a chance
Punk rock girl
Let's go slam dance
We went to a shopping mall
And laughed at all the shoppers
We asked for Mojo Nixon

Unfortunately, mad, bad and glad, which are exceptionally tense, don't appear anywhere in the song. However, at 1:29, he says dad, which is definitely lax as expected.

Tokens of /æ/ which are lax in Philadelphia where they are tense in many other dialects show up in
So we jumped up on the table and shouted anarchy
Her father took one look at me and he began to squeal
Eat fudge banana swirl

/ey/ split

This one is pretty subtle. Most of his tokens of /ey/ don't sound very different from standard, but one word final token at 1:15 is pretty low, almost [æɪ].
On such a winter's day.

Data suggests that all /ey/ used to have this quality in Philadelphia, which is another reason why it's related to the Southern and Midland dialects. A sound change has been raising /ey/ higher and higher, but not in word final position.

on = dawn

Philadelphia maintains the distinction between cot and caught by raising the vowel in caught, similar to New York City. One way in which Philadelphia differs from New York City is in the vowel class of the word on. In most locations North of Philly, on rhymes with the man's name Don. But in most locations South of Philly, at least where a contrast is maintained, on rhymes with the woman's name Dawn. You can hear this in
I tapped her on the shoulder
So we jumped up on the table and shouted anarchy
And someone played a Beach Boys song on the jukebox
It it was "California Dreamin"
So we started screamin
On such a winter's day


Now, if you think you can reliably code l-vocalization embedded in a punk rock song, god bless you. But, there are a few tokens that are pretty clear. For instance, I don't think there's any /l/ in
I tapped her on the shoulder

The thing that makes Philadelphia pretty unique is our tendency to darken and vocalize /l/ intervocalically (so balance is pretty confusable with bounce) and in initial clusters (like cluster). I don't want to make any strong claim about being able to reliably hear it in this song, but listen to
We got into her car away we started rollin
I said how much you pay for this
Said nothin man it's stolen
and compare it to
Let's go slam dance

There is definitely not as much /l/ in rollin and stolen as there is in let's.

* * *

So, do you think I missed anything important? As a side note, I think I have the same shirt as the drummer.


  1. Filmed in the Eastern State Penitentiary, right?
    I'm also gonna grab a hat tip to myself for this.

  2. I recently heard one philadelphian try to explain a philly accent to another philadelphian (who did not have much of one) -- He said "I guess it is more nasal than a new york accent". :::facepalm:::

  3. I can hear l-vocalization in rollin, but not in stolen.


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