Anyone who’s ordered a hero in Philadelphia knows that culture shock can start with a slip of the tongue.
Each year, throngs of out-of-towners come to Main Campus to realize diversity is not always marked by ethnic backgrounds or unfamiliar upbringings. It lives in the way people speak. People fall victim to the pitfalls of regional accents and dialects, those pesky communication barriers that remind college students that they are no longer home.
Claudio Salvucci, author of A Grammar of the Philadelphia Dialect and The Philadelphia Dialect Dictionary, devoted plenty of time in his post-bachelor’s degree life to tracking language patterns native to the regions in and around Philadelphia.
“You won’t find a city that speaks exactly like Philadelphia,” Salvucci said. “The pattern of features does not happen anywhere else.”
Salvucci’s research made him a self-taught scholar of the specific vowel mixtures that are prevalent in the Philadelphia region.
“Any word with the ‘ow’ sound, pronounced like ‘how,’ comes out like ‘awohl,'” Salvucci said. “It’s a very pinched, kind of nasal sound, almost like an ‘L.’ Rudy Giuliani does this kind of ‘L.’ It’s in words like ‘balance’ and ‘bounce’ – they come out sounding almost exactly the same.”
Similarly, Salvucci describes the regional long “o” as something that “sounds sort of British.” Speaking less technically, he transcribes the Philadelphia “oh” sound as an “eh-oo,” mixed into one syllable, like when a Philadelphian says “I’m proud of my heohme.”
Salvucci also noted his findings on the “er” sound found in words like “ferry.”
“The ferry gets changed to furry,” Salvucci said. “Words with ‘erry/urry’ endings converge to form a whole class of words merged together.”
Philadelphia has its own unique collection of words and phrases as well – perhaps most famous being “hoagie.”
“It seems to be a word from Philadelphia . . . coined in Philly,” Salvucci said. “Nobody is exactly sure where it comes from. It might come from ‘Hog Island’ or ‘hog’ in general, you know, ‘you’re a hog when you eat it.'”
Dialects and accents can color a region, claiming its residents and adding distinction to their collective identity. But upholding this identity can put an area’s denizens on the defensive. Regional dialect can be as much a source of town pride as a local baseball team.
So what happens when a hoagie-hungry Philadelphian and a hero-loving New Yorker order at the same venue?
Paul Garrett, an assistant professor of anthropology at Temple, is well-informed on the psychology behind individual diction choices.
“The way we speak is an absolutely essential part of who we are,” Garrett said. “It gives us a powerful sense of belonging with those who speak like us, and an equally powerful sense of difference from those who don’t.”
Garrett said a person who identifies strongly with his or her place of origin and takes a lot of pride in it will use the local accent as a way of declaring that.
“Some people even exaggerate it, really play it up,” he said. “Meanwhile, someone who grows up right next door may have a very different orientation, and may not feel such an attachment to the area and the people who live there.”
It’s the latter for sophomore political science major Philip Holmes, who says “soda” rather than “pop.”
“I actually, personally, rebel against Pittsburgh [and] Pittsburghians,” Holmes said. “I was born and raised there, but I hate it.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, plenty of Temple students take new speech encounters as a chance to defend their linguistic identities.
“There was this guy, his name was Nate and he was from Chicago, and he dated my sister,” sophomore history major Nicholas Cummins said. “We would get into heated arguments about couches versus sofas, and shoes and sneakers, and pop and soda, and all that really ridiculous stuff.”
It comes as a bit of a shock to some students when they first realize exactly how distinct their own style of talking is.
“We have to take a class called English Diction,” said senior vocal performance major Meg Stoltz. “As a freshman I walked into the class and [my professor] had each of us say our names, and he immediately pinpointed, ‘Oh, you’re from the Northern Virginia-D.C. area. There were times in that class where I would find that I would think I was saying a word a certain way and I really wasn’t. So, I discovered I actually did have somewhat of an accent.”
These little mine-holes in the English language are accented by the college experience. However, differences in culture and talk alike can be used as something to strengthen, not break relationships.
“For a lot of people, situations like these are when they first realize that they have a strong regional accent, or that not everyone uses the same words that they use to refer to common, everyday things,” Garrett said. “Sorting through all of that is a sort of bonding experience. For the most part, it’s a positive thing. After all, teasing and arguing are signs of affection – they’re things you do with friends.”
Caitlyn Conefry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.