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A-oh, Nao! The Phiwwwy accent is goa-ing, goa-ing, goah-yin!

Translation: Oh, no! The Philly accent is going, going, gone!  But Sean Monahan keeps the disappearing dialect alive via YouTube.

Sean MonahanPhilly boy (and recent Temple grad) Sean Monahan is heading to Brown University in Rhode Island for his doctoral work. Although you would think his area of study would be linguistics, his major subject is actually political science, with a career in teaching ahead of him.

As it stands, he’s already an excellent teacher. Thanks to his hilarious YouTube videos (shown here), he is instructing us on how to talk like a true Philadelphian.

Many Philadelphians have no idea that they have an accent (or a pronounced one). Others are uber-aware of it, and it makes them cringe. To outsiders, a thick Philly accent sounds like a foreign language.

Currently, due to changing demographics and media influence,  linguists are declaring the demise of the Philly accent (or more accurately, the mid-Atlantic accent). However, a dialect this tough does not go gently into the night. Or as Philly people say, into the noit.

In our interview, Sean discusses the enigma of the Philly accent, and, among other things, why Hollywood gets it wrong every time.

The Philly accent is not easy for outsiders to nail, but it’s widely acknowledged that Philadelphians have a specific and unique accent.

People from different parts of the country want to make fun of us, but they don’t know exactly how. They know how to say “wudder” [water], but the could never figure out if a name like Sean should be pronounced “Shawn” or “Shaan.”

So it’s not as easy to pick up a Philly accent as it is, say, the New York accent.

It’s very complicated. It’s very hard to learn and properly mock.  [Dear Readers: click on Sean’s videos below for a crash course!]

Roughly, Philadelphia is the same distance away from New York City as it is from Baltimore. But linguistically, it’s almost identical to Baltimore and extremely different from New York. I’m not exactly sure why. It can’t just be the distance. It could just be something different about the history, going back to the colonial days.

The media is now talking about the demise of the Philly accent. What say you?

As I understand it, there are specific vowels that are becoming less pronounced in the way Philadelphians talk. But that’s not exactly the same as saying that the accent is going away. Those vowels are becoming less extreme. But some vowels are maintaining their Philadelphia sound and some are getting even more pronounced as time goes on.

It’s not changing; it’s morphing. I’m quite attached to the vowel sounds we have currently, and it would seem sad somehow for them to get less interesting.

Lay an example on us.

Specifically, one that is sort of going away is the “aw” sound in my own name, Sean. Over time, it’s becoming more like [Shaan]. That’s really a loss, because I like the strong “aw” that we have in Philadelphia and that it would be a shame to lose it.

It seems that on TV and in movies there is a common generic dialect, with any regional accent thoroughly scrubbed away.

You have common tongues around the country, the way common people speak. Those have gotten [increasingly] different from each other over the past sixty or so years, since the end of World War II when a lot of people were moving around.

People from the South don’t sound quite as Southern now. Then you have the Chicago accent: think of the Saturday Night Live skit, “The Bears.”

So a lot of big changes have occurred, despite it being an era of increasing mass media. Even though we have media with the generic sounding dialects, there has been a lot of regional increase rather than decrease.

A regional accent is not always a plus, correct?

Especially in the professional world, the white-collar or academic world, it’s been a liability if you sound like you are from somewhere. So there is a huge amount of pressure to try to make yourself sound like you could be from anywhere.

To me, it seems like they are pushing you toward being from nowhere, which I think is kind of sad.

I see a lot of people deliberately trying to dull an accent, especially if they are from the South, because the southern accent has such a stigma of “you’re stupid” and “you’re poorly educated.” I think a similar thing happens to people from Philadelphia.

What was your personal experience with your own Philly accent?

I knew “wudder” [water] was different, but I didn’t think there was anything unusual about how most of my words sounded until I went out to Ohio for undergraduate school. They started relentlessly mocking everything I said. There came the awareness that I did sound like I was from somewhere.

One of Philly’s biggest pet peeves: the way their accent is portrayed in Hollywood movies. Why does Hollywood always make Philly people – especially working-class people — talk with New York accents?

It’s extremely frustrating to me. Either they don’t have an accent, or if they do, it’s a New York City accent, which I hate even more than not having an accent, because it just makes us look like we’re the sixth borough of New York.

Keep the Philly accent alive! Check out Sean’s awesome videos here:





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