US Regional Accents and the Philadelphia Accent

New Year’s Day, for me, is all about the Philadelphia Mummers Parade.

It’s not necessarily something I always watched growing up—my family never went to see the parade in person or made the TV broadcast a viewing priority—but it was always there, as a background thing that was on the TV, with the costumes and the parasols and Two Street and “Oh! Them Golden Slippers!“. Like everyone with extended family in or near Philadelphia, I have some great uncle or distant cousin who was a Mummer. Now that I’m an adult and away from the Philadelphia metro during the holidays, I usually catch at least a few of the Wench brigades and String bands on streaming or on YouTube after the fact. I’ve used video clips as a jumping-off point to talk about New Year’s traditions.

Listening to the street-level interviews with some of the Mummers, you can also hear plenty of examples of the Philadelphia variant of the Mid-Atlantic American English accent. If you’re curious, Sean Monahan has a pretty solid library of videos about the specific features of the accent, as well as some (tongue-in-cheek) examples.

I grew up just outside of the what would be considered the geographical constraints of this accent; both of my parents grew up within the suburbs of Philadelphia and then migrated just a smidge north. Naturally, to my ear, neither of them have a particularly pronounced accent (though my dad, who grew up closer to Philadelphia proper than my mom, has an accent that will come out when he talks to his brother) and I don’t, either. We say “water,” not “wooder,” “radiator” doesn’t rhyme with “gladiator,” and “crayon” and “crown” aren’t homophones. The regional dialect, for me, is more reflected in word choice than in accent.

One of the more telling pieces of vocabulary when it comes to American English regionalisms is what you call “a large sandwich consisting of a long roll split lengthwise and filled with layers of various ingredients such as meat, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, and condiments.” I grew up calling these “hoagies” and was naturally very confused the first time I encountered a branch of the Subway chain, wondering if this meant an entire subway system had suddenly appeared in town. (This sounds facetious but I must have been just five or six years old when this happened, I should point out.) Maybe other of the various regional appellations for this kind of foodstuff will eventually die out, but thanks to Wawa, “hoagie” will probably live on. At least in Wawa country.

The other word that remains for me is “jimmies.” This is perhaps best illustrated by examples.

Seven cupcakes on a wooden table, with white frosting and rainbow sprinkles.
Image courtesy Rich Helmer

These cupcakes are decorated with sprinkles.

A white hand in a blue and white striped shirt holds a chocolate cupcake decorated with rainbow sprinkles against a pink brick wall.
Image courtesy Charles Etoroma

This cupcake is also decorated with sprinkles.

Image courtesy Uros Jovicic

But this cupcake is decorated with jimmies.

Some further reading on the Philadelphia accent can be found on The Dialect Blog and this more recent piece from the Washington Post. The thing about a Philadelphia accent is that, as Arika Okrent points out, is that there doesn’t seem to be a pop cultural touchstone for it. (“But Rocky Balboa!” Yes, Philadelphia loves Rocky, but Sly Stallone isn’t a solid representative of how the locals actually talk, though at this point I wouldn’t be surprised if his performance has single-handedly shaped the accent.) Give a close listen to Chris Matthews, Tina Fey, Jim Cramer, or James Rolfe.

Happy New Year, youse guys!

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