Easttown? Where’s that? And what (or who) is Mare? And what’s so special about the Philly accent?

Four questions in that headline—and it isn’t even Passover.

You may or may not know that the distinguished linguist John McWhorter’s wonderful podcast Lexicon Valley recently moved from Slate to BookSmart. Not that you care. But what you do (or should) care about is this: in a recent episode McWhorter explored in detail the Philadelphia accent—“the famous Philly accent,” in his words—chosen partly because that’s where he’s from and partly because of some television show I’ve never heard of, as suggested in the title of this post. And it’s not that you particularly care about the Philly accent, but that this 30-minute episode is a great example of picking a highly specific and narrowly focused topic and using it as a way to illustrate some larger Big Ideas in a subject—in this case linguistics.

OK, OK, so I should have edited “some television show I’ve never heard of,” as I’ve looked it up now. But Barbara and I don’t have HBO, so I still don’t know the show.

Anyway, this post isn’t actually about a TV show. It’s about accents—specifically the Philly accent—and about the Lexicon Valley podcast.

Probably every country in the world is filled with stereotypes about regional accents, all tangled up with prejudices about class, education, and other sociological issues. Shaw’s Pygmalion and its modernized musical spinoff My Fair Lady are vivid examples of this phenomenon, but we could stick to American examples and never have a shortage of material. Even the so-called Boston accent alone provides plenty of grist for the mill, as there are actually dozens of different Boston accents—to the point where I’ve met people who claim they can pinpoint within two blocks where in Southie a speaker grew up.

Regional accents are primarily (not entirely) distinguished by how vowels are pronounced, so the bulk of this Lexicon Valley episode is about that. If your background doesn’t include technical information about phonetics, you will learn a lot from this episode and will enjoy yourself in the process. It’s definitely not like a dry textbook!

Categories: Linguistics