The Philly accent: simultaneously grating and healing

(Originally published here on June 8, 2021 in the South China Morning Post.)

I can’t do a Philly accent any more because of the years I spent in Asia. 

It made a big difference to use the standard North American broadcast accent when conversing with people for whom English is not their mother tongue.

If they had put in enough work to be able to use the language, I should at least be able to say “Monday” instead of “Mundy” and “I’m sorry?” or “I beg your pardon?” instead of “whawuzzat?”, or “wuzzat?”

The more I learned how much easier conversation with non-native English speakers was if I sounded like a CBS Evening News anchor, the more aware I became of the distinctive short, split vowel sound that many Philadelphians use. The one that makes the words “house” and “mad” sometimes sound like a cat reacting to a rabies shot.

So I found it interesting to see, starting a few years ago, the media begin to make the Philly brogue a subject of cultural scrutiny both because it is slowly dying out and is such a challenge for even the most accomplished of actors. The film Silver Linings Playbook with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper was set in the area, and Lawrence took some hits for not getting the accent right. Cooper passed, but he is from the Philly suburbs, so no special praise there.

2014 opinion piece in The New York Times, for example, explained that, “If you forget to listen closely, the Philadelphia, or Filelfia, accent may sound like mumbled Mandarin without the tonal shifts”.

That was a revelation. When I studied Mandarin at Beijing Normal University in the early 1990s, I never stood out for my vocabulary or grammar skills but was the teacher’s pet when it came to pronunciation. Apparently, growing up around Philly allowed me to sound like a better Chinese speaker than I actually was.

But the Philly intonation is bigger than ever thanks to British actress Kate Winslet’s portrayal of Mare Sheehan in the HBO murder mystery series Mare of Easttown . The discussion about whether Winslet nails the accent overwhelms what reviews would normally focus on – whether she is convincing in her role and the show is compelling.

Kate Winslet ain’t got nuthin on “Aunt Mary Pat”, who’s been satirizing the Philly suburb of “Delco” for a few years now.

To be precise, Mare’s namesake town is a fictional amalgamation of boroughs in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, where I was born, raised and had a part-time job making hoagies and cheesesteaks at a deli after school.

On the southwest flank of Philadelphia, Delaware County – or Delco – stretches from the very wealthy “main line” to the economically decimated townships along the Delaware River. Swarthmore College, a prestigious liberal arts institution, is barely 3km (1.9 miles) from the blight of Chester and other boroughs in the region, where Interstate 95 runs through living rooms the way that jumbo jets skirted buildings in Kowloon before landing at the now-demolished Kai Tak airport.

I can attest that Winslet is the second-best of all the marquee actors who have attempted the accent, the first being Toni Collette in the 1999 film The Sixth Sense, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, who sets all of his productions in or around Philly. Winslet loses just a few points for occasionally letting New York creep into her intonation.

So what to make of the limelight now shining on a city stuck between, yet always in the shadow of, New York and Washington?

What is it about the birthplace of America that became forgettable for those looking for work in international finance or global affairs, where The Barnes Foundation – one of the world’s most valuable collections of modern art – is housed about a kilometre from one of the nation’s most notorious fentanyl addiction hotbeds?

A friend shared with me a Facebook post about the Philly area which sums it up better than I could: “The contrasts are interesting and we appreciate the diversity. Race, religion, wealth, poverty, all of everything surrounds us here and I think we all appreciate it. Yeah, there’s plenty of knuckleheads as Mare of Easttown shows us in every episode, but the love is there.”

After four years of Donald Trump, an insurrection attempt, an open revolt by pro-Trump Republicans against those refusing to condone conspiracy theories about the 2020 election, a long-overdue reckoning on race, demands to “defund the police” and the politicisation of a coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 600,000 Americans, the United States is a battered nation looking for hope in damaged characters trying to make things right.

I agree, and I hope to one day get my Philly accent back.

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