Q: I’ve noticed that the word “water” is pronounced wooder in Central Jersey, but not in South Jersey or North Jersey. Are you familiar with this pronunciation? Is it heard elsewhere?
A: In areas of New Jersey and Pennsylvania that are part of the Delaware Valley region—particularly in Philadelphia—the word “water” often sounds like wooder or wooter (the first vowel is pronounced as in “put”).
This may be the best-known feature of what’s sometimes called “Philly-speak.” There are many others: “towel” may sound like tal, “bagel” like beggle, “dentist” like dennis, and “go” like gow.
But the familiar sounds of this dialect are changing as the years go by, according to language scholars. Some features—like wooder—are weakening while others are getting stronger.
In an interview with the Associated Press in April, the linguist William Labov said the first syllable of the Philly-ism wooder is moving toward an ah sound. A similar evolution is happening with the Philly version of “coffee.”
“That sound is moving toward ‘ah’ so instead of ‘cawfee’ more Philadelphians are saying ‘coffee,’ ‘wooder’ becomes ‘water,”’ Labov said. “As people become aware … they tend to reverse them. They say, ‘Oh we shouldn’t talk that way.’ ”
As for another feature of Philadelphia speech, pronouncing “go” as gow, Labov said that “it got stronger and stronger, until people born around 1950, 1960, when it turned around and it went the other way.”
Labov, who has been studying Mid-Atlantic accents for 40 years, published a paper in the March 2013 issue of the journal Language about changes in Philadelphia speech.
In the paper, “One Hundred Years of Sound Change in Philadelphia,” Labov and two colleagues, Ingrid Rosenfelder and Josef Fruehwald, discuss the speech patterns of 379 Philadelphians who were born between 1888 and 1991.
The three University of Pennsylvania linguists turned decades of recordings into computerized voice spectrographs that let them track sound changes over time.
The paper can be hard going for a non-linguist, but the University of Pennsylvania issued a news release that summarizes the findings in simpler English.
The paper, according to Penn News, attributes many of the changes to the linguistic “Northernization” of the Philadelphia region:
“The traditional Southern inflections associated with Philadelphia native-born speakers are increasingly being displaced by Northern influences.”
The news release says the three linguists looked for an explanation of the changes “in the relation of Philadelphia to its geographic neighbors.” Here’s a brief description of the paper’s conclusions:
“In the earlier period, many Philadelphia features resembled those found in Southern dialects, and these are the changes that have reversed direction.
“Those that have not are movements towards patterns heard in the Northern dialects of western New England, New York state and the Great Lakes Region.”
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