Study shows ‘Fluffya’ accent is steadily changing

If you say, “wooder ice,” when you order a water ice treat or scream, “Go Iggles!” when the Eagles are playing the dreaded Dallas Cowboys, chances are, you’re from Philadelphia—or as some residents call it, “Fluffya.”

A new Penn linguistics study shows that traditional Southern inflections associated with Philadelphia native-born speakers are being affected by Northern influences.

Current accents are moving toward patterns heard in the Northern dialects of western New England, New York state, and the Great Lakes Region.

“A Hundred Years of Sound Change,” published in the March issue of the journal Language, documents Philadelphia’s shifting accent through an analysis of more than a century of city residents’ speech patterns.

The study is co-authored by William Labov, a professor in the Department of Linguistics in the School of Arts & Sciences and director of Penn’s Linguistics Laboratory, Josef Fruehwald, a doctoral candidate in linguistics, and Ingrid Rosenfelder, who worked on the National Science Foundation-supported study as a postdoctoral student at Penn.

The team developed new computational methods to research how Philadelphians pronounce vowels, and applied the computations to years of language data, which Labov’s students first began collecting in 1973.

“This is a breathtaking view of language change over a long period of time,” Labov says. Approximately 1,000 people were involved in the study, and 380 individuals have been analyzed so far.

Nearly one million measurements show that two-thirds of Philadelphia vowels are in the process of changing. In one instance, the vowel used in the word “ate” has steadily moved closer to the vowel of “eat,” particularly in speakers who were born between 1888 and 1992. The change equally affects people of all educational levels, and men and women alike.

“A ‘snake’ in the grass becomes a ‘sneak’ in the grass as the long vowel ‘a’ is pronounced with the speaker’s jaw in a higher position,” Labov says.

Changes in the vowel of “out” and “down” have reversed course, after moving toward a distinctively different Philadelphia sound in the first half of the century. For those born in the 1950s or later, this vowel has moved back to the Northern-influenced position it held in 1900. For people born between 1900 and 1950, however, this vowel sound has a Southern sound.

The “Northernization” of the Philadelphia region is related to other findings on the direction of linguistic change in North America.

The full study is available on the Project Muse website.

Originally published on April 4, 2013