Daniel Nester’s “The Sound of Philadelphia Fades Out” in the NYTimes Review brought back fond memories of my first encounter with these unmatched, unimaginable sounds. It was August 1974. My dad and I were driving to the city where I was to start law school in a few days. I stopped at the tollbooth on the Walt Whitman Bridge and asked the man in the booth for directions to 34th and Chestnut, location of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. I don’t remember what he said, but I know I asked him to repeat it and had to listen really hard to understand him. As we drove away, I said to my father, “Oh, that poor man has such a dreadful speech impediment.” It took me a week or two of encounters with bank tellers, the odd campus employee, and a variety of folks on TV and radio to realize that it wasn’t an impediment, it was the way people talked.
I’d had a brush with something similar when I went to Vassar, but the accent around Poughkeepsie wasn’t as pronounced. I didn’t interact much with local people except on brief excursions into the city to buy fabric for theater productions and occasionally to stand in line at the all-night bakery waiting for the bagels to be done at 4 a.m. It was barely noticeable, especially compared to the Bahston accent I heard regularly at home in New England. This was worlds away.
Nester laments the disappearance of Philadelphia’s regional accent in movies and on TV. If he wants a refresher without traveling all the way to the city from upstate New York, I suggest he come to a UConn women’s basketball game. Coach Geno grew up about eighteen miles away in Norristown, and he always has a bit of the accent showing. When he gets angry or upset, those diphthongs and mashed consonants come out and march around just like the Mummers’ strut down Broad Street on New Year’s Day.
Though I never learned to speak Filuffia (Nester spells it Filelfia, perhaps a suburban variation), I became pretty good at understanding it over the fifteen years I lived in the city. I am proud to say that I was able to interpret every one of his “izzamples” without relying on the translation.
Nester included all my favorite phrases: the main one being “downnashewr” (down to the [Jersey] shore” and part of “jeet jet?” (Did you eat yet?) The only important item he omitted was the baseball team, the “Flees.”
And of course I took him up on the recommendation to listen to PhillyTawk, which brought back another favorite: the “De Inquar,” which used to be a good newspaper. Oh, and Sean spells it “Phluphya.”
Thanks for the memories, guys.