A Linguistic Escape From Philadelphia

“Wuhter”, my father said. His Philadelphia accent is almost nonexistent, especially compared to the deeper accent of my mother. However, it comes out in certain words, like the usual English term for H2O.

“Water”, I correct him. I always correct people, certainly my parents with their sometimes bizarre Philadelphian pronunciation, which are seemingly dying out anyway. I’ve corrected what is probably the most annoying pronunciation of all, my mother saying “iron” as “ahrn”. (I have heard that this is an exclusively South Philly thing). I tell my father that they are “sprinkles” and not “jimmies,” and my mother that it is “sauce” and not “gravy”.

All in a day’s work for a so-called (by his own mother, no less) “grammar Nazi”.

It’s not just grammar, though. Every word I say is carefully chosen and very formal. Sometimes, in the presence of friends, I let my hair down a little and might curse or use slightly less stuffy language. But otherwise, I probably sound more like an Edwardian gentleman than a 21st century teenager.

I hardly, if ever, use slang words. Most of them sound cheap, synthetic, and disposable, the junk food of language. I balk at them because they sound unnatural and useless. Further to the point, they have no place in a sentence – they sound like they’re tacked on merely to sound cool, while the best words will last forever.

For some people, it’s easy to use slang. But I like rigid routines, and order. I like to control, and it isn’t even really my fault. It is something that you can’t detect at first glance, something you can’t really see. It is  Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of autism.

It’s not like I’m trying to make everything perfect. For me, it just flows naturally, just like other teenagers say “get turnt” or “on fleek”. I can’t help it that I speak and write in a patrician manner – it’s just part of my mental hardwiring. My brain is different from everyone else's – and I’m proud of that. I don’t care if you think I sound like a snob or take things literally or can’t stand mispronunciations,I crave order and stability in a world that offers very little of it.

It’s perhaps a choice of lifestyle, as well. A lot of teenage and youth slang revolves around an eventually unsustainable lifestyle-partying, concert-going, urban exploration, and living life like there’s no tomorrow. Meanwhile, I prefer quiet moments – looking at small architectural details, analyzing the lyrics of British rock bands, overthinking things, and generally just enjoying the company of either myself or a close friend.

I think my family has something of a choice as to whether they could speak in a more formal and proper dialect. There are plenty of Philadelphians and ex-Philadelphians (including some of my aunts and uncles) who you’d think had never been inside the City of Philadelphia in their entire lives. However, there are many people in my family, who, when they open their mouths, sound absolutely embarrassing, if not in reality, then at least to my ears.

In the musical adaptation of “Pygmalion”, “My Fair Lady”, the protagonist, Henry Higgins, sings, “An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him/The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him”. Change “Englishman” to “American” and you can see that there really isn’t much of a difference in lingual judgement once you cross the Atlantic. In the United States, we look down our noses at people depending where in the country they come from. A Bostonian might regard a Texan as sounding slovenly, and a Texan might find a Bostonian’s accent snobbish. As James Baldwin once wrote, “A Frenchman living in Paris speaks a subtly and crucially different language from that of the man living in Marseilles; neither sounds very much like a man living in Quebec; and they would all have great difficulty in apprehending what the man from Guadeloupe, or Martinique, is saying, to say nothing of the man from Senegal.” In this same manner, I find my relatives’, specifically my mother’s accent, to be thoroughly grating.

The fact that a lot of my friends, especially those in the middle class, have parents from other parts of the country does not help – indeed, some of them have no family at all in and around Philadelphia. While this can be typically chalked up to gentrification, it also makes me feel slightly nervous, knowing that I sound absolutely proper, and it’s not because of my breeding. Through a pre-existing mental condition, speech lessons, and an exposure to British television programming at an early age, I sound like I should be on the CBS evening news, instead of (with apologies to Mr. Springsteen) the streets of Philadelphia.

When I think about all of these other places, I think about where I want to go. On one hand, I feel a very deep kinship to Philadelphia. I am absolutely smitten with the precise terraces of rowhomes, the way the stoop meets the sidewalk, the diverse styles of architecture, the abundant (if sometimes wild) streetlife, even the relative lack of green space as compared to other cities in the nation. However, my very voice betrays my ambitions. Even though I am of nearly pure Philadelphian blood, I sound so polished and formal that I don’t really fit into a neighborhood of bizarre mispronunciations (that my mother seems to use constantly) and an inability to say “drawer”. Although I resent the gentrifiers, and the way they displace hard-working residents, I am, in a way, closer to them than the natives. I speak properly, have obscure, intellectual interests, and listen to the Who and Radiohead rather than Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. I love Italy (I still have vivid memories of my visit to Rome in 2014), but disdain the cheap mockery that Italian-Americans are unknowingly doing to their heritage.

When I walk through my neighborhood, I don’t feel like a native. Sure, I know the streets like the back of my hand. But with my quirky t-shirts, and headphones plugged into my phone, I could easily pass for a hipster or a yuppie. I walk among the rows and churches, and despite my deep roots, I feel like a “stranger in a familiar land”. I have the experience of being both at home and completely alienated.

And yet, sometimes, this feels perfectly fine. I am me, and nobody else. I don’t care if I really don’t sound like the rest of my family, or if I alienate myself from my friends occasionally. I’m me, and only I have control over that.

Comments (4)

James Thomas (Student 2018)
James Thomas
  1. I learned that Anthony even corrects his parents. I thought he only corrected his peers.
  2. Anthony starts off his piece with a story of himself correcting his parents. He goes onto explain more about his parents' accents and adds to this by describing his own. He then goes into detail about his thoughts on this matter.
  3. I'll probably remember the story. I could easily relate to this one, as I apparently speak with a Philadelphian accent.
Xavier Gavin (Student 2018)
Xavier Gavin
  1. The author credits his language and orderly attitude in part due to having Asperger's Syndrome.
  2. Anecdotes are used to tell about times he used different words or pronunciations than his family and had to correct them. 3, At first glance someone may look like they fit right into a group, but once they open their mouth they could turn into a completely different person.
Lily Palmer (Student 2018)
Lily Palmer

I learned that Anthony is proud and confident of how he speaks, even if it isn't the norm. A good amount of the story was reflection which I really enjoyed, he talked alot about how environment affects speech and attitude. I will take away that it you should be proud of how you talk and where you are from!

Gabriel Copeland (Student 2018)
Gabriel Copeland

Anthony's vocabulary is very sophisticated and much more rounded than most of his peers. The reflection is concise, the anecdote is perfect as it wields together the struggle of being a "Grammar Nazi." Just like me, Anthony speaks much more formally and to meet another person like that is satisfying.