Philadelphia Inquirer, “Translating Philly-ese”

February 20, 2014

Samantha Melamed, “Translating Philly-ese” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 20, 2014)

Some studies have shown white and African American vernaculars diverging, said Ben Zimmer, a linguist, lexicographer, and language columnist for the Wall Street Journal. But, he added, such research often focuses on vowel sounds. Other aspects of dialect, such as word choice, may paint a different picture.

“There are lots of other possibilities for crossover between white and black, in terms of having a distinct Philadelphia linguistic identity that transcends racial or ethnic backgrounds,” he said. “For instance, African American slang that might be popularized through hip-hop can appeal to audiences regardless of race.” [..]

Most linguists agree that jawn is a cognate of joint. But when it comes to drawlin, there’s not much to go on, Zimmer said.

“If it originates in oral use, it can become popularized in a community without having ever much of a written record,” Zimmer said.

And by the time a lexicologist gets interested in a slang word, its meaning may have changed.

Zimmer described seeing the term young boul, as applied by an older male in a relationship to a younger male, to imply a degree of protectiveness.

“A word like that, which seems pretty specific to Philadelphia, can serve this important social role of creating bonds between members of the community,” he said. […]

Zimmer said the endurance of hoagie, and the many other Philadelphianisms not mentioned here, is more than just linguistic novelty.

They’re also testaments to prized Philadelphia obstinacy.

“There are forces for homogenization: the fact that Subway is a popular chain, and presumably popularizing the term sub in places that might have used hoagie or hero,” he said. “But people can really hold on to what they grew up with sometimes as a point of pride: ‘This is how we speak in Philly.’ There’s a pride in having a distinct way of using language.”

Read the rest here.

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