Aug 10, 2021 • 31M

Mare of Easttown and the Philly Accent

Kate Winslet was captivating as detective Mare Sheehan in the HBO series, but how was her accent?

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John McWhorter
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In the 7-part crime drama, Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet plays a flannel-clad cop with a thirst for Rolling Rock, an appetite for hoagies and a tendency to pronounce water more like wooder. John McWhorter — who also, it turns out, grew up in Philly — discusses his hometown’s enigmatic accent and Winslet’s courageous attempt at imitating those impossibly difficult vowels. Most actors don’t even bother.


JOHN McWHORTER: From Booksmart Studios, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language. I'm John McWhorter and I want you to listen to this.

MARE: I doubt the thing’s gonna live very long.
STORE OWNER: Well, you'd be surprised. I mean, my mother turtle? Outlived her.
MARE: If it’s taken care of, sure. If you feed it and give it clean water and make sure it's not swimming in its own filth. It’s for my grandson, he's four and has trouble focusing on tasks.

That was from the newish series Mare of Easttown. That was Kate Winslet as the Mare protagonist talking. And, you know, if you want to be picky — and of course we don't, except just for this episode we do — there was something a little bit off about that line in terms of the pronunciation. And the reason we're going to be picky about that on this show is because finally, I want to do an episode devoted to the famous Philly accent, the Philadelphia accent. Finally, a Philadelphia show or movie actually takes the trouble to have people talking the way people actually talk in that city. Generally, if something's in Philadelphia, people either, you know, sound like they're from Los Angeles or there's this idea that people in Philadelphia must talk like New Yorkers because New York is close and, you know, you figure, well, Rocky must have sounded kind of like he was from New York because Sylvester Stallone looked like he was a refugee from a Scorsese movie. But no, there is a very distinct Philadelphia accent. And how do I know? Well, as many of you know, I grew up in Philadelphia. I grew up in Philadelphia in the 1970s and 80s. And the accent, the grand old accent is actually fading now. But I'm old enough to have been raised within it in its prime. And, you know, I have a fondness. I remember as late as the 90s, I’d call my mother's work and I'd get one of the the secretaries there on the phone, not the phone, but the phone. And one of them might say, oh, Shelly's out. My mother's name was Shelley. It would be Shelly's out. To me, that's warmth. That to me is a blueberry muffin. That to me is how people are supposed to talk. And to the extent that the white and the Black Philadelphia accent overlapped — and of course, they were different — but even now, I just love hearing either a white or a Black Philadelphian say now instead of now. Now we're going to do it now. That means that this is going to be a show about sounds, what linguists call phonology. And I don't usually go there partly because I'm not a phonologist, but mostly because it can be hard to make phonology fun without a whole lot of preparation. But this is about Philly and Philly is fun. And so I'm going to get this across to you. Mare of Easttown is in the news and it should be people, keep asking me how accurate it is, so let's do it.


And in order to do this, what we need to do, we've got to forget the alphabet. We're going to do vowels. I'm going to talk about Philly vowels. They're more interesting than the consonants. But we cannot have this idea that our vowels are a e i o u. Just forget that, that has nothing to do with the way those vowels are organized in your mouth, not even if you think about long a, short a whatever those are. It's not that. Here's how we do it. I want you to try something in your own mouth. Listen to me doing this: ēēē āāā aaa. Run them together: ēēēāāāaaa. Now, first of all, notice that when you go ēēēāāāaaa, you're going from up to middle to down. You're going downward: ēēēāāāaaa. Now, these things are both going from top to bottom, but they're also in the front. And you're thinking on the front of what. Because you know we're thinking of a e i o u, and we think well that's how vowels work. No, ēēēāāāaaa is front, because do this: oohōōōaah. Notice that not only are you going from top to bottom again, but they're further back: ēēēāāāaaa, up front; oohōōōaah, in the back. So that's how the vowels that we're going to talk about are actually arranged. So notice that āāā ōōō, they're both in the middle; ēēē ooh, they’re up at the top; aaa aah, that's not short a, long a or whatever. I was actually never taught what those were but they are on the bottom: aaa is the front version of aah. So, ēēēāāāaaa, oohōōōaah. Just remember that. Now what is the Philly accent? Often you read about it and it's considered so, you know, vague and strange and difficult and chaotic. Not really. You can think of it as something you do to a person. This is how I've often thought about it.


You are working with somebody — I don't know, you're trying to teach them how to breathe for singing or something like that — and you're trying to change their breathing patterns. People often say that in order to sing well, you have to think about your diaphragm. I don't know what that means. LAAAA. I am not thinking about my diaphragm, but suppose you tell somebody, OK, sweetie, now breathe deeply, breathe deeply. And instead of inflating their chest, they inflate their belly. So they go and they push their stomach out. And you say, no, no, no, not, not in the belly from the chest, come on, shoulders up. And you tell them to put their shoulders up and so their shirt rises in the back, but then it falls in the front. So it's like [mouth effect] like that. So you tell somebody, OK, breathe deep and they do it with their belly, so their bellies poking out in the middle. And then you say, no, no, no, no, no, no, shoulders up. And then they go up [mouth effect], but then the shirt goes down in the front like in a cartoon [mouth effect], like that. That is the Philly accent, because that's what happens to the vowels. And so if you think of the ēēēāāāaaa, that's the front; āāāis the belly, that's in the middle. So the person goes [mouth effect], instead of doing with their chest, and then you say up, your shoulders up. That's the back, that's the oohōōōaah ones. But then the shirt falls in the front [mouth effect], like that. OK, what the hell am I talking about? This. If you think about that person — to me it's this the hairy guy, you know, because I'm thinking about Rocky and the trainer, he's in a sleeveless shirt and the belly in the front. What do I mean by that? I mean this, let's stick with the Rocky. Rocky was made into a musical not too very long ago and, yep, I don't even need to tell you what that was like. But there was one thing, they made one salute to actually doing a Philadelphia accent. At one point somewhere in the late middle, they had some attendant tell somebody that something was closed and the person says it's closed. It's closed. That's the one time anybody used a Philadelphia accent and it was meant for a laugh. If you were from Philly, you got it immediately that that's how that person would actually have talked. Now, what he was doing was he was poking the belly out. And what I mean by that is this. Close, ōōō, remember our back sounds and so oohōōōaah, well, close gets pushed up front, ēēēāāāaaa. So the ōōō becomes more like āāā. Closed, closed, closed. You're pushing it up front. And so in Philadelphia, often you don't go, you go, you go. It's not just weird, it's that the ōōō … āāā is being pushed up front. The belly's going out and so [mouth effect], and so closed. You go. There's a lot of that belly in the Philadelphia accent. And by belly I mean that you have the vowels being attracted to that front middle. It's sticking its belly out. And so, for example, let's go back to ēēēāāāaaa; aaa is up front. Well, in the Philly accent the aaa often comes up a little bit. It comes towards the āāā, so ēēēāāāaaa … and so the aaa is more like an ehh. Just like closed becomes closed, aaa is more like ehh. And that's the same thing. It's just that there's this attraction to the belly. And so, for example, you don't take a bath, you take a bath, you take a bath. It's not half of an apple, it's half of an apple. You have a lousy house. Oh, it's a lousy house. That's pure Philadelphia. What that is, is not quote unquote nasal or strange. It's that laaa … ousy goes to lehh … ousy, because it's closer up to the āāā of the belly. Now, what's interesting about Philly, this shows you how random these things are, is that aaa, that cat sound, goes up to an ehh in that way before a lot of consonants, but not all of them. It only does it before the noisy ones, the ones that hiss like fffsss, and then the ones that are nasal, like mmm and nnn. So you have bath, half. It's a lousssy houssse. It's a mannn, OK. But, it means that not before the consonants that aren't noisy, not before just d, p, t, k. So you have somebody who is taking a bath and they're sad about it. Not sad. Somebody’s taking a bath, and if you do that you have to take off your cap, not your cap, your cap. You have a cat, you use a thumb tack. This is how things work. And so the Philly accent is that you have this lousy house, but you have a sad cat and one just internalizes this. And then there are these like crazy exceptions. Phonology has ridiculous kick you in the butt exceptions just like grammar does. And so before your d, p, t, k, the easy consonants that aren't hissy, that aren't nasal, the ones that just kind of mind their business? Well, you don't have the aaa going belly except in exactly three words, bad, mad and glad. If I were a real Philadelphian, I'd say bad, mad and glad. And what that means is that if you're a real Philadelphian, you don't walk around thinking about it, but if you're a real Philadelphian, mad and sad don't rhyme because sad behaves, you're sad. What's wrong with you Philadelphia person? I'm sad. But your actually, your brows are knit. You look more like you’re … what do you think, I'm mad? You're sad and mad and that is to be a Philadelphian that those two do not rhyme. Only with bad, mad, sad. It's kind of like with great, steak and break. Those are the words where that ea stayed ā, as opposed to lead, mead, seat. That's what was supposed to happen. But steak, break, great happened to stay the way they were. Well in Philly it's bad, mad and glad. So for example, here's how quirky these things are. Here's Lucy. This is Lucille Ball's third and worst sitcom. And at this point, basically, she's having a guest star every episode. Here's one where it's Eydie Gormé. And listen to Eydie Gormé, who grew up in New York, saying you don't want to go to bed when you're mad.

EYDIE GORMÉ: Aww, Steve, I said I was sorry and I never once doubted you when you explained how that dancer just happened to come into your dressing room by mistake.
STEVE GORMÉ: Then why did you keep needling me?
EYDIE GORMÉ: Because you look so cute when you're mad.

Right? Now if you hear her say that, then you also imagine to yourself that she would have said sad, and she would have said, so you don't go to bed when you're sad, but not if she were from Philadelphia, where it would have been, don't go to bed when you're mad, but you can go to bed when you're sad. That's Philadelphia. Isn't that interesting? To me, that feels perfectly normal. I never thought about it, but when learning about it, I thought, yeah, that person who has a Philadelphia accent — and for the record, this is an accent that has been more common among Italian and Irish Philadelphians, it's not everybody, but it's definitely there — with that person, if you've got that person in your ears, you can hear that they would say, I'm sad and I'm mad. That's the Philadelphia accent. It's just those three words that are different. But it's all about the belly. So you're closed, you're mad. It's closed, eh, the eh is the belly. So if we're talking about what happens before two people go to sleep, well, here is a song that actually fits that. This is called “Don't Fall Asleep” and it's from New Faces of 1952, which was a very smart and very successful Broadway review of well, I don't think I need to tell you the year. And there's a reason that they did a whole movie of it and they did it on TV. This song was not one of the quote unquote smart songs in it. And they didn't do this in the movie. They didn't do this on TV. But I've always thought it was very sweet. It appeals to the sentimental side of me. And I've actually played it for two normal modern people who actually found that they liked it, too. So I know that I'm not abusing you by playing it, but it's the old school soprano that's not to everybody's taste these days. But I think it's a pretty song. This is “Don't Fall Asleep” from New Faces of 1952. It is a young bride and her husband is passed out drunk.

Don't Fall Asleep


So the person sticks their belly out. And then you say, no, no, not the, not the belly. Stand up straight. This is about sticking out your chest, stand up, raise your shoulders up. And so you rise in the back. Now, what's the back? oohōōōaah, oohōōōaah. There's a rising in the back in the Philly accent. And specifically it's with the aw. So, oohōōōaah [mouth effect], aw is not an a and a w. That's the way we spell it. That's just nonsense. Aw is a sound all by itself. It's not two things and it's what happens if you're on the road in between ōōō and aah. You're at a motel, it's aw. So ōōōawwaah,right there. Well, in Philadelphia that aww has been rising to be more like an ōōō or even an ooh. And so not caught, but cawwt or even coohawwt. It's going up. Coohawwt,like that. And what that means is that something has not been happening in Philadelphia that's been happening in many other places, and that is that I talk about an army having cots. I wonder if they do. But you always think of that, cots. And then what I did to a fish was I caught the fish: cot, caught. More and more people in the United States do not make that distinction. And it's that there's an army that has a cot. And also yesterday you cot a fish. There's a lazy hock making circles in the sky. What's happening is that aw in many dialects of English is falling, not rising, and so awwaah. And notice why that would happen is because aww and aah, despite whatever you're thinking about the alphabet, aww and aah are very close and aww’s just becoming aah. And students are having a harder and harder time getting this when I try to teach these sorts of things in introductory classes. And so I used to say, OK, if you're one of these people who talks about, you know, that you cot a fish, we have to know that there is this other sound, aww, for many American English speakers. And so what would happen if you were in Helsinki and you went to a park where there were squirrels that will actually walk up to your knees asking for food (which is something that happened to me in Helsinki)? Well, I always assume that people are going to say aww, no matter what kind of English they speak, aww. But over the past few years, most of the class is now saying aah, so I can't even use that because people are saying, aah, what a cute little Finnish speaking squirrel. That is something that is happening. It's called the cot-caught merger. But it's not just those words. It's that aahand aww are falling together into aah. Not in Philadelphia because the aww instead of falling, it's rising. These things are chance. But it means that you'll hear a person saying that they caught something or, for example, with the word start, more like stoohart. Start can sound almost like Stewart among some speakers. It's going up: aahōōōooh. Stoohart, like that. And that means that in Philadelphia you have this raised aww, as we call it, and it means that in Philly there's still kind of a remnant of something that for many of us will just seem completely opaque. If you've got a horse like, like [neighing], and then you've got hoarse, and I’m like this [in hoarse voice], that to me is just horse and horse. And I think that's probably true of most of you. Earlier English, and I don't mean that much earlier, there's a horse that neighs and then you have a hooharse throat. Horse, hooharse. They're different. That is something that Philadelphia is trying to kind of hold on to. You cot something. You caught something. It's that sort of thing. But that little area, that aahaww, all of that is falling together in many Englishes. In Philadelphia it's a little more conservative, and that is why I feel older every year in saying caught and cot, that there's a hawk in the sky, that sushi is raw fish, not rah fish. It's not fish that's a cheerleader, and, you know, has pom poms: rah rah fish. It's raw fish. So Philadelphia, you've got the clothes rising in the back. And what I mean by that is that awwōōō is going up like that. That's part of the Philadelphia accent. You caught it. You did not cot it yesterday. You caught it.


So then the person with the shirt kind of rises up in the back and then it falls down in the front and you're thinking, oh, you're not, you’re not looking quite good. And what that is is, let's go back to the front. So ēēēāāāaaa, ēēēāāāaaa. Well, those ēēēāāā sounds are falling a little bit. It's almost as if it's because of what happened in the back. And so it's kind of choo choo, and then the train falls down in the front. And so that's why, for example, you can hear many Philadelphians calling the team, the sports team — they are a football team even I know that. What is it? Phillies is the baseball. The 76ers is basketball. The Eagles is football and hockey is the Flyers. That is definitely the only city where I can do that, and I may have even done it wrong. But the Eagles is the Iggles. The Iggles. Well, what that is is the ēēē fell a little bit: ēēēāāā, it's kind of in between, like another motel, the Holiday Inn. And so ēēēāāā, Iggles, the Iggles. Or, colleagues. My mother grew up in Atlanta, actually, in the 40s and 50s, but she spent most of her life in Philadelphia. And by the time I was a kid, she — my mother was kind of a language sponge — and she had taken on some Philadelphia vowels. She would talk about her colleagues at work, but the way she pronounced it was colliggs. I thought that the word was colliggs until I got a little older. That was Philly. Your colleagues become your ccolliggs, just like the Eagles are the Iggles. And then it's not only the ēēē, but you get down to the āāā, so you have a plague. Among many Philadelphians it's a plegue. Plague, it's a plegue because of the falling. In terms of the Philadelphia vowels that you would wanna think about, that really make it what it is, it means you tell somebody to breathe deeply, they poke their belly out. You say no, stand up and their shirt rises in the back and then falls in the front. That is exactly what it is.


What this means is let's go back to Mare of Easttown and let's do the test. And I want to reinforce it's not that I could do any better. I am in awe of Kate Winslet. She gets better every year and the way she can do an accent is remarkable. I couldn't imitate myself better than she imitates other people: Titanic, Mildred Pierce. You notice how she can rise above even crappy material. Have you ever sat through Wonder Wheel and actually make it sense and doing, you know, the accent there perfectly. So this is not me calling out Kate Winslet or the dialect coaches on Mare of Easttown. You can never get these things absolutely perfectly. But, because we're doing the Philly accent, it means that you can, if you're watching Mare of Easttown and you're probably a little obsessive and insane and you're from Philadelphia, you do notice little things that are off. So much is on. But every now and then, it's kind of like [screeching] and that's because there's a Philly accent and there are things that you're just not going to get every time if you did not happen to grow up there and you're trying to remember your lines. And so let's listen to this passage.

MARE: I doubt the thing’s gonna live very long.
STORE OWNER: Well, you'd be surprised. I mean, my mother turtle? Outlived her.
MARE: If it’s taken care of, sure. If you feed it and give it clean water and make sure it's not swimming in its own filth. It’s for my grandson, he's four and has trouble focusing on tasks.

Now, wooder for water is dead on. That's just an eccentricity, it’s not sounds, it's just the way that word happens to be pronounced. That's one of the strongest Phillyisms that I actually have. I try to make it different because people make fun of it when I'm with other people. But for me, that thing that comes out of the faucet is not water, it's wooder. And that overrated little desert that you buy that at least it's never overpriced. It's not a water ice. It's a wooder ice. To me, that sounds fine. So that's one of the first things you're going to think about. And then also own for own. That's right. Focus, not focus, focus in Philadelphia. But what's wrong is it's not a task. It's a task because it's before one of the hissy consonants. You ask somebody something, it's a task, not a task. Let's try another line.

MARE: Take him to Riddle. Then drive him to St. Michael's. Tell Father Dan Hastings I sent him. And call Peco gas. Let ’em know they’re breaking the law, and unless they want us to notify the Public Utilities Commission on their asses they’re gonna put his fucking heat back on.
TRAMMEL: Got it Sarge.
MARE: Hey, you good?
TRAMMEL: I’m good.

Notify is dead on. That sounds exactly like you know me before I had any problems in the 70s. Gas, ass; no gas, ass. If you say notify you talk about turning off the gas and kicking somebody's ass. Now the accent is fading in most quarters. And you could say that Mare, who, after all, is not 90 years old, is losing some of it or that she never had all of it. That's true. But the thing is, you know, if you're doing the Philly accent, you probably don't necessarily know that. And in this case, if you're kind of doing the Philly test, it's on that sound where you have the occasional slip, because if you know that it's about the belly and then it's the shirt, it's rising up and the shirt's falling down, you know that with that belly, everything's all about eh. And it goes to the ehbefore the noisy consonants like th, s. Now, of course, Philadelphia isn't the only place where you have gas and ass. There are differences between Philadelphia and New York. But New York would have had that, too. And so how might somebody have sung, for example, a certain song in New York City in 1932 in a failed musical by the Gershwins? It didn't work, partly because there was an attempted guillotining in it. But this is Let ’Em Eat Cake. And this is a song called “Down with Everything That's Up.” And this is a rendition in the 80s. It's by Married with Children's Steve, David Garrison, whose main career has been in musical theater. He left that show to go back to what he really wanted to do. And it's actually it's a very obscure but great little song in a very obscure show. But listen to especially the end of this clip that I'm going to play of “Down with Everything That's Up.” I highly suspect that the original actor would have used different vowels than David Garrison did. And, of course, who cares? But if you're being, you know, recreationally picky, listen to the last few lines.

GARRISON: That's the torch we're going to get the flame from. If you don't like it, why don't you go back where you came from.
CHORUS: If you don’t like it, why don't you go back where you came from? If you don’t like it, why don't you go back where you came from?
GARRISON: Let's tear down the House of Morgan!
CHORUS: House of Morgan!
GARRISON: Let's burn up the Roxy organ!
CHORUS: Roxy organ!
GARRISON: Down with Curry and McCooey!
CHORUS: And McCooey!
GARRISON: Down with chow mein and chop suey!
CHORUS: And chop suey!
GARRISON: Down with music by Stravinsky!
CHORUS: By Stravinsky!
GARRISON: Down with shows except by Minsky!
CHORUS: Up with Minsky!
GARRISON: Happiness will fill our cup when it’s down with everything that's up!
CHORUS: When it’s down with everything that's up!
GARRISON: Down with books by Dostoyevsky!
CHORUS: Dostoyevsky!
GARRISON: Down with Boris Thomashefsky!
CHORUS: Thomashefsky!
GARRISON: Down with Balzac! Down with Zola!
CHORUS: Down with Zola!
GARRISON: Down with pianists who play “Nola”!
GARRISON: Down with all the upper classes!
CHORUS: Upper classes!
GARRISON: Might as well include the masses!
CHORUS: ’Clude the masses!

So do you notice? Classes and masses? No, classes and masses. Those were the real vowels.


Now, I should also mention, by the way, that every episode of the show here at Booksmart will have an additional morsel of four to five minutes, but that will only be accessible to the paying subscriber. So you get more of this, except not just about Philadelphia. You get to hear about how language would have sounded to a New Yorker in 1930 if you actually become a paying subscriber, had to mention that.


You're wondering, well, why? Why? Everybody always wants to know, well Philadelphia, it sounds funny, poking its belly out. Why? And the answer is really kind of dull. Vowels are always moving. They’re like bees in a hive, and you hear it in all kinds of Englishes. And it's funny about the sociological evaluation because closedand, you know, I'm thinking about a person standing there who probably, if it's summer, they probably are in a sleeveless shirt. But these things are so arbitrary. So, for example, let's listen to Queen Elizabeth before she was Claire Foy. Let's listen to her aaa, her aaa sound. And notice that the aaa is ehh. It is going up. So remember, it's ēēēāāāaaaehh. That is posh language. Listen to her here.

QEII: In wishing you all good evening, I feel that I am speaking to friends and companions who have shared with my sister and myself many a happy children's hour. Thousands of you in this country have had to leave your homes and be separated from your fathers and mothers.

So hear her on companion, happy and had; happy, had. It's the same thing. It's just that for her, it also happens before the quiet consonants. And so not just ask, but happy. Same thing. Now listen to her on the words no and most.

QEII: My sister Margaret Rose and I feel so much for you, as we know from experience what it means to be away from those we love most of all.

No, most; it's the same thing. How come if it's in Philadelphia, it reminds you of a pretzel? Oh, the pretzels. I just. Any of you who can try one of those Philadelphia Pretzel Company pretzels, they sell them on the street. You know, often if they've been sitting for a little while, there's a kind of a mucoid quality. But boy, can it be fun to eat snot when it's one of those Philadelphia pretzels. My mouth is watering right now, woodering notice? It's one of my favorite things about that city, these spectacularly fluffy, thick-skinned, perfect color brown. They're kind of the color of me. I've always kind of liked that color, these wonderful mucoid pretzels. But why is it that you think about those pretzels, or at least I do, if it's in Philadelphia, but if it's Queen Elizabeth, well then you think about, I don't know, camisoles and cucumber sandwiches and well she's just so special. And so these things are quite arbitrary. The vowels are always moving around depending on the status of the people who are having that vowel movement. I couldn't resist. It's either posh or it's somebody in a sleeveless shirt telling you that something is closed. These things are quite arbitrary. Language is that way.


In any case, I want to do a correction of myself for last time when I talked about the first Black winner of the spelling bee. And the truth is, not only was this year's winner not the first Black winner, but I really should have said Black American winner because I was forgetting that in 1998, the winner of the National Spelling Bee was Jamaican. So African-American, if we must use that term, was the one that I should have used, not just Black. Thank you to my friend Ben Zimmer for pointing that out. If you'd like to leave a comment, check out our other great podcast or subscribe, please visit Booksmart Our producers are Matthew Schwartz and, as always, Mike Vuolo. N’Dinga Gaba and Chris Mandra are our sound mixers and our theme music was created by Harvest Creative Services. You know what else about food in Philadelphia? The cheese steaks. And you know what? I am a Philadelphia boy. I have never understood it. I'm sorry. I know I'm going to get a lot of crap for that. I would more recommend those wonderful mucoid pretzels and the person who's saying that is John McWhorter.