America’s Loveliest Accents: Philadelphia

Science is objective, but scientists tend to like things they study; in a notable scene from the 2008 adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth, the characters emerge into a cave. One exclaims, “Diamonds!” another “Emeralds!” And then Trevor the geologist (played by Brendan Fraser) remarks, “Feldspar!”

It’s natural for geologists to delight in rocks, and it’s natural for linguists to delight in languages. This is why it’s not hard for me to come up with something nice to say about almost any accent.

Philadelphia

Ah, Philadelphia, the gateway of the American Midland dialect! David Hackett Fischer tells us how Philadelphia was the landing point for the Quaker migration from the British Midlands to the Midwest, and also for the later Scotch-Irish migration from the Borderlands and Northern Ireland to the Appalachians and the Ozarks. My ancestors, the Dowdles, were part of that later migration. In my lifetime, several of my Jewish cousins from New York have moved to the area as well.

When I think “Philadelphia accent,” there’s one name that comes to mind, and that’s the Dead Milkmen. A friend gave me a tape of theirs in high school, and I was particularly intrigued by the boyish, melancholy voice of Joe “Jack Talcum” Genaro, who sang lead on a number of their songs, including their biggest hit, “Punk Rock Girl.”

I was fascinated by the accents of both Joe Jack and the band’s other lead singer, “Rodney Anonymous,” particularly what I would now refer to as the raising of the PRICE vowel (which you can hear in “wild” and “child”) and the fronting of the GOAT vowel (in “although” and “know”). These guys were from England? No, that’s just the Midland accent undergoing the same shift as in the southeast of England.

A few months ago I discovered this 2002 interview with Joe Jack, where he discusses what it was like to be a gay man in a macho punk band. What about the “Punk Rock Girl”? “With the Dead Milkmen I was collaborating with three guys who were not gay, so I did not feel comfortable writing anything from an obviously gay point of view. ‘Punk Rock Girl’ for instance was written with Dave [Blood], who sings backups.”

The late eighties was not a great time to be queer, especially in the punk scene. “I can honestly say that for part of the time with the Dead Milkmen I was making an effort to not be queer, though it did not work,” Joe Jack told Mark Prindle. When I was most listening to the Dead Milkmen I was also most conflicted about my own queerness, and it didn’t work with me either. I’m glad to know that Joe Jack Talcum made it through too. And just so you know he’s done other stuff, you can also hear him playing the Guitar Song.

This is part 5 of a series where I say nice things about all sixteen of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: Pittsburgh. Nextly: Providence.

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