A couple of months back, I clicked on a teaser trailer for Mare of Easttown, a limited HBO series starring Kate Winslet. The dark and moody drama is about a troubled cop named Mare Sheehan (Winslet) who’s trying to catch a killer—a premise that will hook me almost every time. In addition to the prestigious HBO imprimatur, Mare of Easttown features a supporting cast that includes Guy Pearce, Evan Peters, Jean Smart, Angourie Rice, and Julianne Nicholson. Both the show and trailer seemed promising, if a little predictable; after all, you can’t even look at your remote nowadays without bumping into a troubled detective who’s tracking a killer through some cold, cloudy town.
But then Winslet started talking.
The very first word Mare utters in the teaser is her own name. Only instead of sounding like a female horse, it comes out more like “Mear.” She goes on to talk about “most people” and to ask Pearce’s character: “You don’t have any bodies hidden under your porch, do you?” But the vowels in most and don’t became peculiar diphthongs that sounded a little like meust and deun’t.
“Oh my God,” I thought. “Is she trying the Accent?”
Easttown, you see, is a real town that’s located in southeastern Pennsylvania, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Setting a show or movie near Philly is not unusual in and of itself—just look at Shazam!, Trading Places, and Boy Meets World. What is unusual about Mare of Easttown, though, is that the show sounds like it’s set in southeastern Pennsylvania.
“Philly is in this weird place of having features of New York English, and also features of Southern American English,” says Betsy Sneller, an assistant professor of linguistics at Michigan State University. “When those things combine, it creates this unique stew that people, if they’ve never heard it before, have a really hard time placing.”
For how strange or unfamiliar this dialect may be to many viewers, it nevertheless covers a huge swath of the northeastern United States. The Delaware Valley—where the accent originates—comprises southeastern Pennsylvania, the top half of Delaware, parts of Maryland, and southern New Jersey, where I was born and raised, and now live. Elements of the dialect stretch even farther south, where it blends into its linguistic cousin in Baltimore.
Millions and millions of Americans talk like this, but we almost never hear it on TV or in movies. Silver Linings Playbook bagged Oscar nominations for four actors, all of whom—including Abington’s Bradley Cooper—sounded more like they were from New York than Delaware County. Manhunt: Unabomber based a major plot twist on Sam Worthington’s character pronouncing the word water as wooder, a definitive trait of the Philly accent, but he otherwise used a nondescript American dialect for the majority of the film. And nobody in Philadelphia talks like anyone in Rocky.
“Actors do particular accents to convey a vibe,” says Josef Fruehwald, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Kentucky and owner of an exquisite Philadelphia accent. “We know what we’re supposed to think about a character if they have a Brooklyn accent and are dropping their r’s, or even a Boston accent, or a Southern accent. But it’s not as clear what the persona of the character is supposed to be if they’re speaking with a Philly accent. There’s a technical word linguists have for this called ‘enregisterment.’ So there’s two things: There’s not necessarily a public awareness of what a Philadelphia accent sounds like, but also, if a character has a Philadelphia accent, what are we supposed to know about them?”
The area’s default treatment in popular culture is to just make it sound like New York. That creates something of a self-perpetuating problem for any project that attempts to portray the accent authentically. The more filmmakers punt on the Philly accent because they fear viewers will find it distracting or even weird, the weirder and more distracting the real accent becomes when it does pop up.
Mare of Easttown, by contrast, is going for it, lunging headlong into perilous linguistic waters. It’s a risk, but if the characters in this show existed in real life, this is pretty much how they’d talk.
In 2019, Netflix released a sci-fi crime thriller called In the Shadow of the Moon, which was set in Philadelphia and directed by Jim Mickle of Pottstown, Pennsylvania. The film is heavily seasoned throughout with local color: Wawa signs, SEPTA buses, and incessant background chatter about the Sixers.
It also features Michael C. Hall, who bursts through the screen like the Kool-Aid Man, if the Kool-Aid Man were named Holt and had strong opinions on whom Eagles GM Howie Roseman should pick in the first round. Hall’s costar Boyd Holbrook sprinkles the occasional “wooder” here and there, but Hall waded into the dialect waters up to his chest.
Ever think you’d hear the guy who played Dexter say “chasin moonbeams” in a Philly accent? pic.twitter.com/GgBMQTQKZw— Titus Anjawnicus (@jimadair3) October 1, 2019
“Michael C. Hall did a good job in that movie,” Fruehwald says. “But [Holbrook] was just some sort of tough guy from the Northeast, and with some of the other cops I swear I heard a Boston accent in there.”
That’s a problem, Sneller discovered while conducting interviews for her doctoral dissertation on Philadelphia English, because if one actor goes for the Philly accent while the rest of the cast does the standard Northeastern boilerplate, it not only stands out, it might not even register as American English to those unfamiliar with the dialect.
“One of the questions that we asked is ‘When you go abroad, has anyone ever picked you out as being from Philly by the way you talk?’” she says. “And most people will say, ‘No, they usually ask if I’m from the South.’ Or they’ll pick something completely off base, like Australia.”
Figuring out when and how to deploy the Philly accent is a challenging and fraught decision for a showrunner or director. It can also be nightmarishly difficult for actors to learn.
“Everybody on this planet speaks with an accent. Every single person,” says Chris Lang, who’s worked as a dialect coach for the past decade. “So it’s a matter of becoming aware of that accent so we know how to get from there to another accent, and how we’re altering a person’s speech. Typically ... this is going to start with how the human vocal tract is arranged to create speech. What are the lips doing? What’s the jaw doing? What position is the tongue in that creates any unique way of speaking that we can define as an accent or dialect?”
One of the most obvious characteristics of a Philadelphia accent, Sneller says, is the uncomfortable marriage between Northeastern sounds—including the tensed and raised tongue groove that makes the o in dog sound like awe—with Southern-influenced vowel sounds like you’d hear in goose and house. These are created farther forward in the mouth, or “fronted.” (This whole conversation calls to mind the Peanuts strip in which Linus becomes aware of his tongue.)
Then there’s the short a vowel, as in cat. Sneller singled this sound out as one of the most complex in the dialect. In some accents, that vowel gets pronounced like the middle of the word yeah. In others, it’s the æ sound. Philadelphians use both, based on phonological context, or what sounds come before and after that short a vowel. For instance, in a Philly accent, mad and sad don’t have the same vowel sound.
Since the split in the short a vowel is particular to Philadelphia, almost every non-Philadelphian is going to have a hard time keeping the sounds straight, because they’ve never had to make that distinction before. And non-native speakers not only have to learn to identify the two different sounds—a far more difficult task than merging two vowel sounds—but learn them in the right spots. There are some hard-and-fast rules, but it took Sneller four and a half minutes just to explain them to me. Actors learning the accent cold might as well learn the split one word at a time.
And that’s only the beginning.
“Philadelphia has innovated this allophonic split, taking one category and making it two categories, where if a word ends in a it gets pronounced a little bit lower [in the mouth],” Sneller said. She illustrated this split with an anecdote about a waiter who asked her table whether anyone wanted a glass of orange juice (pronounced “oh-jay”) and who then brought over a tray of “oh-jeez.”
An exception to this rule, Sneller says, is that the days of the week take the closed syllable sound. At one point in Mare of Easttown, a character says “Thursday” and “three days since” in the same sentence, and pronounces the two “day” sounds differently. This is accurate.
“The more complicated and full of exceptions a rule is, the less likely it is for adults to be able to learn,” Sneller says. “There was actually a study done in Philly of kids who had one Philadelphian parent and one non-Philly parent. And even that much non-Philly input meant that they were not accurate in their acquisition of the short a pattern, because one parent was not enforcing it. It’s really, really difficult to learn even in a natural language setting, so the fact that Kate Winslet is doing it is very, very impressive.”
Learning an accent like this is a painstaking process, Lang says, one that involves collaboration and communication between actor, director, writer, and dialect coach. It also helps to find real-world examples of people with the accent, from which a character can grow.
“It’s likely that our accent model has a different life history than was written into the story,” Lang says. “And so maybe we need to look at what features of the accent might change based on the story. Are there any features we want to dial up or turn down? ... And then in terms of working with the actor, it’s a process of—if we’re lucky here—months of prep.”
Authenticity, Lang says, is the key component of dialogue coaching. Not just because it’s important to do right by the real-world people who actually talk that way, but because viewers are going to pick up on even minor mistakes.
“Audiences today have much higher expectations in terms of accent authenticity,” Lang says, “because media is so much more widely proliferated. Anybody from anywhere in the world, who’s a native speaker of any accent, can see their own accent being represented in film and television. So the expectations have grown a lot.”
More than that, an accent is a character- and world-building device. Good dialect work can make a show or movie feel more real.
“We started to see good Baltimore accents coming in The Wire,” Lang says. “And there’s a reason people think that’s maybe one of the best things that’s ever been on television. Because it felt like a completed world. Including the accents. It felt like we were right there, and we could taste and feel Baltimore.”
Mare of Easttown was created by Brad Ingelsby, who’s from the western Philadelphia suburbs. And at the risk of setting unrealistically high expectations, the show goes for a level of verisimilitude that rivals The Wire. From the cops toting cardboard Wawa coffee cups, to the copious amounts of Rolling Rock and Jameson consumed, to the cars people drive, to the main characters’ family dynamics, Mare feels not only fully realized and built-out, but very much like the real-world town. Even the lighting captures the specific teeth-rattling dampness of a Delaware Valley winter.
If Mare of Easttown, with its web of intrigue and complicated vowel structure, leaves any kind of lasting cultural footprint, it could mark a watershed moment for the Philadelphia accent in pop culture. Because while this is one of very few wholesale dramatic depictions of the Philadelphia accent, Mare follows on the heels of an increasing amount of comedy bits that use the region’s dialect as a comedic premise.
Tina Fey, a Delco native, has been poking fun at the Philly accent for years. The “Pawnsylvania” sketches on Kroll Show feature a pair of cousins who own pawn shops at opposite ends of the state and speak with voices that drip Cheez Whiz and onions. There’s even a running gag on SportsCenter between Maryland natives Scott Van Pelt and Tim Kurkjian, in which Van Pelt starts stretching out the typical long o (as in hoagie) of the Philadelphia and Baltimore accents, and Kurkjian dissolves into laughter.
The crown jewel of these is a 2019 Saturday Night Live sketch featuring James McAvoy as a ribald Eagles fan who’s in a focus group for a Charmin toilet paper commercial. The Scottish actor even nails as challenging a phrase as “Bear sits down on a public toilet and the automatic flush goes off while he’s still got his ass on the seat, right?” (This is “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dogs,” but for the Philly accent.)
It’s a “virtuoso performance,” Fruehwald says. McAvoy’s pronunciation of “tidy deuce” especially stood out to Fruehwald, who’s written a paper on a particular pronunciation of “tidy” that appears in some—but not all—Philadelphia accents.
The increased demand for authenticity that Lang described, combined with more and more examples of the Philadelphia accent being shown on television, could bring this unique dialect out of the shadows. And once it’s familiar to audiences—once it registers—it changes the risk-reward factor of going all in on the accent.
But that decision ultimately rests with the creative minds behind the project, and how much they want to push. Maybe Mare of Easttown will inspire Cooper, or M. Night Shyamalan, or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Rob McElhenney to sell out for linguistic authenticity. Or maybe the region will remain an insular linguistic enclave, griping about its neighbors’ greater visibility but secretly content to remain undisturbed. Now that’d be authentic.