A researcher is trying to document Philadelphia’s ASL accent, before it disappears

Two participants in the research project to document Philadelphia's ASL dialect.

The Philadelphia accent is most famously known by its transformation of the word “water’ to something more along the lines of “wuder.”

But it’s not the only accent native to the Philly area — historically, deaf Philadelphians have also had their own particular version of American Sign Language, with some of its own words or slight differences in the orientation and configurations of the hands when compared to regular ASL.

Now, a team of linguistic researchers  — Jami N. Fisher and Meredith Tamminga from the University of Pennsylvania and Julie Hochgesang from Gallaudet University —  is aiming to document the Philadelphia dialect in American Sign Language before it fades from use. She and her team of researchers are focusing on interviewing older Philadelphia ASL speakers, who tend to have a more pronounced Philly dialect.

“We’re trying to annotate the interviews and do some analysis on the interviews to see how actually this accent may be different from other sign and spoken languages,” she says.

What’s the difference between regular ASL and its Philadelphia (or Phluphian) dialect? It’s more French.

ASL derived from French sign language because the first sign language teacher in the United States, Laurent Clerc, was French. He used French Sign Language at the first deaf school in United States, which was formed in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1817. While ASL evolved independently and differentiated itself overtime, the Philly version has more traces of the French origins. 

Here's two examples of words that are different in Philly ASL as compared with standard ASL:  

Fisher, the ASL program coordinator at Penn, says linguists aren’t entirely sure why Philly ASL has a touch of throwback French influence, but they have a decent theory. The story goes back to the early part of the 19th century. 

The first school for deaf students using sign language in the Philadelphia area started in downtown Philadelphia in 1817. The school, eventually known as the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, moved to Mount Airy in northwest Philadelphia in 1894. It would remain there for 90 years, until 1984.

The school in Mount Airy was a boarding school with a large campus and hundreds of students. The fact that the students all lived together was an important detail, because it helped create a tight-knit community of ASL speakers who, for almost a century, mainly interacted with each other, and not other ASL speakers from around the country. 

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“Philadelphia deaf community members tend to say put, and when that happens you don’t have contact with other signing deaf, who are using what we now call American Sign Language, ASL. And when that happens, your language doesn’t change that much."

Due to the rise of cochlear implants and other changes in education policy, the boarding school model for deaf students began to fade. In 1984, the school downsized and moved to Germantown, another neighborhood of Philly. The number of deaf teachers was also cut — a fact that Fisher, and many members of the deaf community, believe was pivotal. 

“Everybody was terminated and rehired and many of the deaf teachers were not rehired. There is an influence there for sure. You don’t have as many deaf adults who are teaching these young children. … You have people with far less of a command of the language teaching these kids. It’s a real issue for literacy and language development in general.”

As more and more deaf students either went to other deaf schools or were “mainstreamed” into public schools, the distinctive nature of Philadelphia ASL began to fade. This has added a sense of urgency to Fisher’s project — and a broader mission. 

While she’s documenting the accent through the interviews, she’s also preserving it. 

“In the community, long before me, people have been saying we need to document this, we need to get these people on video. Some people are older and are passing away. We need to get this to preserve our language.”

A participant, right, in the study of the ASL Philadelphia accent is interviewed by researcher Jami Fisher's father.
A participant, right, in the study of the ASL Philadelphia accent is interviewed by researcher Jami Fisher's father.Image courtsey of Jami Fisher. 

Fisher’s interest in Sign Language goes back to her childhood — she grew up in a home with two deaf parents and a deaf brother. Her father spent most of his childhood in the Philadelphia area and has a slight Philly accent himself. 

Fisher’s dad is involved in the project and is conducting some of the research interviews. 

"He did the first one and I could tell he was sort of exhilarated. … He’s like 'I remember she was using this sign, I remember that sign. I  forgot that, that’s really interesting.' Plus, my father knows a lot of these people, so it’s really just in many ways a conversation for him, a catching up in some ways — finding out more information about deaf people and deaf friends' experiences."

The archive then, could also function as a kind of “non-oral” community history. She has partnered with deaf community groups, and the archive will be made public so other organizations and researchers can make use of it. 

“We have these older signers who are the only ones left using what we would call the Philadelphia accent. Part of it is that we’re documenting these people, but we’re also getting stories. Many of them are really interesting. They give a history of the experience of deaf people in Philadelphia."

This feature story comes from an interview that was conducted as part of the World in Words podcast. To see the description of this week’s full show, go here. You can follow the World in Words stories on Facebook or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.


MONAHAN:  The average American would say Phil-a-del-phia, but if you’re from around here you say Phul-a-DAL-phia — but that’s only if you’re trying to enunciate.  Normally, it’s something like FWOL-phia.  “Where are you from?”  “South FWOL-ol-phia.”

PORZUCKI: Nina Porzucki here, and this is The World in Words, a podcast about languages and the people who speak them.  Or, as we’ll get to later in the podcast, the people who sign them.  Today, as you heard, we are headed to Philadelphia.  That was Sean Monahan there doing the Philly accent.  He does a series of Philly talk — T A W K — videos on YouTube.  So, there’s been a lot of study and documentation of the Philadelphia accent; since 1971 a professor at the University of Pennsylvania has been recording hundreds of native city residents living in all of the neighborhoods, speaking with various Philly accents.  It’s a much loved and sometimes — I have to admit — ridiculed accent.  I have a little bit of Philly cred; my mom grew up in Philadelphia and peanut chews and waugh-ter — as she would say — were staples of my childhood.  And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention comedian Nick Kroll’s character — the lovable, lamentable Philadelphia pawn shop owner Murph. 

KROLL:    I’m Murph, owner and operator of South Philly Murph’s Pawnshop on South Street.  Here in Philly, I got all the business and women I can handle.

PORZUCKI: But this week I read about a new study out of the university of Pennsylvania about a different Philadelphia accent: the Philadelphia accent in American Sign Language.  A Philly accent in American Sign Language?  What does that even mean?  So, I called up Jami Fisher — she’s one of the researchers on the study at the University of Pennsylvania, she also heads Penn’s American Sign Language program — and this research has a very personal connection for her.

FISHER:   I’m a native signer.  So, I’m the oldest of three kids.  My parents and one of my brothers are deaf.  And, so I’m the oldest, so I was — for a very long time — [02:00] the only hearing person in my family.  So, at home I signed, and everywhere else in the — what we called “hearing world” — I used English.

PORZUCKI: Wow.  So do you sign with a Philly accent?

FISHER:   So, that’s an interesting question.  My mother is not from Philadelphia, and my father — for most of his life — he lived in Philadelphia.  So, growing up — actually, it’s interesting — a lot of my signs I seem to have acquired, or have filtered, my father’s signs.  So I do have a little bit of Philadelphia sign, but I wouldn’t say that I sign with a Philadelphia accent — but I do understand it.  And my father, I would say, signs with somewhat of a Philly accent, but even he doesn’t sign with — what we call — strong dialect that we are observing in the interviews that we’re doing.

PORZUCKI: When you mean ASL has a Philly kind of dialect — can you give me an example?  What do you mean by that?

FISHER:   When most people talk about a dialect in spoken languages, and in sign languages too, a lot of what they center on are lexical differences.  Differences in words.  In ASL we have many, many signs that have lexical differences.  For example, the sign for hospital is exceptionally different from what standard ASL would be, and among other things.  To the point where the signs are not able to be deciphered based on what they look like. 

PORZUCKI: So you’re mom coming from — where did she grow up?

FISHER:   She’s from Staten Island, from New York.

PORZUCKI: So your mom from Staten Island would come to Philadelphia, she would sign hospital in standard ASL and a Philly person — who spoke with a Philly accent — they would have a completely different sign.  She wouldn’t understand the sign for hospital that the Philly accent had.

FISHER:   That’s right, that’s right.  People say, “Oh, you talk weird,” or, “You sign strange.”  There’s sort of more to it than just these signs that seem to be out of the blue different on a lexical level.

PORZUCKI: So, what about Philadelphia — and the deaf community in Philadelphia — created [04:00] this accent?

FISHER:   Our theory is a couple of things.  So, one thing that is interesting — and people may not know — is that the parent language of American Sign Language is signed French.  So, ASL does not have much, at all, commonality with British Sign Language — but, we all know that we speak English in both countries.

PORZUCKI: I had no idea.  So, signed French is actually closer to ASL than BSL — British Sign Language.

FISHER:   That’s exactly right.

PORZUCKI: Wow, that’s interesting.

FISHER:   And the reason for that is historical.  There was no deaf school in the United States in the 1800s, and Thomas Gallaudet — who was a preacher — believed that deaf people should be able to commune with God in ways that hearing people can, and should be able to be educated, and it was pitiful that deaf people did not have these options.  So, he was sent to find a way to educate the deaf. And the long story short of it was that he went to France and they were educated in the manual method     — meaning signs, French Sign Language — at the deaf school in Paris, and he managed to convince a deaf teacher to come back — Laurent Clerc — to come back to the United States and teach deaf children.  So, you know, he didn’t just create this new language — that’s not how languages happen.  He brought French Sign Language and he was teaching them French Sign Language. 

PORZUCKI: Laurent Clerc came to the US and helped Thomas Gallaudet open the very first deaf school in Hartford, Connecticut in 1817.  The mode of instruct, as Jami explains, was French Sign Language.  And, well, not long after that Hartford School opened, Philadelphia opened its own school for the deaf in 1820.  And the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, or PSD, also hired Laurent Clerc to be the first headmaster for the new school. 

FISHER:   He, obviously, brought his language to Philadelphia.  What we’re wondering is, you know, how much of that is Laurent Clerc’s influence on Philadelphia signs — but also I think what we believe is more probably is that [06:00] Philadelphia deaf community members tend to stay put, and when that happens you don’t really have contact with other signing deaf — who are using what we now call more standard ASL — and when that happens, you know, your language doesn’t change much.  So, what we think is that these signs, and these older signers, are signing in a way that is pretty similar to how it was longer ago than, you know, in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


FISHER:   Yeah, so —

PORZUCKI: So the roots of, kind of, of ASL are what you are seeing in Philadelphia older signers.

FISHER:   We think so.  I mean, so, for example — here’s an interesting thing.  So, we have a lot of cognates from signed French that we use in standard ASL, for example the sign to search for or to look comes from chercher.  It’s the same sign as it is in even current French Sign Language, and old French Sign Language.  The sign for meet is the same, but one thing that I think we’ve noticed is that there are some Philadelphia signs that are similar to — or the same as — LSF signs, but they’re not in the standard ASL.  So, for the sign for woman is the same —

PORZUCKI: As the French sign.

FISHER:   — as the French sign.  The sign for man is the same as a French sign, the sign for age — or how old — is the same in French sign language, and it’s different in standard ASL.  So, these are — I mean, again — these are lexical differences, but it sort of brings a connection back to the French history. 

PORZUCKI: And the early roots of ASL signing. 

FISHER:   That’s right.

PORZUCKI: That’s really cool. 

FISHER:   Yeah, we’re very excited.

PORZUCKI: Getting back to the Philadelphia School for the Deaf — this is a particularly isolated community, which is what helped sort of cultivate this particular accent.  Or this is the theory that you guys had, and I wonder, like, can you tell me a little bit more about the history?  So, at what point did — is the school — it closed, right?  Or is it still —

FISHER:   Well, no.  So, like, Pennsylvania School for the Deaf started in Center City Philadelphia.  When the time when it started there were very few deaf people, [08:00] there were — I think, you know maybe — 16 people in the school.  But then for about 80 years — I think that’s about right — the campus moved to Mount Airy — which is a section of Philadelphia.  It had a residential school — and this is important — so deaf people learn to sign, not from their parents typically because most of the time deaf people are born to hearing parents — they learn to sign in the deaf school and they do so by living there, and basically living and being educated in the same place with all deaf people, and having exposure to sign language from deaf role models and deaf adults.  The school moved to the Mount Airy campus, and they were there for a very long time.  And as a result of education policy — and I would say some technological changes as well with cochlear implants — deaf people needing eduction in a residential setting, or even an all-deaf setting, was very quickly declining.  So, they had to downsize; they never actually closed, it became a deaf day school.

PORZUCKI: So people are no longer living in this tight-knit community, speaking with the same people everyday — and therefore the accent has become more diffuse, or has slowly started to go away?

FISHER:   Exactly.  What we want to see is, looking at this 1984 demarcation point — which is when the residential school closed — so all of these things have significant influences on the language itself. 

PORZUCKI: Jami Fisher and her research partner, Meredith Tamminga, set out to record some of these signs before they disappear completely — and to do so they recruited Jami’s dad to be one of the interviewers.  Her dad actually boarded and studied at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf when he was growing up.

FISHER:   My father happens to be very interested in the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf history.  He said, “Oh, you know what?  I’ll do a couple, or I’ll do one.  That’s fine.”  And then he did the first one and I could tell he was sort of exhilarated, right?  He’s like, “Yeah, I remember she was using this sign, and — you know — I remember that sign, I forgot about that.  That’s really interesting.”  [10:00] Plus, my father knows a lot of these people.  So, it’s really just — in many ways — a conversation for him.  It’s catching up in some ways, or finding out more information about deaf people and deaf friend’s experiences. 

PORZUCKI: I wonder if there are similar studies around the world of different other accents?

FISHER:   Yeah, there are.  There is something called The BSL Project — which is the British Sign Language Project — where they have about 250 signers who they’ve collected from all over Great Britain, and the idea is that they want to document what they perceive as this standard British Sign Language — but also looking at the regional variations.  And you get that in Australia with The AUSLAN Project, and in Brazil, and Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands…

PORZUCKI: I have so many questions that pop into my head, I feel like we need to do an entire podcast just about — a series of podcasts — just about the different sign languages around the world, and all the different issues that come up with sign.  Growing up in a house where you are the one hearing person for a long time, did you ever feel left out?  Or did you feel like —

FISHER:   Yeah, it’s a good question —

PORZUCKI: — you know, like you sign different?

FISHER:   No, you know, I never felt left out.  Just the opposite, I was very much included.  You know, I think people like me are called CODAs, right — we’re child of deaf adults, or adult child of deaf adults at this point — we’re native and fluent, not just in the language but also the cultural practices, and what is accepted and what is not in deaf communities.  We have this real deep cultural, linguistic understand of our families in our community.  I never felt different.  I think later, growing up, and then sort of navigating the politics of the hearing and deaf worlds — I think that certainly becomes far more complicated.  But in my own experience, you know, look — and I see it in my nieces, too, who are both hearing [12:00] and they have two deaf parents — it’s just what we know.  You know, sign language was our first language — American Sign Language was our first language — and it was not second nature, but it was natural to us.

PORZUCKI: And you never felt like you signed differently?

FISHER:   No, I never felt that way, but I also see that — you know — my parents’ language acquisition experience and the way they learned sign also influenced their signing which influenced my signing. 

PORZUCKI: Did they both learn to sign first?  What is their history?

FISHER:   That’s a good question.  So, my mother — she never signed until she was 12, and so she has this really sort of touching and complicated story of seeing this deaf woman in a park near her house.  And this deaf woman was signing to her baby — who actually happened to be hearing — and my mother basically watched her and followed her home, and this woman took her under her wing and taught her how to sign.  She still went to this deaf school that was oral.  My father went to Pennsylvania School for the Deaf, started very young.  But they were only sort of allowed to sign in the dorms at the time.  At the time, deaf children in most American schools were not allowed to be instructed in sign language — American Sign Language — they were taught orally.  So, my father was punished, basically, for using sign; they were not allowed to use sign.  So, he had exposure to American Sign Language far younger than my mother did, but neither of them grew up in an environment was it was accepted — or even permitted.

PORZUCKI: So, your brother then must’ve learned sign from the very beginning.

FISHER:   He did.

PORZUCKI: In a very different — had a very different experience than —

FISHER:   A very different experience.  Most of his life, I would say — almost all of his life — went to a deaf school and then went to a deaf college, which is not uncommon for deaf people.

PORZUCKI: Jami Fisher, she is currently researching the Philadelphia accent in American Sign Language.

DURANT:   American Sign Language is the native language of deaf people, [14:00] and American Sign Language is completely different than English; it has different grammatical structures and different syntax.

PORZUCKI: Patrick, who is this?

COX: This is Daniel Durant and he’s an actor.  Actually, it’s not actually Durant doing the talking — it’s the voice of somebody else who is interpreting for him.  Durant, he’s actually in a Broadway music right now and —

PORZUCKI: Wait, really?

COX: Yeah, and it’s quite a production.  Eight deaf actors, eight hearing actors, seven musicians — all of them on stage.  They communicate in both ASL and in English to each other and to the audience. 

PORZUCKI: Wow, that’s pretty amazing.

COX: Yeah, it’s kind of a big deal because ASL is — effectively — a foreign language for most Americans, right?

PORZUCKI: Well, yeah.  And — as we learned — more connected to French than anything else, French Sign Language.

COX: Yeah.  From time to time there’s something like an awesome blog post about how it works, or there’s — you know — there’s a write up of — you know, you’ve seen those signers at public events, or at music concerts, who are especially animated and they get a bit of play on the internet. 


COX: Yeah, so once in every while it pops up.  But it doesn’t really enter the consciousness all that much of those of us who aren’t deaf — or, at least, doesn’t my consciousness.  And we heard about this Broadway show from our pals over at another PRI show The Takeaway

PORZUCKI: Great show, The Takeaway, very good show.

COX: And it’s on the radio every day, it’s also a podcast.  And The Takeaway is hosted by John Hockenberry, and here he is on this sign language musical:

HOCKENBERRY:  Back in 2006 the Broadway show Spring Awakening, about the sexual repression of Victorian Europe, with a rock ’n’ roll musical score and teen characters that anticipated the ensemble TV hit Glee — in fact, two of those actors made it to Glee.  In 2006, Spring Awakening was a Tony winning revelation — and [16:00] in 2015 it is once again.  In the current revival of Spring Awakening deaf actors, and hearing actors, and musicians, and dancers combine movement, music and American Sign Language to tell a story about sexual repression — but also the story of intolerance for people with disabilities.  In this case the deaf, forced by hearing culture of the 1800s to communicate “naturally,” through lip reading — not sign language.  ASL, along with sexual liberation, become weapons in a social revolution in this Broadway musical.  The staging is based on the Deaf West theatre production and will continue through January 9th, 2016.  Daniel Durant is deaf and plays Moritz Stiefel, his interpreter in our interview is Dylan Geil.  Alex Boniello is the stage voice of Daniel’s character — singing and speaking his lines in the show.  And Ali Stroker plays Anna, the first wheelchair user to make it to Broadway.  These actors talk about the thrill of being in a blockbuster show that also makes a statement about the power of theatre. 

STROKER:  It was amazing to be in a room with people that have to translate in their own way because that’s what I have to do anytime I’m working on a production; I have to constantly translate movement and whatever is happening on stage to work for me and my situation because I do use a wheelchair.  And it was really cool — we were all just adapting, you know, through the entire process.

HOCKENBERRY:  And you’re in a wheelchair, as you just mentioned, it’s not as though you don’t have something to do already with your hands.

STROKER:  Right, exactly.

HOCKENBERRY:  So, how does that work?  You got to use your hands to move, you got to use your hands to talk. [18:00] You have a great voice, you’ve got that going for you, but that’s a sort of form of theatrical juggling, I think.

STROKER:  Yes, it definitely was.  At the beginning, when we started doing the sign language with choreography — and in the songs — I had to try to figure out what was important.  Like, when could I give a push and then sign, or when was I going to be pushed by someone else and sign?  And, also, we got to the theatre — the Brooks Atkinson on Broadway — and realized that the stage was really old and that there are actually hills within the stage.  So, all of a sudden I take my hands off of my wheels to sign a line and I’d start rolling away.  And, so, we had to figure out a way to have my other cast mates, like, hold onto my chair so I wouldn’t roll away while I was signing a line — or something like that.

HOCKENBERRY:  The character you play, Moritz Stiefel, in the Broadway production, the original Broadway production, was a tragic character — but a secondary character.  In this production you make this character almost central to the entire show — did you have an ambition to make this character something that it wasn’t when you began?

DURANT:   I would say I definitely did.  I want to make sure that Daniel wasn’t on stage — but rather that I was really showcasing Moritz and Mortiz’s story, and I think Mortiz’s story is central to the story of Spring Awakening.  As you said, that character is extremely tragic and it took me a very long time — and I struggled — to embody that tragicness that you speak of, and that you experienced in the show.  And I think, with both my physicality and Alex’s voice, that is the character of Moritz.  And it’s been a really cool experience arriving at that point.

HOCKENBERRY:  To see how your vocalizations, Alex, communicate — and you have a beautiful voice, and the musicality of the show comes through — [20:00] but to have this separate channel of the intense physical tragedy, it’s like the two of you are greater than the sum of your parts.

BONIELLO: You know, I had never met a deaf person before.  So, in my experience I had to very quickly learn how to aid Daniel in telling the story — in this character’s story — and for me that meant, you know, sitting down with him with a script, him showing me the signs for everything, and me learning how to vocalize what a character is feeling.  And, you know, him and I meeting in the middle to decide what the best way to do certain things is — and, you know, working together.  So, that also includes me giving him queues physically; so, I’ll tap myself certain times so he knows what line of a song we’re on, things like that.  So, that’s been my experience of it.  So, it’s been a very strong team effort — especially with me and Daniel.

HOCKENBERRY:  And then, of course, the show is all about sex.

BONIELLO: Sure is.


DURANT:   Definitely.

HOCKENBERRY:  And if there’s any subject that just, you know, you never hear talked about together it’s disability and sexuality.

STROKER:  Correct.  And it’s a part of my life and a story that I’ve been dying to tell.  And I think that Spring Awakening just really resonates for me — and for, probably a lot of young teenagers with disabilities, of feeling like they’re not understand and that they’re not able to communicate their truth around sexuality.  And it’s an honor to be able to tell this story — and, also, for this part of our lives to be exposed on stage. 

HOCKENBERRY:  Now, even though the show is about sexuality, you don’t get any in this show.  But, still, that sense of repression is a part of the story of deaf culture in America.

DURANT:   Of course.  Especially in the scene where we’re in the classroom and the teacher is punishing the deaf children for signing in class.  [22:00] But — as I’ve stated before — that’s our native language, that’s our natural expression of who we are.  And in the 1890s, and even still to this day, deaf people are constantly being reprimanded for using their native language — their signed language.  And so we do have a long history of oppression.

HOCKENBERRY:  Best fan experiences after the show?

STROKER:  It’s cool — a lot of different kinds of people have come to see the show and, you know, of course you think, “Oh, Spring Awakening fans are young teenagers.”  But that’s not really, you know — it’s been such a diverse group of people and it’s really neat to meet them afterwards, it’s really special. 

BONIELLO: Especially seeing the — I think — seeing deaf community come out to see the show.  Completely deaf audience members are getting a chance to see theatre on a world stage.

STROKER:  Musical theatre.

BONIELLO: A musical theatre — right.

STROKER:  That’s so unique.

BONIELLO: And, I mean, Daniel can speak more to this — but they can feel when a song starts.  And, you know, they might not understand — necessarily — what music is, but you feel the rumble of the stage, and of the music.

STROKER:  The drums.

BONIELLO: The drums and everything happening.

DURANT:   It’s been really an extraordinary experience getting to meet with the fans after the show — and, like Ali said, we have a very diverse audience and that’s been wonderful to see.  And some fans have never seen American Sign Language before, never met a deaf person before, and the show inspires them to go home and learn some signs and come back to the show again and show off that they’ve learned a few things in American Sign Language.  It’s such an honor to be in a production that has that kind of value. 

HOCKENBERRY:  Daniel Durant plays Moritz Stiefel in Spring Awakening.  His interpreter during our interview was Dylan Geil.  Alex Boniello is the stage voice of Daniel’s character, and Ali Stroker plays Anna in Spring Awakening — the first wheelchair user to ever make it to Broadway. 

PORZUCKI: [24:00] That’s all for this week.  I really hope that we will continue to dig into different sign languages around the world — it’s a totally fascinating topic and I’m curious to learn a lot more.  I’m Nina Porzucki, you can find me on twitter @porzucki — or the podcast has it’s own new twitter handle @lingopod.  And, as always, thanks for listening.

F4:  Sound works from PRI. 

MONAHAN:  Yo Morty, were you watchin when the Eagles wan last noy-eet?

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