Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Elizabethan Accents in Philadelphia

{William Shakespere}
William Shakespeare

The following is nearly verbatim recounting of a conversation which took place in Philadelphia, between two Philadelphians, in the year 2006, Elizabeth II reigning. The scene is the dressing room for the basement exercise area of a private club. There are about forty stalls for members to hang up their clothes before going into the gym. Although clothes are usually seen hanging in no more than three or four stalls, on this particular day there was only one empty stall, at the far end of the long corridor.

FIRST STRANGER: Well, we certainly have a lot of athletes in the club, today.

SECOND STRANGER: You're very generous with that description of our members.

FIRST STRANGER: Perhaps I ought to call them athlete-wannabees.

SECOND STRANGER: Yes, that's apt.


Shakespeare would have expressed it a little better, but anyone can recognize in this little exchange, the elements of those short interlude scenes in Shakespearean plays. The bit players create brief background while the stagehands shift scenery between major acts. Nobody actually has an Elizabethan accent these days, but in Quaker and Upper-Crust Philadelphia circles, the Elizabethan manner of speaking pops out at odd moments, as a coded way of asking strangers, "Are you a native Philadelphian? You sort of look like one." If the stranger doesn't seem to grasp the idea, well, let it pass.

Elizabeth I

In the more remote sections of the Delmarva peninsula, it is claimed the natives often do speak in a pure Elizabethan accent. Somehow I am dubious of that, having listened for it over sixty years of travel in those regions. Rural Delaware talks with a softened version of a Southern accent, even softer than you hear in Tidewater Virginia. It's hard to believe that Marlowe and Shakespeare talked like that. But go into a roadside coffee shop and listen to the truck drivers joshing the waitress; it's not an accent but an Elizabethan manner of address that's recognizable. They self-consciously stop talking that way when obvious strangers come into the shop.

Because of Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictionary, Shakespearean adjectives pepper English speech in all regions of the world. Johnson was a theater critic in his early days, so when he needed familiar quotations to illustrate the words in his dictionary, he drew heavily from Shakespeare. William Shakespeare's tendency to invent likely vocabulary was thus enshrined by Johnson's dictionary as

Originally published: Monday, June 19, 2006; most-recently modified: Thursday, May 16, 2019