Indignity Vol. 2, No. 20: The mysterious lingo of Philadelphia–Baltimore.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 20: The mysterious lingo of Philadelphia–Baltimore.

We're Never Finished the Discoveries About How We Talk

IF YOU COME from Baltimore, you know you talk funny. It's not a problem. Those of us from Baltimore speak a specific regional dialect, with a specific accent, but—whether we speak the white or the Black variety—we also believe we're generally aware when we are doing it. We have heard how other people, from other places talk, and we understand what's different about us.

This is why I, and a lot of other people, were shocked to read a tweet from @the_megalopolis saying they had just read that using a phrase like "I'm done my homework" is a Philadelphia–Baltimore regionalism, rather than standard American English.

A Twitter poll of my own followers—a group in which I assume Baltimore Orioles fans would be overrepresented—came out three-to-one against the notion that this is a normal thing to say.

This was baffling. I notice when I'm saying "idn't" or "wadn't" for "isn't" or "wasn't," or leaving out the "to" from "going over his house," and I switch away from those when I'm being formal or talking to someone from somewhere else. And I like to think I know what I can't control: no matter how many decades I've spent being socialized to the generic educated language of the Northeast, people are still going to think I'm saying "Tom and Todd wait for no man." In Greece, I just give up and let someone else order the ouzo. EUW-zoe. OOOH-zoh. (Retsina.)

But I simply can't hear what other people—75 percent of my sample!—are hearing, or not hearing, when they balk at the "am done [noun]" construction: Are you done your work? I'm done my work, so when we're done dinner, we can take a walk. To me, "I'm done my work" is exactly as normal-sounding as "I'm done working."

This usage, the linguists Josef Fruehwald and Neil Myler wrote in a 2015 paper, is "an understudied construction found in Philadelphian and Canadian English, and also in certain Vermont varieties." Their article, "I'm done my homework—Case assignment in a stative passive," argues that within dialects that use "done my [noun]," or its sibling "finished my [noun]," the usage is "fully productive and non-idiomatic." That is, it can be modified into various other grammatical forms ("I could have been done my homework if I hadn't stopped to watch Taxi") and it's not restricted to some preexisting set of stock phrases ("I'm done my NFT").

Fruehwald and Myler rejected the notion that when we say "I'm done my homework," we're just mangling or abbreviating "I've done my homework" or "I'm done with my homework." It is a construction of its own, with its own underlying rules and shades of meaning. In the Philadelphia–Baltimore usage, for instance, "Are you done with your fries?" means "Can I eat your remaining fries?"; "Are you done your fries?" would mean "Are your fries gone, so we can leave McDonald's now?"

But useful though it may be, this construction remains mostly invisible, apart from the occasional linguistic discussion. The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project maintains an updated map of self-reported usage, which clusters in a line along the Northeast, with a gap around New York City before it reappears in northern New England.

Fruehwald, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, talked with me on the phone about how the phrase works, and why some regional language differences get noticed while others remain in obscurity. Thanks to his own native Philadelphia accent, the automated transcription service kept thinking he was saying "where" when he said "or." Our conversation has been edited (including to remove a lively but hard-to-read discussion of which vowel sounds we each use when we say "ride," "write," and "spider").

INDIGNITY:  I'm familiar with regional habits. I feel like I've got a good command of them. I understand that when I'm saying. "I'm going over Bob's house," I drop "to."

JOSEF FRUEHWALD: Yeah, so Baltimore and Philadelphia are really similar. If we're doing dialectal classifications for white Philadelphians, and white Baltimoreans, they'd be in the same sort of family of dialect, let's say, in North America. In Philly, though, the stereotype is also where the common phrases are, you know, "going down the Shore."

INDIGNITY: Right, "downey ocean" in Baltimore.

FRUEHWALD: Or "up the Poconos." I understand why you're bringing that one up, because it seems like maybe we're dropping the "to."

INDIGNITY: And it feels folksy to say it. That's a thing I think it's pretty easy to notice and stop doing. So what distinguishes the "done my homework" construction to me—and it seems a lot of other people from Baltimore and Philly—is a genuine surprise that this doesn't land—

FRUEHWALD: That not everybody can say it.

INDIGNITY: Yeah, that it doesn't land as standard English on other people's ears, because it just feels like a different sort of grammatical entity than other regionalisms or folksy sayings, and so I'm trying to understand what might account for that perception, and how this phrase works.

FRUEHWALD: Importantly, at least in the analysis I've done, and there's been some other research on it, with "I'm done my homework"—it's not just this phrase, "I'm done my homework." If you turn it into a question, "Are you done your homework?"—that's also not a sentence people would say elsewhere, outside of Philadelphia, or Canada. They wouldn't really understand, or they would understand what you're trying to say but it doesn't sound like a sentence they would say.

Or if I said, if I was decorating the house, and I said, "This is the room that I'm finished, but I'm still working on other rooms," people elsewhere also wouldn't like that one, right? So it's a very general syntactic construction that can be transformed, that is possible in the Philadelphia area, Baltimore, and Canada, that is just not used or constructed in other areas of North America.

One thing that does distinguish it from say, "I'm going up the mountains" or "down the Shore," is with "going up the mountains" or "down the Shore," we are omitting a "to," like "I'm going down to the Shore." But there's nothing being omitted from "I am done my homework."

INDIGNITY: Although people from elsewhere maintain that you must be omitting a "with."

FRUEHWALD: And I understand why, because that's the most similar kind of sentence to "I'm done my homework" that they can say.

INDIGNITY: But it's a different proposition.

FRUEHWALD: For example, if me and my wife are cooking dinner at home, and she's using the cutting board, and I need it now, I can say, "Are you done with the cutting board?" But I can't say, "Are you done the cutting board? "

INDIGNITY: Absolutely. That's my understanding. That's part of it. And that's part of why these theories that we're just dropping a word don't make sense.

FRUEHWALD: 'Cause they're not interchangeable.

INDIGNITY: Right. And "I have finished my homework"—to me, that's a different statement as well. I'd be more likely to use that if someone is challenging whether I've done my homework.

How do people come to recognize dialects, or recognize dialects as being different from each other?

FRUEHWALD: And we had other sorts of analyses, too. You can take a sentence like—OK, so I'm doing dishes, right? So if I said "I have finished the dishes," I can take that sentence from active voice and turn it into passive voice. So I can say, "The dishes have been finished by me."

I can't do that with "I am finished the dishes." I can't say "The dishes was been finished by me," or "The dishes were been finished by me." That's not possible.

It's not always clear that it has a different meaning. But it's not interchangeable. That's the important part. If you're somebody who says "I am done my homework," it's not like just dropping the "with" or using the verb "to be" instead of the verb "to have" in some kind of past tense form.

INDIGNITY: Because you're describing a state that you've attained.

FRUEHWALD: With the cutting board example, if I was making a cutting board, I could say, "I am done the cutting board." Right? Or if I was washing the cutting board. I could say "I'm finished the cutting board." But if I'm using it, then I have to say "I'm done with." And I think when other people from other dialects hear it, they sort of maybe translate it in their mind to the closest equivalent they have in their variety.

Then the question is, why does this thing fly under the radar, versus other kinds of things? And I don't think the answer is going to come from something to do with the meaning of the construction, or the syntax of the construction. This is where we get into less about syntax and more about sociolinguistics, in general. How do people come to recognize dialects, or recognize dialects as being different from each other?

I grew up and went to school in Philadelphia my whole life. And then I went to college at Penn, still in Philadelphia. And it wasn't till I went to college, and started meeting more people who weren't from Philadelphia, that I learned that the way I say "water" [Ed. note: "wooder"] is not the way everybody does, right? There's nothing about the pronunciation itself that makes you realize this is a particular way of saying it, until it contrasts with how people speak from some other place, or till somebody says to you, "Wait, what did you just say?"

INDIGNITY: Because you've presumably been watching, like, national television broadcasts and movies where people say "water," right?

We finally got around to watching Mare of Easttown. There was a lot of press about, you know, Kate Winslet had a really hard time doing the Philly accent, there was a lot of press about the dialect work in the TV show. But I heard a character on TV say “Your grandmom’s gonna be excited to see you” or something like that. And it suddenly clicked with me that I’d never heard somebody say “grandmom” on TV before.

FRUEHWALD: Here's another example, I've been studying Philadelphia English, academically, for—I'd say 2007 or so, however many years that is. But still, I feel like my life is a continuing sequence of learning that things I say are really particular to Philadelphia and are not used everywhere. The most recent example I had was—well, let me ask you, I don't know what it's like in Baltimore. What do you call one of your parents' mother?

INDIGNITY: Like my grandmothers?

FRUEHWALD: There's "grandmother," that's sort of like official—


FRUEHWALD: "Grandma," you say?

INDIGNITY: Yeah, "grandma."

FRUEHWALD: Okay. So maybe this is a difference between—even between Philadelphia and Baltimore? I say "grandmom."

INDIGNITY: "Grandma"...? You say "grandmama," with two M's?


INDIGNITY: "Grandmom"! That's interesting. Huh.

FRUEHWALD: So that's not familiar to you?

INDIGNITY: I mean, I know that the word "grandmom" exists, but it doesn't feel like something I would ever say. And what's striking to me about that is that my dad is from Philly. So I feel like it's possible that on some of these things, I have double reinforcement of it being both a Baltimore thing and a Philly thing, but yeah, "grandmom" feels weird to me.

FRUEHWALD: What about "grandpop"?

INDIGNITY: I think my Philly cousins say "grandpop"! And I don't.

FRUEHWALD: OK, that's super interesting. So I just had that realization, like, last week, because we finally got around to watching Mare of Easttown. There was a lot of press about, you know, Kate Winslet had a really hard time doing the Philly accent, there was a lot of press about the dialect work in the TV show. But I heard a character on TV say "Your grandmom's gonna be excited to see you" or something like that. And it suddenly clicked with me that I'd never heard somebody say "grandmom" on TV before.

There's a word mapper that you can check out online to see where people say certain words, and I looked up "grandmom," and what do you know? It's like Philadelphia and South Jersey pretty exclusively, which blew my mind. How had I never realized that? I've lived a bunch of different places now, since I finished my my Ph.D. And people say all sorts of things, "grandmom"—or no, no, they don't say "grandmom," they say "gramma," or "gran" or "nana" or "nan," people say all sorts of things. Just nobody had ever said, "Oh, 'grandmom,' I've never heard that one before," so it never occurred to me that it might be particular just to my variety.

So why do some words develop this notoriety? It might be just some words and some constructions, some pronunciations, might just be by their nature more likely to happen in conversation and then be more likely to be discussed. Like "hoagie," you know, food words. Or "soda," "pop," or whatever.

INDIGNITY: I just had a bizarre experience talking to a friend of mine from northern New Jersey, because we were talking about this. And, I said to him, "Look, you know, it's not like—"

FRUEHWALD: Does your friend from northern New Jersey say "I'm done my homework," or not?

INDIGNITY: No, it's totally alien to him.

FRUEHWALD: I don't have good data on the exact borders of where it doesn't and doesn't go. I'm excited to hear that it's in Baltimore, honestly. It gives me a better idea of the contours of it.

But you were talking to your friend from New Jersey?

INDIGNITY: Yeah, and I was trying to explain how strange it is that this sounds alien to other people. And I was like, "It's not like—people from New York, you know, they know that nobody else says 'wait on line.'"

And he's like, "Wait, they do what? You don't say 'wait on line'?"

I was like, "How do you not know that nobody else in America says 'wait on line'?" But somehow he didn't. He was, to me, shockingly unaware nobody but New York says "on line."

In Southeastern PA—who knows how far out the borders of it go—we say, “I’m done my homework.” And people from Western PA will be like, “What?” But in Western PA, they’ll say something like “The car needs washed” or “The dog wants washed.” And over here in the Philly area, we’re like “Huh?”

FRUEHWALD: Or to another sort of geographic split, in Southeastern PA—who knows how far out the borders of it go—we say, "I'm done my homework." And people from Western PA will be like, "What?" But in Western PA, they'll say something like "The car needs washed" or "The dog wants washed." And over here in the Philly area, we're like "Huh?" But a lot of people who say "The car needs washed," "The dog wants walked," don't realize that's not something they say everywhere.

When we're acquiring language, these words and phrases don't come to us labeled as "Oh, this is something people only say here, but this is something they say everywhere." There's not like a sticker on it that tells us how general these words and phrases are versus how regionally specific they are.

INDIGNITY: Although, you know, you're reading books.

FRUEHWALD: But it's really hard to learn from the absence of evidence. So no matter how many books I read, the fact that they never say "I'm done my homework" doesn't mean they couldn't say "I'm done my homework," right? The fact that other people don't say it won't strike me, until they say, "Wait, you say that?"

INDIGNITY: This feels like a super-dumb question, but again, this is all about something that was just not registering with me suddenly registering. Are we talking here about, like, does this construction extend to, "I'm done writing"?


INDIGNITY: "I'm done cooking"? That would be normal to anyone?

FRUEHWALD:  Yes. Or at least I believe so. I always need to double check. But yeah, that's OK. And so is "I'm done." Or "I'm finished." And so is—let's say you're baking bread. So is "The bread's done," or "The bread is finished." It's just when this "be finished" phrase has a subject and an object that it's kind of surprising. "I am done the bread." That's when it's surprising. But "I'm done"—not surprising. "The bread is done"—that's not surprising.

It's only when the object is a noun phrase. So "I'm done baking" with that gerund, you know, verbal noun, that's OK. Or that's not strange to people from elsewhere.

That's not a dumb question. That's exactly the kind of thing that, when I was trying to figure out what the syntax of this construction was—those are exactly the kinds of contours I had to work out. What can other people say and what can't they say?

INDIGNITY: Because to me, there's no difference between the gerund and the noun. It's the same sentence, like—"I'm done cooking." "I'm done dinner." I'm expressing the precise same—

FRUEHWALD: So the real mystery—syntax is not my primary area of research, I focus a lot more on pronunciation. So I collaborated with a friend of mine, Neil Myler, who is a good syntactician, and also does not say this, which was the best kind of collaboration, because he could double check with me, and I could double check with him, what we could or couldn't say.

INDIGNITY: Where's he from?

FRUEHWALD: He's from Northern England. So a whole other situation. But working on this, we worked out in the formal syntax, what the syntax of this construction is. Philadelphians, Baltimoreans, Canadians, what is the structure they're using when they say this? And we ruled out the possibility that there's a "with" in there, but being dropped. We ruled out the possibility that it might be "I have done my homework," that's a different kind of situation. We pulled out a whole bunch of things and worked out what the syntax of this construction is.

The fact that they never say “I’m done my homework” doesn’t mean they couldn’t say “I’m done my homework,” right? The fact that other people don’t say it won’t strike me, until they say, “Wait, you say that?”

So you know what Philadelphians are saying. But the mystery there that remains is, why can't everyone say that? On that point, we had to get a little speculative.

The difference between a noun phrase and a gerund is important for reasons in syntax that are too boring to get into. But that's a known kind of difference. What's more mysterious is why some people can put a noun phrase as the object and other people can't. Honestly, I think it's a little bit more mysterious, knowing that some people can say this: what is it about other people's varieties of English that makes it impossible?


FRUEHWALD: 'Cause if we worked it out, why? Why is it not possible everywhere?

INDIGNITY: Again, it's unlike so many other regionalisms in that it's just—I cannot make myself understand how people don't hear this as standard English.

FRUEHWALD: When I was taking syntax classes to learn about syntactic structures and how they work, a lot of them involve—to figure out what is part of English syntax, and what is not, sometimes involves coming up with very complicated sentences to see, is that possible or impossible? But "I am done my homework" felt like a really simple kind of sentence. And it's just shocking that it's not fully possible everywhere, right?

I think the word you used earlier was like, it didn't register before? And there's an actual term in sociolinguistics, called enregisterment. And it's not a linguistic process, but a social process where certain words or phrases or constructions or pronunciations come to be recognized as particular to a place or a kind of person.

Everybody knows that in Philadelphia, they say "hoagie." Nobody knows that in Philadelphia they say "grandmom." Even though both are there, right? There's always a vast pool of things that could become enregistered, become a recognized and, kind of importantly, discussed component of a regional variety. And it's only ever a small subset of things that do cross that enregistrement border.

Which ones do and which ones don't, I don't know that there's necessarily anything systematic about it. It's kind of by chance. I think there's more and more discussion I've seen online—like you're writing about it, more and more people are suddenly realizing and discussing it about "I am done my homework"—that it might soon cross that boundary and become enregistered and be noticeable to people.

I don't know what the timeline on such a thing is. If that seems like the direction of travel for this construction, maybe that's me being egocentric because I've written about it, but there's more and more talk about it. So it might happen.

INDIGNITY: That noun/gerund distinction just feels like something I can't really imagine myself training my brain to do. I don't understand why I would institute this rule that would simply get in the way of my saying extremely straightforward things that I've been saying and hearing all my life. But it is very strange to be apprised that it sounds weird to anyone, because I've certainly been in professional settings, where I would not think I'm letting my hair loose, where I would say, "Yeah, I'm done my piece now."

FRUEHWALD: I think the other thing that is still flying under the radar of recognition is, when you're talking to somebody, and like focusing on the story they're telling you or what they're trying to communicate, if they use a turn of phrase or a syntactic construction that is not something you can say, you might not always realize that happened.

I've found this talking to people. I'm trying to figure out what the borders of the construction are. I'll say to them, "Can you say 'I'm done my homework'?" and they'll repeat back to me, "I've done my homework." If you hear something that's a little bit off from what you're expecting, you'll just kind of change it in your mind and not realize that it was a slightly different thing that was said.

INDIGNITY: OK. I think that was pretty much everything I wanted to ask, as far as I can tell. I think we're, you know, you could say we're done the interview.

FRUEHWALD: Yeah, we're done the interview! Great.

INDIGNITY: Thanks very much.