The Enduring Mystery Of 'Jawn', Philadelphia's All-Purpose Noun - Atlas Obscura
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The Enduring Mystery Of ‘Jawn’, Philadelphia’s All-Purpose Noun

According to experts, it’s unlike any word, in any language.

Citizens Bank Park could also be called a jawn. (Photo: Jessica Rossi/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Taylor Jones, a Ph.D student at the University of Pennsylvania, was unfamiliar with the bizarre stew of linguistic quirks in Philadelphia when he first started school there a few years ago. An army brat, it seems like Jones grew up everywhere but eastern Pennsylvania. But one of his first interactions with legendary Penn linguist Bill Labov started him on the road to understanding his new city.

“My introduction to graduate work was being asked about jawn,” says Jones.

As with its architecture, Philadelphia’s accent, syntax, and vocabulary are rarely discussed outside of the city. Words, phrases, and structures have just about the same geographical span as a peanut chew or a Tastykake. Linguists have long been fascinated by the peculiar mid-Atlantic mutations of words like “water” and “creek” (in Philadelphia parlance: “wooder” and “crick”) and an unusual lexicon that includes words like hoagie and jimmies (sub sandwich and sprinkles as on ice cream, respectively), but nothing has captivated them quite like “jawn.”

The word “jawn” is unlike any other English word. In fact, according to the experts that I spoke to, it’s unlike any other word in any other language. It is an all-purpose noun, a stand-in for inanimate objects, abstract concepts, events, places, individual people, and groups of people. It is a completely acceptable statement in Philadelphia to ask someone to “remember to bring that jawn to the jawn.”

View of Center City from Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. (Photo: Jeffrey M. Vinocur/CC BY 2.5)

It is a word without boundaries or limits. Growing up in the suburbs just west of the city, I heard it used mostly to refer to objects and to events. In the new movie Creed, a character asks a sandwich maker to “put some onions on that jawn.” But it can get much more complex; it can refer to abstract nouns like theories; a colleague of Jones routinely refers to “Marxist jawn.” It can also refer to people or groups of people. “Side-jawn,” meaning a someone the speaker cheats on his or her significant other with, “is a uniquely Philly thing as far as I can tell,” says Jones.

“And not something you want to be,” he adds.

Jawn can be singular; “pass me that jawn.” It can be plural, and in a couple of different ways. “Jawns” is fine, but you can also modify “jawn” elsewhere. “You can say ‘jawns,’ but more often it’s going to be, like, ‘where’d you get them jawn,’” says Jones. It can be negative or positive or neutral depending on context.

It is a magical word, and did not come about in a vacuum. The rise of jawn dovetails with breakthroughs in the study of American linguistics itself; what we know about our ever-evolving speech patterns can, in part, be seen through this one weird word.

So let’s start at the beginning: Where does “jawn” come from?

“The consensus is that it came from ‘joint,’ and from New York,” says Jones. Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist who’s written and talked about “jawn” before, agrees, writing in an email that “‘jawn’ evidently developed as a Philly variant of ‘joint’ in the ’80s,” following the release of the popular 1981 single “That’s The Joint” by Funky Four Plus One, an early hip-hop group from the Bronx.

This infuriates Philadelphians, who generally are very proud of their city and culture and most certainly do not want to think that one of their city’s most distinctive words might have a New York origin. Jones told me that he once expressed the New York consensus theory on the local Philadelphia CBS affiliate and “people were furious, writing angry tweets.” Sorry to Philadelphians, but the linguists are pretty sure “jawn” comes from New York. Luckily, it’s far outstripped its roots since its move south.

The word “joint” has a much older set of meanings. Originally from the Latin iunctus, it was Old French that turned it into “joint,” meaning a connection or association, multiple things coming together, a juncture. The definition broadened in the American southeast around the time of emancipation, with the prominence of “juke joints,” bars and clubs that served as safe spaces for black Americans to come together and hang out. The concept of a joint as a place expanded a bit, and is still in use today; think of a pizza joint.

There are a few other meanings of joint, the drug slang being the most common. Since “joint” was used already as a place, and specifically, in the minds of some Americans, as a disreputable place, it came to be used for other disreputable places: betting parlors at first, then opium dens. The opium joint led to the word becoming kind of a general purpose slang in the drug world for paraphernalia, and by the 1950s the word was firmly and commonly understood to refer to a cigarette-like roll of marijuana.

Funky Four Plus One’s use, though, is one of the earliest recorded uses of the word as a kind of general, positive term. Calling something “the joint” means it’s something you like, something that you connect with, and a slight tweak of that to “my joint” means that it’s something that you cheerfully embrace as yours.

In Philadelphia, a phenomenon occurred, first with the word “joint” and later with its mutation “jawn,” known in the linguistic community as “semantic bleaching.” The term refers to a word that, though originally it has one or a small number of specific meanings, eventually loses the shades of meaning and becomes something much more broad and general. An example would be “awesome,” which originally meant “inspiring awe or fear,” and was used more often to refer to scary things than good things.

Usually semantic bleaching works like that, little chips at the word’s original meaning. But joint/jawn, in Philly, has come to be so broad as to encompass basically anything.

The Liberty Bell. (Photo: Zach Flanders/CC BY 2.0)

There are a few instances where “jawn” can be used but “joint,” in, say, New York, cannot. “In Philly you can say ‘I have a lot of jawn to do for school,’” says Jones. “You can’t say in New York, ‘I have a lot of joint to do.’” Neither Jones nor I have ever heard “joint” used to refer to people or groups of people; typically it’s for objects or items. Joint is like a lesser jawn. It tries, but it has limits.

Thanks to a few key linguists, we have some actual hard data on the very important era in Philadelphia when “jawn” began to take hold. Bill Labov, starting in the 1970s, began to make systematic recordings of speakers in Philadelphia, a project that would eventually become the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus. It is, as the site says, “by far the largest single sociolinguistic corpus of any speech community.” Neighborhood by neighborhood, person by person, linguists blanketed Philadelphia and recorded thousands of hours of Philadelphians speaking.

One such recording, in 1981, is of paramount interest to Jones and other jawn-philes. A young black male Philadelphian from a West Philly neighborhood was recorded using what’s probably an in-between point in the evolution of jawn. He used the word “joint,” but the ways in which he used that word are completely in tune with the way “jawn” is used in Philadelphia today, much more broad than the way “joint” was used in New York either then or now. “He used it to mean a bag, like a bag of chips; a physical place; a variety of different women, like Puerto Rican joints versus Irish joints; and his own genitalia,” says Jones.

This meaning of joint was at least understood by the interviewer, who didn’t have to, you know, stop this guy and say “wait, what the hell are you talking about,” so it’s possible that this insanely thorough semantic bleaching took hold a little while before the interview, sometime in the late 1970s.

Philadelphia in 1976. (Photo: Drew Jacksich/CC BY 2.0)

Race also plays a big role in the word’s evolution and usage. White Philadelphians, notes Jones, are quick to note that they too use the word jawn, and that it’s a Philly thing and not just a black Philly thing. The data from the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus is a little too outdated, Jones thinks, to make a definitive statement either way, but he opined white Philadephians seemed to use it in a more limited way, not really exploring its full breadth and range.

Not so with the city’s black population.

The advent of African-American Vernacular English, or AAVE,  dovetails with jawn in some pretty important ways. Until the 1960s and early 1970s, the way black Americans speak was seen as simply an incorrect version of standard, meaning white, American English. One of, perhaps the most, important pioneer who broke down that assumption in the linguistic community was Bill Labov. (Labov did not respond to a request for an interview; Jones, who has studied with him, says he’s “enjoying his retirement.”)

In 1969, Labov published a revolutionary paper, “A Study of Non-Standard English,” which argued that the way black Americans speak, with some slight geographic variation, is an English dialect that mathematically follows the same rules as any other English dialect. The alterations from standard American English are consistent and can be understood by any speaker, and the history of black people in this country provides a historical basis for isolation which can produce these kinds of systematic changes in language. In other words, the way black people speak isn’t wrong or lesser; it’s just a different dialect, as legitimate as any other. It’s hard to overstate the importance of that study. He called it BEV, Black English Vernacular, at the time, but it’s now known as AAVE.

Labov’s work provoked an explosion of interest in AAVE in the 1970s, and though New York became perhaps the most important study location, it was Philadelphia, where Labov worked, that created the Corpus, the best records of AAVE recordings in history. And it was right around then that Philadelphians started saying “jawn.”

The word “joint” has been modified more than once; in Washington, DC, there’s a version that sounds more like “jont” or “jahnt,” and in Memphis, there’s one that’s somewhere between “jaint” and “jeent.” But in Philadelphia, the change from “joint” to “jawn” followed a few pretty standard AAVE rules.

The vowel sound in “joint” is a diphthong, meaning it’s two smaller vowel sounds that act like a single vowel sound. “The first vowel in ‘oi,’ for most people, is the same vowel in ‘jawn,’ an ‘aw’ sound,” says Jones. I stopped him here: Isn’t that first part of that vowel more like “oh”? Isn’t the diphthong a combination of “oh” and “ee”? Joh-ee-nt?

Nope, says Jones. “In IPA,” the International Phonetic Alphabet, which transcribes sounds as letters, “it’s represented as ‘aw’ ‘ih,’” he says. “It feels like it’s ‘oh’ ‘ee,’ but phonetically, that’s not actually how we tend to pronounce it. If you take measurements of people’s speech, it tends to be something closer to ‘aw’ and to ‘ih.’” Okay then: Jaw-ih-nt.

Another element: “African-American English often, but not always, does a thing where final P, T, and K become a glottal stop,” says Jones. Glottal stops are pretty hard to hear; they’re not all that common in American English, though they’re extremely common in British English. It’s kind of a very soft consonant made by the closing of your throat. The classic example is the sound in the middle of the word “uh-oh.” Many Brits, and some New Yorkers, will also throw a glottal stop in the middle of words like “button” and “mountain,” so the former becomes “buh-uhn.”

Eliminating the final consonant and turning it into a glottal stop is something that happens in AAVE with certain combinations of sounds; you can hear it here when noted Canadian idiot Nardwuar asks Travis Scott how he keeps his pants up. His answer? “Belt.”

You can hear in the song “That’s The Joint” that, sometimes, the first part of that vowel sound is lengthened in enthusiasm; it’s more like “jaaawwwwweent.” And because so much of that word is now taken up by the “aw” sound, and the final consonant is basically negated because it’s now a glottal stop, the diphthong is now more like a monophthong. Hence: joint becomes jawn.

But why did this happen in Philly? Why is Philly, of all places, home to this most bizarre of words?

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Jones laughs. Asking a linguist “why” anything happens is usually a quick way to elicit a shrug. Jones, more than most other linguists I’ve talked to, seems interested in the “why,” but is equally powerless to find an answer; “how,” “what,” and “when” are much more concrete beginnings of questions for linguists. But there are some theories.

The specific lengthening of “aw” in Philadelphia is possibly because of the one major similarity that Philadelphia has with New York, linguistically: “ah” sounds are often changed to an exaggerated “aw,” in words like “caught.” (New Yorkers are more extreme, with their “cauu-ffee,” but Philadelphians do this too.) Further south, in DC and Memphis, the New York influence is lessened, and so while they also changed the sound of the word “joint,” they did it in different, more southern ways.

The Rocky statue next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.(Photo: Stefan Ogrisek/CC BY 2.0)

A possibility is that the mutation happened in such an extreme way because Philadelphia is, in some ways, an extreme kind of place. A recent feature from 538 placed Philadelphia as the fourth-most racially segregated major city in the country, behind only Chicago, Atlanta, and Milwaukee. Jones says that it’s possible that Philadelphia’s segregation encouraged the changing and adoption of jawn; black Philadelphians and white Philadelphians don’t mingle nearly as much as, say, black New Yorkers and white New Yorkers, so a word created or altered in the black community can develop without outside influence.

Certainly, says Jones, the white and black dialects in Philly  are diverging in very specific, notable ways. You can hear it in a word like “bag,” which white Philadelphians will sometimes pronounce more like “byeag,” an almost nasal, Midwest-y kind of sound. Black Philadelphians are moving more towards an “eh” sound for that vowel, so “bag” is more like “beg.” Or “backpack” becomes “beckpeck.” That change isn’t unusual in itself—those two movements are the most common changes from the standard vowel in “bag,” across the country—but the fact that white Philadelphia picked one movement and black Philadelphia picked another is just more evidence of the effect segregation has on linguistics.

Jones does say, though, that when segregation creates words like jawn, they usually don’t happen alone. Typically you’d find a whole class of words with similar histories, and there aren’t really any companions to jawn in Philadelphia. The word “point,” for example, isn’t pronounced “pawn” in black Philadelphia.

But it is possible that the meaning preceded the sound: as evidenced by that 1981 West Philly speaker, “joint” already had a meaning specific to Philadelphia, a unique feature within the various black communities in the city. So when the sound mutation happened, it only affected that one word, because only that one word was unusual enough to mean something different in Philly than it meant in New York or DC. Jawn isn’t “joint” pronounced with a Philly accent. Jawn is a whole world, unto itself.