When a new handbook for Philadelphia School District teachers and counselors came out this month with a slang glossary written by students, the words immediately struck me. Their list was very up-to-the-moment Philly, but some of the spellings, to me, were just … off.
That wasn't the only word that I side-eyed.
“How else people spell it?” asked Shevon Murray, a senior at Girls High School, while sitting inside City View Pizza in Ogontz with friends. Murray, 17, spells it “boul.”
"Like b-u-l-l?" Murray continued. "Because that's an animal."
Kharee Moore, 20, who spells it "b-u-l," views alternate spellings in his group chats as obvious mistakes. He doesn't always speak up if he thinks slang has been misspelled, especially if the sender doesn't know him well.
But if the person texting is closer to him, that's different. His friends get hit with corrections.
I put up an informal poll on Philly.com asking readers to vote on the spellings of five Philly slang words, with options based on variations found online. What won?
It's "boul." And someone with behavior that's out of line could be "drawlin."
Naomi S. Baron, a linguistics professor at American University, says that what might be happening with "salty" is something that happens in language all the time: Speakers often repurpose standard words with new meanings, and that lingo can also sprout newer variations.
Where do these spellings come from? There's little scholarship on that. There are those who trace "ocky" to the Arabic word for "my brother," thus the spelling "ahki."
When Christopher Williams is texting, the 36-year-old Olney resident looks for the word that's "closer to the sound." He explained, "I'm figuring that the person will automatically understand what I'm saying."
Baron, who studies the impacts of digital communication, likens this to trying to write a spoken-only language. Or texting on a keyboard with a an alphabet different from your own. Using a regional dialect raises more considerations.
"The sound system of African American English is different than classroom American English," said Jones, who has researched the appearance of African American English and its geographic varieties on social media. "It's harder to fit the sounds of any nonstandard dialect into standard spelling… The standard spelling almost assumes or imposes an accent."
The varied spellings of yamsayin, he ventured, could reflect myriad attempts to capture how the vowel in its first syllable should hit the ear.
"There's a lot of high-level processing going on to figure out how to write stuff down."
Drawlin has varied pronunciations, from leaning on the l, to vocalizing it lightly, to treating it as silent. Murray, like 18 percent of poll respondents, spells it as simply "drawn." Some residents have noticed that uses may vary if the speaker opts to conjugate: You drawlin, for the present, but you was drawn or even you drew for the past.
Baron suspects that differing forms may hint toward distinctions in social groups. Baron and Jones agree that these shifts are how language evolves.
Moore figures that some alternate stylings come from kids pulling older slang "up to date." For instance, he picked up how to text from an older sibling.
"I picked up on it, and I knew what it meant," he said. "My younger generation, they basically spell it a different way."
Murray said that sometimes she changes the spelling according to her mood. Classmate Ashley Murphy, 17, agreed. How she texts "ard," which is super short for "all right," changes based on whether she's "fed up" or not.
Jones sees commonalities with how social media users spell and respell to how graffiti writers in Pompeii presented vulgar Latin. Even Pompeii, he wrote, had something like subtweets: "Samius to Cornelius: Go hang yourself!" Centuries later, the desire to represent oneself in writing persists.
"People sometimes intentionally go out of their way to write how they sound on social media," said Jones. When social media users choose a regional marker like "youngboul," he said, they are trying to reflect how they talk. They also may be projecting how they want people to see them. Williams, for his part, is particular about the audience that gets to read that voice of his.
“You can’t use it with everybody,” he said. “I use it strictly with who I know is going to understand me and relate to me.”