Don't let 'yinz' hold you back
When Miss Shanahan, my third-grade teacher, corrected me for mispronouncing “just” — I was pronouncing it “jist” — she created in me a lifelong interest in language. At the time, I had no idea what a Pittsburgh accent was; all I knew was that my beloved teacher had noted that my pronunciation was flawed, and I wanted to correct it.
If you grew up with a Pittsburgh accent, you may consider it a harmless habit that doesn't need to be shaken, or you may, like me, want to eliminate it entirely. Your opinion is likely to depend on where you are in your career. Executives and professionals generally strive to eliminate accents that are considered detrimental to their careers, and to hold on to an accent that could further them. An English accent, for example, sounds lofty and educated, but a Brooklyn accent? No one wants to claim that one!
“While a regional accent can have a history and a certain charm, it can, unfortunately, also have a negative perception associated with it,” says Lynda Stucky, president of Moon-based ClearlySpeaking. “A regional accent, such as the one we hear in Pittsburgh, can cause listeners not to take a speaker seriously. Since the use of Pittsburghese has the perception of making the speaker sound uneducated —which, in turn, makes them less credible — I encourage professionals to consider their professional goals. If a communication style doesn't align with their goals, it is likely to hold them back.”
Stucky, a speech pathologist who coaches executives and professionals to lose accents or otherwise improve their speaking habits, says that the mispronunciation of diphthongs — two vowels that come together to form one vowel — is at the heart of a Pittsburgh accent. Thus, we say “dahntahn” instead of “downtown” and “Terrible Tahl” instead of “Terrible Towel.”
I often refer to Pittsburghese as “lazy mouth” because it seems to me that if we would just stretch open our mouths a little more, the words would come out better. Then, we would say “I'm” instead of “Um”; “for” instead of “fer”; and “their” instead of “ther.”
Wondering if you have a noticeable Pittsburgh accent? Record your voice while talking on the phone or in conversation with a friend. Stucky says, “I videotape and audiotape clients so that they can see and hear themselves.”
Stucky once worked with a high-level executive who flatly denied she had a Pittsburgh accent, so Stucky asked to videotape her. “As she watched her video, she was stunned to realize that she had said “n'at” 15 times in one minute. Once her awareness was there, she learned to substitute with silence.”
Writing this column about regional accents reminded me of a time years ago when I was shopping at Harrod's in London. A saleswoman with a regional accent asked me no fewer than three times if I needed help. Unfortunately, due to her heavy accent, I had to ask her to repeat the question again and again. The third time, I asked her — with all sincerity — if she was speaking English. She turned in a huff and walked away. It seemed she was a wee bit upset with me, but then again, maybe she was just busy redding up the sale merchandise.
Chris Posti is president of Posti & Associates in Pittsburgh. She can be reached via e-mailor at 724-344-1668.