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Pittsburghese a source of pride for 'Yinzers'

Mary Pickels
| Sunday, Oct. 24, 2010

"Hey, yinz guys, wanna go dahntahn and get a jumbo sammich?"

To paraphrase comedian Jeff Foxworthy, if you understand that sentence, you might be a Western Pennsylvanian.

Examples of the dialect sometimes called "Pittsburghese" can be heard everywhere from radio skits (think WDVE's "Pants 'n Nat") to YouTube videos. And it's spoken far outside the city limits.

Brianna Robertson, 22, a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania's speech language pathology program, researched the dialect while an undergraduate. Her mother, Dr. Shari Robertson, 52, IUP professor of speech language and pathology, was her faculty adviser. The two presented "Convergence and Divergence Trends of the Western Pennsylvania Dialect" at a national convention last year.

The Robertsons found that the dialect is distinguished as much by grammar and meaning as through pronunciation habits.

Differences in dialects show up in vowel sounds. An example is the "aw" sound when many native Western Pennsylvanians say "mom," "pop" and "dollar," instead of the more common "ah" sound.

"Yinzers" throw in other sounds to words, "warshing" our cars or planting "elum" trees.

Sometimes we drop a sound, changing a "battry" or waving a Terrible "Tal" (towel).

Tell an outsider to watch out for that "jaggerbush" and he might not understand that means thorns.

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In the classroom, Shari Robertson said, some students defend their regional pronunciations. Some insist "spigot" is pronounced "spicket."

"Days when we discuss dialect, it gets really hot in class," she said.

How it started

Many ethnic groups influenced the Western Pennsylvanian dialect, from Scots-Irish to African-American, Brianna Robertson said.

Europeans who settled here unleashed "yinz" (a plural form of "you" found throughout Appalachia in various forms), "redd up" (to clean), "slippy" (slippery)" and "diamond" (center of town).

"Many of the folks who came here were immigrant workers. They did not read or write English. As they learned words, they passed them along verbally. There was no written standard," Shari Robertson said.

Brianna Robertson linked the tendency to drop the helping verb "to be" ("The chair needs fixed," instead of "The chair needs to be fixed") to African dialects that migrated North with former slaves during the Civil War era and, decades later, blacks who came to work in mills and mines.

The Robertsons' research focused on 62 people, half under age 25 and half over 40, all born within a 26-county region with Pittsburgh as the urban center. Participants read aloud sentences containing eight vowel patterns identified as characteristic of the dialect.

Among the most common patterns were the aw/ah (96 percent) and uh/oo (69 percent) sounds.

Brianna Robertson, who relocated from Wisconsin eight years ago, noticed the tendency among her classmates to pronounce "pool, pole and pull" the same way. "It was interesting to me, because I could hear (the differences), even though a lot of my classmates had trouble with it," she said.

The two found that some didn't realize they spoke a specific dialect.

"People would say, 'I don't use "redd up" or 'I don't live in Pittsburgh,' " Shari Robertson said.

It surprised the researchers that the younger people had a stronger sense of pride in their distinctive speech pattern.

"Almost all of the young people were proud of it, or they did not care (how it was perceived)," Brianna Robertson said.

Most older participants thought others would perceive the dialect as "uneducated or hillbilly," Shari Robertson said. And they were less likely to use it with people outside the region.

"We really thought older folks would show more dialect, be more proud of it. That's what we predicted. We were wrong," Shari Robertson said.

Generation gap

"I call it heritage prestige," said Scott Kiesling, linguistics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who has researched the regional dialect with Barbara Johnstone, rhetoric and linguistics professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

For the young, it's a way of speaking that becomes an emblem, linked to a place, like the Cajun dialect is to New Orleans.

"What is happening is that Pittsburghese means something different for the two (age) groups," he said.

Younger generations may feel more of a regional identification, through T-shirt slogans and the concept of Steeler nation. "Pittsburghese is kind of ideas on T-shirts and in dictionaries. It's a very recent phenomenon," Kiesling said.

Older people may perceive it as reflecting status, more working class than professional, he said.

"In the late 19th and early 20th century, there was so much immigration. There was a lot of leveling out of influences and new dialogue created. These guys were hanging out in mills, talking to each other," he said.

Dr. Greg Spicer, 48, chairman of the department of communication studies at California University of Pennsylvania, grew up in Pittsburgh and switches in and out of the dialect with ease.

Young people may "put on" the accent out of nostalgia or even an attempt at sophistication, he said.

"People of my generation had it humiliated out of them," he said, laughing.

Spicer sometimes talks to students who seem unaware of their dialects.

"I say, 'Look, you have a decision to make. There is a prejudice against working class dialect, all across the country. Obviously, it's a personal decision," Spicer said. "I don't try to beat it out of them."

He sometimes writes words out phonetically and students laugh.

"I say, 'But if you were to move to the West Coast, people might have difficulty understanding you,'" Spicer said. "My main concern is people who do not use (the dialect) self-consciously, who can't turn it off in job interviews and may not be aware they are saying it.

"It does seem like the accent part of it is softening over time," Spicer said. "It's much less conspicuous than what I remember when I moved back to Pittsburgh from Illinois."

Brianna Robertson doubts it will disappear.

"People are proud of who they are, and they are not going to change (the way they speak) even if somebody thinks they should," she said. "I would say Pittsburghese is alive and well, and probably is going to stick around a while."

Additional Information:


Samples of Western Pennsylvania dialect found in the Robertsons' study:

Adding sounds • 'wash/warsh,' 'chiropractor/ quiropractor.'

Removing sounds • 'towel/tal,' 'company/ cumpny.'

Changing sounds • 'chimney/chimley,' 'spigot/spicket.'

Collapsing syllables and/or words in shorter units • 'I'm up here/mup-ere,' 'didn't/dint.'

Vocabulary • 'nosey/nebby' 'slippery/slippy.'

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