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Want to lose your Pittsburgh accent? There’s a course for that

Paul Guggenheimer
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Marilyn Caye (right) and Mitch Small, one of her former students, in 2016 at Caye’s voiceover acting class at the Community College of Allegheny County.

Marilyn Caye grew up in Pittsburgh’s Perry Hilltop neighborhood and graduated from University of Pittsburgh. A few years later she decided to explore the other end of the country and wound up in the San Francisco Bay area. She soon learned that while she could leave Pittsburgh, there was a part of the Steel City that wouldn’t leave her.

“I was about to audition for a commercial in San Francisco. When I was at Perry High School, I had done voice work for Rege Cordic’s ‘Cordic and Company’ on KDKA radio. I called a fellow in Sausalito to get some advice,” said Caye, “and the first thing he said was, ‘Marilyn, you’ve got to get rid of your Pittsburgh accent.’

“I had lived in Northern California for nine years and didn’t think I had that accent at all!”

Since then, Caye has dedicated a good part of her life not only to getting rid of her own Pittsburgh accent, but helping others get rid of theirs.

For nearly 20 years, Caye has taught classes at Community College of Allegheny County in voiceover acting and public speaking. In the late 1990s, she went for the local angle and created “How to Lose Your Pittsburgh Accent.” The class lasted for three years and then fizzled out.

Now it’s back. Starting in October, you can “come to this class and learn how to subdue your Pittsburghese,” according to a description in the CCAC course catalog.

Caye was contacted this summer by the administrator for the evening program at CCAC’s main campus.

“She said they were looking through some old material and found the outline of the class, and asked if I was willing to teach it again,” she said, “So, we’re reopening Pandora’s box.”

The definition of that Greek myth — “a present that seems valuable but in reality is a curse” — can apply to the Pittsburgh accent. In other words, the very dialect that gets you a seal of approval from the residents of most Pittsburgh neighborhoods, could end up preventing you from getting ahead in other aspects of your life.

“I’ve heard a lot of stories from people who have Pittsburgh accents and were told at some point in their life that they weren’t going to get a job or get a promotion if they didn’t lose their accent,” said Barbara Johnstone, author of “Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect.” The book is based on her scholarly work at Carnegie Mellon University, where she is a professor emeritus of rhetoric and linguistics.

So just where did this albatross of an accent come from anyway? Johnstone credits or blames, depending on your point of view, the Scotch-Irish Americans, descendants of Ulster Scots who first migrated in large numbers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many settled in Pittsburgh.

“The best evidence that they are behind it is that many of the words and expressions of Pittsburghese are from the Scotch-Irish and you can still hear some of them in Scotland and Northern Ireland today; ‘redd up’ and ‘slippy weather’ and ‘yinz’ is a form that they would have used,” said Johnstone.

How then to “redd up” our way of speaking? Caye, who admits that she falls back into her accent now and then, says it isn’t easy an’ ’at.

“Of course it’s possible. You have to concentrate,” said Caye. “We were at a country club and went to order dinner and the waitress came over and said to us, ‘Is yinz ready to order?’ If that’s a part of your vernacular and you go back home and everybody else is saying the same thing, you don’t notice the difference.”

Caye said the first thing her students will have to work on is knowing what they sound like compared to how others speak. She’s been stressing that to those who are currently taking her “Voiceover Acting” class at CCAC.

“I give them an assignment to listen to radio commercials to hear how they’re done.”

At end of the day it all comes down to students wanting to be understood and not wanting to sound like the people in the neighborhoods they grew up in, said Caye.

“This is a city in which a bus goes down Liberty Avenue and painted on the side of it is, ‘How yinz doin’?’ A foreign person or someone from Chicago who sees that has no clue what that means,” Caye said.

She is clearly happy that her “How to Lose Your Pittsburgh Accent” class is being resurrected. She says the course is already getting a good response. “Phoenix is rising from the ashes and we’re going to see what’s what.”

Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].

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