Pittsburgh-ese

If you remember the hornet's nest that I stirred up the last time I used "yinzer" in a sentence, you'll be interested in this story in today's New York Times, by a writer who goes road-tripping to test the linguisitics research of UPenn linguist William Labov. The man ends up in Pittsburgh:
After more conversations and cue-card spot checks with waitresses, farmers and hunters made it clear that the Inland North accent was thriving in these small towns outside Buffalo and Rochester, it was time to look at Professor Labov's atlas again. Directly south lay the Midland, a vast accent zone that stretches from Pennsylvaniato the Great Plains and borders the Ohio River to the south. A buffer between the linguistic powerhouses of the Inland North and the South, the Midland has few unifying linguistic features and in many respects is considered the default of American English: this is what American sounds like when small regional dialects have eroded.

The Midland would not hold much interest to a person searching out accents were it not for three enclaves that have retained unique speech: St. Louis, Cincinnati and, in particular, Pittsburgh, which seems to be the Galapagos Islands of American dialect.

"Pittsburgh is a special case," Professor Labov said. "Generally, local dialects have been absorbed by larger regional ones. But Pittsburgh, though part of the Midland, has retained its own speech patterns. In fact, Pittsburgh does things no place else does, like pronouncing 'ow' as 'ah' and very often dropping the 'l' when it comes at the end of a word." (Radial, for example, winds up sounding like radio.)

Julie Schoonover, the barkeeper from Corning, had described the dialect of the Steel City (a k a Pixburgh) more succinctly: "If you want to hear some freaky talk, go to Pittsburgh," she told me. "It's all 'yinz goin' dahntahn' down there." . . .

Outside Lou's Little Corner Bar in Pittsburgh's Little Italy, which is known as Bloomfield, it was snowing hard. Inside, a loud argument about the president and weapons of mass destruction was taking place. Did he know? Did he not know? The bartender, Donna Bruno, whose fiancé is in Iraq, did not have an opinion. But on the existence of Pittsburghese, she was clear.

"Of course we talk funny," she said. "We string words together. East Liberty becomes S'liberty. Down the street becomes dahnthestreet. And it's always what yinz doin? Why we talk this way, I don't know, but it might be because each neighborhood was settled by different ethnicities during the steel years." Professor Labov basically concurs with this theory. . . .

Professor Labov agrees, up to a point. "I love the variety of language," he said. "The puzzling thing about this whole business of dialects is that sound changes do not help us communicate. Dialects prevent us from understanding each other. And yet, instead of growing weaker, as one might expect with television and telephonic communication, regional dialects are strengthening. That's the mystery."

As some Pittsburghers might say, and your point is?

Comments

1 Response to "Pittsburgh-ese"

Drover said... 3/29/2006 2:41 PM

As a Chicagoan, I'm kind of surprised to hear us linguistically lumped in with Cleveland and Erie and Buffalo and Rochester. I've been to a few of those places, and while there's no mistaking their accent is considerably more "northern" than their respective downstate counterparts, it's not quite as sharp and distinct as the Chicago accent. I always regarded the Chicago accent as being more closely related to the "Yooper" accent -- The Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, upper Michigan. For instance, watch "Fargo," then watch a few SNL "Da Bears" skits. Sure, the accents are exaggerated for effect in both... but only slightly. And they're quite similar.

That said, there is no arguing that Picksburgh is a linquistic enigma, a place where people redd up their homes in time to have guests over for the Still'rs game ("Be sure to avoid dahntahn on your way here, the traffic is awful") where they sit around and drink Arn City during the broadcast.

The first time I heard the word "yinz" during my brief residency in Pittsburgh, my response was a silent "WTF?" I thought the lady just made the word up. I came to find out she most certainly didn't. Even the least well-travelled Yankee knows what "y'all" means. But "yinz"? Only in Picksburgh.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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