Y*nzerama!

Blogger doesn't do trackbacks very well, when it does them at all, so I only just now caught up to Jonathan Barnes's post on the word "y*nz" and his reaction to my posts that used the word and then responded to his initial comment on it.

All I can say is: Wow. Really touched a nerve there, didn't I?

Jonathan is from Pittsburgh. His argument is partly that the word "y*nz" is inherently derogatory, but he's also making a kind of possessory argument -- that "y*nz" somehow "belongs" to long-time Pittsburghers and their families, and derogatory or not, "outsiders" can't and shouldn't appropriate the word. This is a cousin of the argument that African-Americans can use the word "n*gger" because they're appropriating and transforming its derogatory connotation; others can't, because they don't have the "insider" status that entitles them to make that linguistic move. Similarly, I live in Mt. Lebanon, but I'm not from this area. I'm "from" California; in a metaphoric sense, I'm an outsider, so I'm "stealing" a local word.

Jonathan writes:

I find Mike’s way of provoking people into discussion to be less than honest. I also find it less than true to Pittsburgh, since we Pittsburghers are a blunt people. I could be wrong, but I can’t help but think that Mike has seen my Rant in the City Paper, in which I ripped on non-native journalists busting on this city and its people.


Well, I'm not sure what he means by "less than honest"; I thought I was being pretty up front, and the comments and commentary on a couple of other local blogs seemed to bear me out. (Maybe he means that I can't provoke unless I'm blunt? If I live in Pittsburgh I must talk or write as "true" Pittsburghers do? More on that thought in the last paragraph.) No, I hadn't read his Rant in the City Paper (at least, I hadn't until just now). And the implication that I'm a closet classist (or perhaps not such a closet classist?) because I live in Mt. Lebanon represents the worst kind of old Pittsburgh stereotyping. Lebo is far from perfect, but really, can't we all just get along?

I wouldn't write again just to respond to Jonathan. He's entitled to his opinion. But there is a somewhat larger point, and it goes to the complex relationship among language, culture, and change:

People who grew up here, in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, have to get used to the fact that there are an awful lot of us who live here but didn't grow up here. In fact, I'll go out on a short limb and argue that the economic future of the region depends on its ability to attract more in-bound immigrants, so the proportion of the region that isn't home-grown either grows, or the region continues to fade. The vast majority of the people I know who moved here from other places did it by choice, and are glad they did. Pittsburgh has its problems, but on the whole it's a great place.

But with new populations comes critical examination. Traditions, culture, language, all of which are things that may have survived and prospered within stable communities (and even defined those communities), get jostled around and sometimes scrutinized and disrupted. Language changes; meanings change. The flap over "y*nz" is an example of that (and this isn't the first time that I've stepped in this sort of thing). I'm not arguing that "y*nz" does or does not mean what Jonathan argues it has meant historically, but I am suggesting that people who live in Pittsburgh today (whether or not they were raised here) will decide what that word means, and they won't be bound by insistence on historical or cultural authenticity.

Language and culture are lived things; change happens. My guess is that "y*nz" ends up with multiple meanings, and that's the way it's going to be. (A morning update: In other words, I reject the "insider"/"outsider" distinction, and for that reason, I reject the comparison of "y*nz" to the N-word.) I'll plead guilty to not knowing all the nooks and crannies of Pittsburgh history, but not to being disingenuous about provoking a conversation about alleged classism. I don't speak or write as a "true" Pittsburgher speaks, whatever that means. So what? Pittsburgh is going to have more of this sort of thing (critique and conversation, I mean), and Pittsburgh is going to have to have it, if it's ever going to get itself going as a city.

Comments

11 Responses to "Y*nzerama!"

Anonymous said... 3/28/2006 1:11 PM

What's the definition of an outsider of Pittsburgh? Someone from Butler? Or someone from another actual state?

Michael, you should ignore this guy, he's a lunatic and more to the point, a yinzer!

Drover said... 3/28/2006 2:04 PM

During my brief tenure as a Pittsburgh resident, one of the things I came to admire most about the city and its long-time residents is the overall refusal to be self-conscious about outsider perceptions of the city, its culture, its traditions, et cetera. Annoyed or even indignant at persistent stereotypes, maybe. But self-conscious? Rarely. And why should they be? Pittsburghers know how good they have it, so what others think just doesn’t matter. The general attitude seemed to be "our city is what it is. We're not a world-class metropolis. We never will be. And we really don't want to be. If that's what you want, move back to Chicago."

So that's what I did, though not because of any perceived shortfall in Pittsburgh's metropolitan credentials. I was fine with the fact that Pittsburgh doesn't aspire to attain New York or Chicago status. Not everybody wants to live a city full of martini bars and their stylish & pretty but vapid & amoral clientele. Places like Pittsburgh are the perfect antidote to the ig cities and their self-absorbed snooty residents with upper-crust pretensions.

Pittsburgh's still-thriving values of hard work and tight community are becoming rare in America's cities, and Pittsburghers are right to guard them jealously. Unfortunately that defense often takes on the form of suspicion of, or even outright hostility toward, outsiders. It was this treatment of outsiders that made me count the days until my wife graduated from CMU and we could get the hell out. (True story: I'm at Smokin' Joe's on Carson having a perfectly decent conversation with a woman for 15 minutes. Curious about my accent, she asked where I was from. When I replied “Chicago,” she promptly launched into a tirade that commenced with "fuck you, what the fuck are you doing here? Go back to Chicago..." I'm not sure how the tirade ended because I got up and walked away.)

The whole Yinzer kerfuffle is an example of this phenomenon. In a city filled with folks who otherwise allow outsider criticism to roll off like water on a duck's back, this one single word causes so much controversy that Madison feels like he can't even type out the whole word, editing it like one would edit the word "n*gger." (Though maybe he's just joking. It's hard to tell.) The near-pathological need for lifelong Pittsburghers to own this single word and forbid outsiders to use it in ANY context is allegorical of the "us versus them" siege mentality that so many Pittsburghers possess.

As I've noted before, it's hard to blame them for wanting to defend the virtuous aspects of their traditions and culture. But just because these values are rooted in the past does not mean they can only be preserved by stopping change. If Pittsburgh ever wants to move to move forward, at needs to stop romanticizing its past and trying to preserve it against change like a giant historic re-enactment. The revitalization of your city depends on it.

You can start by letting go of the word “yinzer.”

dws said... 3/28/2006 11:11 PM

According to a March 17, 2006 NYT article ("It's Not the Sights, It's the Sounds"), linguists view Pittsburgh's dialect (aka "Pittsburgh English") as its own island. So it's intersting that, though these posts and comments, the word "yinzer" itself has become a symbol of Pittsburgh's cultural and economic isolationism.

Also, "yinzer" is NOT the "n" word. I understand that you may have spelled it that way to make nice (though I hope it was merely in jest), but to be that delicate about how the word is spelled only legitimizes the isolationism against which we preach.

Mike Madison said... 3/28/2006 11:24 PM

Interesting that the "*" attracts such notice! I admit that I was having a little fun, but I did make an earlier pledge not to use the Y-word, so I figured that I should stick to it.

71 said... 3/28/2006 11:32 PM

Prof. Madison,

Thanks. your post offers an excellent examination of how any culture is necessarily vulnerable to change. Pittsburgh is great. I moved here from New England (Edgartown, MA /Stowe VT/ Wallingford CT), and I plan to stay here. I just bought a house in Mt Lebanon. You're right to say that the region must accept us if it hopes to grow; just as it had to accept the last group of transplants, as many regions do. I've seen the same sort of sentiments-(resistance to change, over-protectiveness of "insider" status), in VT, and on the Vineyard. What can you do?

Please, keep writing.

Mark Rauterkus said... 3/29/2006 7:54 AM

Dont' be an online jag-off.

Perhaps that word, jag-off, can provide fuel for your summertime rant on language and "tight community."

BTW, I'm not calling anyone any names. I just used the top statement to get your attention and make a point, pecker heads.

:)

Anonymous said... 3/29/2006 1:52 PM

i haven't followed this yinzer business, so i can't comment on that. i have no strong thoughts on the word.

but while we are on this topic, something i have noticed is the following: whether you mean to or not, your writing style comes off as arrogant and pretentious. pittsburghers don't mind outsiders, but they *do* mind pretentious outsiders. they can take (and welcome) discussion about progress, but not endless lecturing, like you do here.

comments like, "pittsburgh can't handle the way [Cuban] runs a business" to "enlightenment arrives in pittsburgh" (implying that there currently is none) are condescending. (there are hundreds more where these come from.) whether or not you believe this is reality, you will attract more takers if you work with (what you seem to consider) us blue-collar democratic union types instead of putting polarizing ideas into text. we're not all unenlightened idiots. some of "us" actually get it.

also, you make a point of living in mt. lebanon and being involved in community affairs there. newsflash: mt. lebanon is an upper class community. most pittsburghers do not live in in upper class communities. being civically involved in mt. lebanon does not enable you with the ability to spread your community organizing wisdom to the rest of the region.

i would have more respect for you and your writing if you attended a lawrenceville or aspinwall or Xtown merchants association and attempted to *understand* the mentality instead of just speculating and criticizing it. yes, it's traditional, yes, you may think it's staid, but it's reality here. i dare you to tell a small business owner in carnegie or voter in arlington that they are unenlightened. go to community meetings in bloomfield, the hill district or duquesne. take us head on instead of writing from your desk at the university or comfortable home in the suburbs. it is much easier to tell folks in cyberspace what they should be doing than actively engaging pittsburghers (and potential entrepreneurs) themselves.

i write this as someone with a techie background who has just started attending local business association meetings. i have blown away by what i have found. the disconnect is enormous - yinzers or not, these individuals want help and direction, and have no idea about the resources available to them.

there is a way to make our community more aware of the necessity of change without being as abrasive (and white and wealthy - yes, i said that) as you come across. we want you here, and we want to listen to you. just make it easier for us not to be distracted by your assuming stance and provoking language.

Mike Madison said... 3/29/2006 5:51 PM

I don't know how long you've been reading the blog, but I hope that you'll stick around. For what it's worth:

The post about enlightenment that set you off didn't imply that anyone wasn't enlightened. I have no interest in telling a small business owner that she isn't enlightened, largely because it isn't true. Most of the small business owners I know are hard-working, smart people. Go back and reread my post. The title says "The Enlightenment," which is a specific reference to a cultural/historic movement. I invoked that movement specifically to contrast what I thought was a particularly nice episode involving a reasoned analysis of art and architecture at CMU with two embarrassing episodes of unreason in Upper St. Clair and South Park. Maybe the title was a little cryptic, because it assumed that people could make that connection. If I'm going to err when it comes to cultural knowledge, I'll err on the side of assuming that people can figure this out, rather than err on the side of assuming that they can't. I'm going to give readers of the blog the benefit of the doubt.

As for living in Mt. Lebanon and writing from my university office: people -- both people who live there, and people who don't -- just have to get over it. I've lived in other upscale suburbs; I've lived in cities; I've lived in places that aren't nearly so nice. I've never lived anywhere that was so obsessed with the perceived flaws of a single town. In truth, Mt. Lebanon is as much a part of the Pittsburgh region as Aspinwall or McKees Rocks. None of these is any more less "authentically" Pittsburgh than the others. And my position in the university is as much a part of Pittsburgh today as a job in a small neighborhood business. (Last time I checked, in fact, the University of Pittsburgh was and is one of the largest employers in the region.) Regardless of where you or I live, and regardless of what you or it do, we're all entitled to participate in a conversation about the future of Pittsburgh.

The reality of Pittsburgh today is that it inhabits a culture of insularity. It inhabits of a culture of risk-aversion. It inhabits a culture of insecurity about its identity. Those things manifest themselves in large ways, through economic development, and in small ways, through things like language. I'm not the only person to point out those phenomena, nor am I the first. Going to neighborhood association meetings in the city would be fine (if I had time, and if I lived there), and I'm sure I'd learn a lot, but I wouldn't learn anything new on those particular points, which are so widely shared that it's just about impossible to find anyone in Pittsburgh who disagrees. Do I use provocative language when I blog about Pittsburgh's future? Sure I do, and I'll continue to do so. Do some people think that they're being condescended to? I hope not (see above regarding "giving blog readers the benefit of the doubt"), but I can't control their feelings. I'd rather that people come onto the blog and react constructively to what I write.

And, finally, don't like my writing style? I don't know precisely what that means. I'm not going to start using small words and simple sentences, if that's the point. (Again, see above regarding "giving blog readers the benefit of the doubt.") All things considered, as the great Scoop Nisker used to say, "If you don't like the news, go out and make some of your own."

71 said... 3/30/2006 7:26 PM

Prof Madison,

For what it's worth, I got the Enlightenment reference, as I'm sure did many others.

Additionally, I like the tone and level of diction found in your posts.

Drover said... 4/12/2006 10:49 AM

The post from "Anonymous" taking Madison to task for living in Mt. Lebanon and teaching at Pitt is another fine example of the "us versus them" mentality I pointed out earlier; in this case "us" is the old-school, blue-collar Pittsburghers, and "them" is the white-collar newcomers. Of course, Madison is right in that neither is more "authentic" Pittsburgh than the other (Pittsburgh's white-collar tradition after all is just as rich and storied as its blue-collar tradition), and the sooner both sides realize theirs is a symbiotic relationship, the sooner Pittsburgh can start moving forward.

Funky Dung said... 4/13/2006 4:56 PM

I think people need to relax stop taking themselves too seriously. As someone who's a transplant from the Philadelphia area, this whole yinzer hubbub sounds rather asinine. I had no idea "yinzer" was derogatory (except in a perhaps a mild teasing sense) until I read Mike's post. In fact, I thought it was a term of endearment, a shared nickname, amongst Burghers. If I polled my friends, I'm quite certain most would be just as clueless to the extent of its offensiveness. On that basis alone, "yinzer" cannot be compared to the n-word.

P.S. Given how long I've been here (about 11 years) and my goal of staying here to raise a family, I think I have just as much right to call myself a Pittsburgher as any life-long native, in spite of being one of those dreaded white-coller newcomers.

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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.

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