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Dialect and identity: Pittsburghese goes to the opera

By Barbara Johnstone

On a Sunday afternoon in November I am at the Benedum Center with hundreds of fellow Pittsburghers watching a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It’s the second act, and Papageno the bird-man has just found his true love. The English super-titles help us decipher what he is saying as he starts to exit the stage. But then the English words over our heads stop matching what we’re hearing: Papageno is telling us that the “Stillers are playin’ dahntahn n’at, and they’re only four points down!” The audience bursts into laughter. Papageno has updated us on the score of the Pittsburgh Steelers game, and he’s done it in Pittsburghese. It’s a Pittsburgh moment in an event that could otherwise have been anywhere, a low-culture moment in an otherwise high-culture afternoon, a moment that reminded us of who we were and where we were.

Such moments are common here in the Steel City. People put on performances of Pittsburghese when they talk about the Steelers and the Pirates, when they talk about what Pittsburgh is like and what Pittsburghers are like, when they want to show they are Pittsburghers and when they want to mock Pittsburghers. Why? How has the local dialect become such a powerful symbol of local identity?

A hundred years ago, thousands of European immigrants were pouring into the Pittsburgh to work in the area’s steel mills and related industries. They spoke a variety of languages, and some never learned much English. But their children did, and these second-generation immigrants wanted to sound like the locals, not like their accented old-world parents. So they learned the local way of speaking English, a dialect of English that we can easily trace back to the earliest Scots-Irish settlers in the area. They learned to say “slippy” instead of “slippery,” “redd up” for “tidy up,” and “youn’s” or “yinz” for “you guys.” They learned the local accent, and they learned to form phrases the way local kids did, saying “needs washed” instead of “needs to be washed” and using “whenever” in sentences like “I was 14 whenever we moved here.” Nobody ever told them any of these things were wrong, or even non-standard: everyone in Pittsburgh spoke this way, even the local aristocrats.

Things stayed the same for several generations. Children followed their parents into the mills, the mines, or management. Working-class Pittsburghers didn’t have the money to travel, and upper-class Pittsburghers tended to marry locally. With so little social or geographical mobility, nobody had any reason to realize they spoke differently than anyone else.

A Pittsburghese sweatshirt.
A Pittsburghese sweatshirt. Courtesy of Barbara Johnstone

World War II made Pittsburghers mobile in new ways, with men and women going off to war and encountering people from elsewhere, people who commented on how they spoke. Women began to move into new kinds of jobs, where it sometimes mattered how you talked so that you had to be careful not to sound too working-class. Pittsburgh sounds, words, and structures started to acquire social meaning, differentiating people from one another along class and regional lines.

By the 1960s, articles in the Pittsburgh papers listed words and phrases that outsiders noticed when they encountered Pittsburghers. The word “Pittsburghese” was coined. Although their local accents sounded normal to them — they talked the same as everyone they knew — younger Pittsburghers knew that people from elsewhere thought they sounded funny. In 1982, Pittsburghese acquired a dictionary, in the form of a little book called How to Speak Like a Pittsburgher that defined local words and spelled them in ways that suggested how they sounded. The book was wildly popular.

Pittsburgh’s steel industry had been ailing for decades, and in the 1980s it collapsed seemingly overnight. A generation of young people who had expected to live as their parents had were suddenly without prospects. The city’s population shrank dramatically as young Pittsburghers moved away. Many of these “baby-boomers” were third- or fourth-generation immigrants who no longer identified with their grandparents’ homeland or religion. They thought of themselves as Americans, and as Pittsburghers. But what did it mean to be a Pittsburgher if you weren’t a proud, tough, laborer? What could you hang your identity on? The local football team was one hook, and former Pittsburghers are fanatical fans. Pittsburghese was another. Being a Pittsburgher meant using the sounds and words and phrases that people identified with the city. Pittsburghese came to serve as a shorthand symbol for what it meant to be from Pittsburgh. Ex-Pittsburghers joined online forums to talk about how they talked and exchange words they remembered from their childhoods. They told stories about being recognized as Pittsburghers because of their accents or the words they used.

Ironically, exactly the same factors that make regional differences disappear — social and geographical mobility caused by economic change — also make people become aware of regional differences and celebrate them. Fewer and fewer young Pittsburghers use Pittsburghese in daily life, but more and more you hear short performances of Pittsburghese when people want to make a point about being local or about how local people sound. Young and middle-aged Pittsburghers alike love to hear Pittsburghese in the mouths of radio DJs, talking dolls, and YouTube video stars like Pittsburgh Dad, characters that poke gentle fun at the provincial Pittsburghers of the past as they celebrate the city’s distinctiveness. Go Stillers!

Barbara Johnstone is Professor of Linguistics and Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect.

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