On Pittsburgh tongues: a 'sammich dahntahn'

The Steel City's local dialect - Pittsburghese - has caught the imagination of ordinary folks and academics alike.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

"Yinz gowen dahntahn for a sammich, n'at? Redd up yer room first and watch aht for them slippy roads."

When icy roads turn slippy and cleaning your room entails redding it up, there's only one place you can be: Pittsburgh.

The steel city may be shedding its grittier-than-thou image with new art galleries and cafes, but the working-class attitude lives on in the local dialect, dubbed "Pittsburghese."

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While linguists fear that regional argot may be dying out as media saturation makes for more uniform national speech, some academics feel that localisms like Pittsburghese may withstand homogenization - not simply as stubborn markers of origin and class but as intentional vehicles of regional pride.

"We wear the same clothes, we shop in the same stores. There is some evidence that people are turning back to local dialects in the face of this," says Barbara Johnstone, a professor of rhetoric and linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"People don't just want to be the same. They want something that sets their community, and their identity, apart."

Dialects are celebrated across the country. Hollywood has perfected the Brooklyn accent, and N'ahlins is known as much for its Southern drawl as for its crawfish jambalaya. A popular Saturday Night Live sketch years back depicted Polish-American Chicagoans discussing "Da' Bears."

But one thing that sets "the Burgh" apart is the attention its accent has gotten in recent years. Last winter, an academic conference was devoted to the subject. Radio personalities mock the dialect.

And at Pittsburgh Pirates games, the live play-by-play now blares over loudspeakers in Pittsburghese, with generous sprinklings of "yinz" (you-all) and "n'at" (etcetera or, in Seinfeld-speak, "Yadda, yadda."). Time between innings features "The Great Pierogie Race En'at," in which staff dressed as pierogies - meat-and-potato turnovers that Pittsburgh also claims as its own - dash around the field.

A short introduction

One website, www.Pittsburhgese.com, comes equipped with an online translator. Type in "nosey" and up comes "nebby." Type in "rubber band" and you'll find the Pittsburgh classic "gumband." Type in the question "Did you eat yet?" and the translator shoots back, "Jeet jet?"

In a short time, the online dictionary has gone from two dozen words to over 1,000. Exercises to relax the facial muscles give the site's viewers a chance to warm up for the difficult task of speaking the dialect. A translation of Hamlet's soliloquy in Pittsburghese is available, as are audio samples catching the nuances of the local pronunciation.

Making the dialect more popular - and profitable - has been a mission of some retailers. Professor Johnstone says that when she began exploring the subject five years ago, only one Pittsburghese T-shirt was on sale.

Today, T-shirts, mugs, magnets, and other trinkets abound in the city's Strip District, where produce and fish markets are set up each morning along the industrial waterfront. In fact, selling the "language" has been a driving force in its perpetuation, Johnstone says.

The dialect has been traced back to Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled in the region in the 17th and 18th centuries. Despite its name, Pittsburghese is also found far beyond the steel city in a large region of western Pennsylvania and throughout Appalachia.

Its hallmark is the "ow" diphthong - pronounced "ah" - known to linguists as the monophthongization of the vowel sound.

"Downtown," for instance, becomes, "dahntahn." A slew of peculiar terms and the absence of the verb "to be" also mark the dialect. Around Pittsburgh, "the lawn needs mowed."

Not everyone is thrilled

These Pittsburghisms generate mixed feelings. For some, it is the city's essence, as much a part of the working-class heritage as an oversized "sammich" stuffed with French fries and coleslaw at Primanti Brothers in the Strip.

But even some of the dialect's biggest fans are weary of Pittsburghers' tendency to end each sentence with "n'at." Alan Freed, the webmaster of Pittsburghese.com believes the use of idioms like "yinz" is problematic: It "makes us sound downright uneducated."

Pittsburgh native Doug Wagner, an assistant superintendent, would agree. After a presentation in eastern Pennsylvania, school administrators told him: "Lose your accent. Take speech-therapy classes if need be."

Wagner admits that, like any Pittsburgh native, or "yinzer," he still struggles with idioms that creep into his conversations from time to time. But "it's not like they don't have their own accent," he says.

Some educators wage war against Pittsburghese. But Howard Selekman, an eighth-grade teacher in the Fox Chapel school district, says the color and everydayness of the local dialect should not be dismissed as corrupt.

"Personally, Pittsburghese does not sit very well on my ears," says Mr. Selekman, who did doctoral work in linguistics before his current position of teaching in the public schools.

But he sees the dialect as part of a larger fabric: "Languages represent the fabric of life in a community. Every variety of English is worthy of study; each has its own complex set of rules."

That's not to say he doesn't slip in the verb form "to be" in the papers he receives. "It is our obligation to make students competent in standard English. There is a time and a place to celebrate Pittsburghese."

For example? Perhaps a new project setting Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in the Burgh. The character of Bottom, he suggests, would be a natural: Not realizing his head has been transformed into the head of a donkey, he shouts gibberish after friends who flee in terror. "It would be great," Selekman says. "Where yinz gowen?"

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