Last Tuesday my partner Sara made an ugly and, I still insist, unwarranted accusation about me.
You see, that evening, after witnessing Lexington meteorologist Bill Meck mis-forecast local weather yet again, Sara and I watched over dinner as a channel 18 reporter interviewed an Eastern Kentucky woman whose house had burnt, following a botched attempt to light an outdoor barbecue grill in the narrow confines of her living room.
“I done it last week, no problem. Now everthang— plumb-nar gone.”
“Plumb-nar gone,” I mimicked her Appalachian accent–obviously an insensitive and uncalled for mockery, I realize now.
“You’re SUCH a grammar snob,” Sara said, spooning tomato soup, dribbling it on a newly laundered t-shirt.
“Well, actually, it’s more a matter of dialect than grammar.”
Sara fingered quotation marks mid-air and shot me a look across the rim of a now-nearly-empty bowl , “Excuse ME. You’re such a ‘dialect’ snob!”
“Maybe more like ‘language’ snob,” I corrected yet again.
“Case in point,” she swung her arm in my direction, nearly losing her soup spoon mid-gesture.
Okay, maybe I am something approximating a language snob or whatever you word-selection slackers want to call it.
Still, my point is this—
Whether this unkind linguistic accusation is accurate or not, it, along with my now-postponed trip to Pittsburgh, got me thinking about the strange linguistic animal that is speech in the western part of Pennsylvania—a variation of Standard American English academics who study this sort of thing call “Pittsburghese,” as if it were not only a dialect of its own but another language altogether.
Mind you, this is a bordering-on-the-grotesque mutation of English I no longer speak. However, during my few trips back to Pittsburgh as an adult, I’ve been horrified to find myself slipping, half-hypnotised, back into that weird way of speaking–language snobbery notwithstanding.
So, in honor of this trip, now postponed thanks to Hurricane Sandy, I’ve decided to let you in on a few of the best-kept secrets about Pittsburghese and to offer a tutorial on this linguistic hybrid, in the event that you are planning a trip of your own in the near future and hope to decipher the weird words of western PA.
So, a few important matters to remember:
- First and foremost, some Pittsburgher’s call their city “Picksburgh.” No need to double-check your map. As long as there are three rivers converging nearby, you’re in the right town–regardless of what the locals call it.
- But, once you’ve oriented yourself, if you spend an evening at Heinz Hall, in the heart of the city, you’ll actually be in place Picksburghers call “dahn tahn” (down town). Natives of the area consistently pronounce “ow” as “ah.” This” sahnd” (sound) is central to Pittsburgh speech.
- If you then stay the night in a “dahn tahn” hotel and request an extra towel for your room, you’ll most likely be given something housekeeping calls a “tile.” You see, Pittsburghers have what linguists would call “diphthong” issues. They invariably shorten vowel sounds most Americans would pronounce as two syllables into merely one. “Steelers” become the “Stellers,” for example.
- Yet if you attend a game, friends may ask for a contribution to the pre-game, tail-gating menu, requesting that your bring some “‘Irn (Iron) City Beer, some hoagies (sub sandwiches), n’ at.'” Picksburghers notoriously add “n’ at” (and that) to the ends of sentences, a verbal tick, not unlike Canadians add “eh” to the ends of theirs. “I’m goin’ dahn (down) to the hahs (house) tonight, n’ at.”
- Then there’s the vocabulary you will need to know:
- “Yinz” is the second person plural–what southerners in the US would refer to as “yall.”
- To “red up” the room is to straighten it.
- To be “nebby” is to be nosy and intrusive.
- A “jag-off” is a jerk.
- A “sweeper” is a vacuum cleaner.
- “Jumbo” is bologna.
- “Chipped ham” is lunch meat.
- A “gum band” is a rubber band.
What pronunciations are peculiar to your local dialect? Which regional words are reminiscent of your childhood? Are you a language snob?
Note: I’m writing a memoir about growing up in a Pittsburgh, organized crime family. This post is part of my memoir series. To read a draft of chapter one, click here.