By Edward McClelland
No Midwestern city is more conscious than Pittsburgh of the way it speaks—or, more accurately, the way it used to speak. In the Strip District, Pittsburgh-themed gift shops sell placards and puzzles with lists of words and pronunciations that define the dialect locals proudly call Pittsburghese: jagoff, hoagie, telepole, jumbo, nebby, slippy. “Dahntahn” for “downtown.” “Spicket” for spigot. “Stillers” for Steelers. Above their Keystone State license plates, Pittsburghers paste stickers with the phrase “n ’at,” a shortening of “and that” which is tacked on to the ends of sentences to mean, roughly, “et cetera.”
Pittsburghese developed among immigrant steelworkers from Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, and Croatia. Derisively called “Polacks” and “Hunkies” by “old stock” Americans, they sought a language and identity that would provide solidarity against nativist prejudice. This was reinforced by the labor struggles of the 1930s and ’40s, which inspired previously competitive ethnic groups to band together for economic advancement. In his essay “On the eastern edge of the Heartland: Two industrial city dialects,” Thomas S. Donahue calls Pittsburghese a “koine,” a dialect formed in a melting pot of languages. To traditional Scots-Irish phrases such as “jag” for thorn and “redd up” for clean were added the Eastern European “babushka” and “pierogi.”
“In mill towns like Pittsburgh,” wrote Donahue, “where steel production dominated the economy through the Second World War, the dialect was shared and reinforced in five domains: at work, in family life at home, and in social outings at places like family bars, at school and in contexts related to worship at Roman Catholic churches. Oral history evidence shows that the dialect was reinforced and spread by socially interactive people who worked in retail sales [in shops, grocery stores, butchers, clothiers, gasoline stations and garages] by persons who catered to a working class clientele. It is crucial to understand that the dialect began in a sexually segregated male workplace, that it developed an initial cohesion among the dominant Roman Catholic religion of its speakers, and that in the middle of the twentieth century was spoken by a large but distinctive group who had a common unionized mission of working toward an additional advantage in the workplace.”
These were all elements of a provincial, insular culture, and they were reinforced even more by geography. Situated on the western slope of the Allegheny Mountains, Pittsburgh had developed a dialect distinct from the rest of Pennsylvania even before the steel mills arrived. And its neighborhoods were separated by hills and rivers, which discouraged social mixing. The prototypical Pittsburgh word is “yinz.” The equivalent of “youse,” it’s a contraction of the Scots-Irish “you uns.” It’s so uniquely Pittsburgh that “Yinzer” is a term for a heavily-accented local who dresses in black and gold to show his love for the Steelers, the Pens, and the Buccos, and drinks a lot of “Arn City” beer.
The archetypal Yinzer was Myron Cope. Born to a Jewish family in 1929, he became an acclaimed journalist for Sports Illustrated and the Saturday Evening Post. Despite his professional advancement, Cope never lost his Pittsburgh accent. That was one reason the Steelers hired him in 1970 as a color commenter for their radio broadcasts. He held that job for 35 years and five Super Bowl victories, becoming in the process the voice of Pittsburghese. His commentary was nearly unintelligible to anyone outside western Pennsylvania, but his Yiddishkeit cries of “yoi!”, “double yoi!” and “triple yoi!” at thrilling plays became Pittsburgh catchphrases.
“Oh, I’m tellin’ ya, that school’s aht,” Cope exulted when running back Jerome “The Bus” Bettis fought off three Seattle Seahawks defenders. “Da schoolbell rang. Da kiddies, dey all jumped ahn Da Bus and dere went Da Bus steamin’ aht of the schoolyard or sumpin’ and three Seattle Seahawks trahd to get on Da Bus and dey wouldn’t open the doors. Fahnly one of ’em bring him dahn.”
Cope conceived “The Terrible Towel,” a gold-colored rally cloth for Steelers fans to twirl over their heads. From his mouth, however, it came out as “The Terrible Tahhl.” Monophthongization— that is, turning a double-stepped vowel into a single sound—is a hallmark of Pittsburgh pronunciation. At work on “ow,” it transforms “downtown” to “dahntahn” and “house” to “hahs.” With long i, monophthongization makes “fire” sound like “fahr” and “Pirates” like “Pahrtz.” I heard the story of a Pittsburgh actor who was asked to say “tire iron” in a play. He found the line so difficult the director changed it to “crowbar.” Pittsburgh has changed dramatically since the 1980s. The Homestead Works, once the world’s largest steel mill, shut down in 1986, and was eventually replaced with a shopping mall—and the steel crisis changed the Pittsburgh accent. Men laid off by the mills were forced to move to the Sun Belt to find jobs. In their new hometowns, they realized they had funny accents, and toned them down to fit in with the neighbors. Instead of graduating from high school straight to the mills, the children of those who stayed behind went to college, where they met classmates from outside Pittsburgh, and were discouraged from using Pittsburghisms such as “yinz” and “n’ at.” The city became a destination for doctors, academics, and artists, not all of them Pittsburgh natives. As a result of these economic and demographic changes, Pittsburghese has been transformed from everyday speech to a legacy dialect used self-consciously to express local pride.
“Terms such as ‘Yinz,’ ‘Jagoff’ and ‘Dahntahn’ were adopted as emblems of authentic Pittsburghness, even as younger generations stopped using them in everyday speech, to avoid sounding blue collar and provincial,” wrote Carnegie Mellon University professor Barbara Johnstone in her book Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect. For young, middle-class Pittsburghers, “certain stereotypical pronunciations, words, and structures are available for performance and allusions to localness that mock the stereotyped working-class Pittsburgher of the industrial era, and in doing so, project and are heard by their peers as projecting local knowledge and post-industrial hipness.”
I met a young man at sports memorabilia shop called, of course, Yinzers, who said a high school teacher had instructed him to say “you guys” instead of “yinz.” He was proud of his accent, and perplexed that even Pittsburghers thought it was incorrect.
“I think it’s what makes us unique as a city,” he said.
Actor Curt Wootton grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, but he’s not a genuine Yinzer. He plays one on YouTube, though. Wootton is the star of “Pittsburgh Dad,” a popular series of short videos featuring a character expressing his exasperation with the modern world in an exaggerated Pittsburgh accent: “Nah, nah, nah, we ain’t controlling the whole hahs with a cell phone. Deb, you lose your cell phone all the time. Then some yahoo who fahnd it dahn
T.J. Maxx has control of our thermostat? Ah-ah-ah. Ah-ah-ah.”
“The original inspiration was definitely Curt’s own father, but everyone would be dying because he sounded like everyone’s dad,” said co-creator Chris Preksta, who graduated from Steel Valley High School in Munhall, Pa.
As in Chicago, as Pittsburgh becomes less industrialized and more professionalized, it is developing a dialect less distinct from the rest of the country, especially among middle-class speakers. Yet it still celebrates the speech of the World War II and baby boom generations as the “classic” or “authentic” Pittsburgh accent. In the words of a young woman grilling sandwiches at Primanti Bros., as Pittsburgh an institution as there is, “We don’t say yinz; our parents say yinz.”
Virginia Montanez, a popular local blogger known as PittGirl, had her own reaction to “Pittsburgh Dad.” After noting that her father talked just like Wootton’s character, telling his children to worsh their feet, she argued that it’s time to redefine “the quintessential Pittsburgher.”
“We’re trying to pull ‘quintessential Pittsburgher’ out of the box that says he’s a blue-collar worker with an unmelodic accent who lives and breathes Steelers football while working to support his wife and four children with a job in the mill,” she wrote. “He eats various forms of fat for breakfast and leftover city chicken for lunch and spends his evenings stomping through the house turning off lights that are brightening empty rooms. His hands never are fully clean. He uses the basement potty. All of his clothes come from Hills.”
Meanwhile, Montanez continued, “We’re trying to shove the quintessential Pittsburgher into the box that says he or she is a white-collar, college-educated, stylish cosmopolitan who dresses in brand names, frequents upscale ‘foodie-friendly’ restaurants, orders flat whites from Starbucks and would rather go hungry than be seen buying even a pack of gum at Walmart.
“Here’s the next truth-bomb: Both of those versions of Pittsburgher exist. In fact, there are Pittsburghers on every spot of the spectrum from one box to the next.”
And just as there’s now more than one way of being a Pittsburgher, there’s more than one way of talking like a Pittsburgher.
A sampling of Pittsburghese:
The Buccos: The Pirates (who adopted their nickname after being accused of stealing players from other teams). Short for “Buccaneers.”
The Burgh: Nickname for Pittsburgh
Gumband: A rubber band. A Pittsburgher who moves away then returns home is a “gumbander,” because he rebounded to his native city.
Jagoff: An irritating or obnoxious person. “Hey, jagoff! Choose a lane!” “That jagoff was supposed to fix the furnace today, but he didn’t show up.” From the word JAG, meaning to prick. “Quit jaggin’ around” means “quit fooling around.” In 2012, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman—a Massachusetts native— attracted local ridicule when he banned “jagoff” from his newspaper, despite being fully aware of its non-obscene provenance.
Sweeper: Vacuum cleaner
The above is an excerpt from How to Speak Midwestern from Belt Publishing. Get your copy here.