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Dahntahn Dialects: The Language of Pittsburgh

By Nicole Pampena

It was 2011 when “Pittsburgh Dad” joined YouTube opening with that line, in turn introducing the world of Pittsburghese to the mainstream internet.

The character was created by Greensburg native Curt Wootton, who stars as Pittsburgh Dad, and his friend and director Chris Preksta, where as many as two-hundred thousand viewers watch Pittsburgh Dad yelling at the kids, yelling about the Steelers or just plain yelling in a very heavy Pittsburghese accent.

Although the Pittsburghese we know today cannot be traced back to a definitive beginning, certain words can be attributed to around the 18th century with the first local English-speaking colonial settlers from Northern Ireland, according to Barbara Johnstone, a recently retired professor of English and linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University.

Johnstone champions herself as the Pittsburghese expert, a title backed up by almost two decades of scientific research on the sociolinguistics of the dialect. Johnstone then compiled their research into a website, pittsburghspeech.pitt.edu, that features everything from interviews of locals, to the historical context of Pittsburghese to identifying sounds unique to the dialect.

“When [the settlers] came, they brought their way of speaking in with them,” Johnstone said.

As this way of speaking spread throughout the middle parts of the colonies, some older forms stuck around due to more isolated geography—such as an area surrounded by three rivers.

While Pittsburghese sprouts up in no clear-cut pattern throughout the city and its neighborhoods, it’s most attributed to the working class such as Wootton and his family.

“[Pittsburgh Dad started] kind of like a happy accident,” Wootton said. “Chris was just messing around on an iPhone filming this character I did with my father.”

Wootton says his dad is a strong archetype for the average working man dad found in the Pittsburgh area, tied together with the signature coke-bottle glasses, polo shirt and “yinzer” dialect.

“Yinzer,” meaning someone from Pittsburgh and stemming from the word “yinz,” which means “you all,” is just one of many words that makes up the Pittsburghese dictionary, and traces back long before “Pittsburgh Dad,” quite literally, was born.

“So people kept saying things like ‘red up’ [clean up,] ‘nebby’ [nosey] and ‘slippy’ [slippery] and so on that were Scots-Irish things after they had mainly stopped using those things in Philadelphia,” Johnstone said. “There was more mixing at an earlier time, and Philadelphia was settled by Quakers and Germans.”

Recording over one hundred interviews of Pittsburgh natives speaking un-self-consciously allowed Johnstone to study patterns within the dialect that make it so recognizable.

“To me [it’s] really fascinating that people can identify that somebody is from Pittsburgh if they know the accent,” Johnstone said, “and I think they do that on the basis of vowel sounds.”

Some of these habits regarding specific sounds can be pronouncing “mom” with more of a rounded “o” rather than “mahm,” or curling the letter “l” into a “w” sound in the words “dollar” or “school.”

Lauren Leahey, 20, also noticed this distinct “o” sound after moving from Baltimore to study at the University of Pittsburgh.

“In Oakland, there are so many students from different places that I never really heard a difference in dialect until I went downtown,” Leahey said. “…I was caught off guard by the way that people ask questions but they sound like they’re making a statement.”

While there is no official dictionary for Pittsburghese, some false words emerged as the dialect gained popularity. Johnstone provided examples like “grinnie,” a word meaning chipmunk that was never used in the city, or “Jeet jet?” a phrase any native English speaker might say if they say “Did you eat yet?” too quickly.

Some of these words can be found at a now-dormant, unofficial, un-researched website pittsburghese.com: an online dictionary that boasts a wide glossary of every imaginable Pittsburghese word, but does so through a submissions process that allows for these false words to further circulate.

The website, “proudly promoting America’s Ugliest Accent,” a title Pittsburgh more formally claimed in 2014 after beating Scranton in a contest held through gawker.com, even teaches readers how to speak like a true yinzer.

Leahey hopes to tighten up her Pittsburghese while she stills lives here as well.

“One thing I’ve caught myself saying since I moved here is definitely ‘how’s about,’” Leahey said. “I really wish I could add “yinz” to my vocabulary, but maybe living here for a few more years will help with that.”

With the commercialization of the dialect in every “Stillers” mug and “jagoff” bumper sticker, Johnstone came to the realization that being a true native speaker requires one specific detail.

“People who talk about Pittsburghese tend not to have local accents,” Johnstone said. “People who do have local accents tend to not be aware of it.”

While Curt Wootton may speak a different kind of Pittsurghese than Pittsburgh Dad, the series remains just a loving tribute to both his dad, and the city that loves itself—and loves to poke fun at itself—like none other.

This story was originally published on Offbeat ‘Burgh, a magazine product of Point Park University’s School of Communication.

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