A typical conversation around the Three Rivers–the Allegheny, Monongahela and the Ohio:
“Wat’s he yammerin’ abaht?”
“I dohn’t know, what didya bring fer lunch?”
“Why are you sow nebby? I didn’t bring anything, ya jagoff.”
“Well, let’s got dahn to the Giant Iggle an’ get some chip-chop ham hoew-gies.”
“Can I get brick cheese ahn it?”
Rarely do I slip into the diglossia that plagues my family, and by extension—my race of Western Pennsylvanians—who have spent the better of two centuries butchering the queen’s English. When I do so, I notice that I slip back into the quaint regional dialect like well worn pair of jeans. Since leaving the Pennsylvania Laurel Highlands in the 80’s, I have spent a lifetime apologizing for my dialect. My siblings didn’t have it so well. Too young to fight off the public schools, they were forced into speech therapy to correct the Pennsylvania dialect, to be replaced with, dare I say it, a Cleveland brough!.
My Western Pennsylvania dialect is known as “Pittsburghese”–named for the big city in the region. It is the closest I may come to experiencing an “ethnicity” in the same manner that so many Americans do. Don’t get me wrong, I am proudly American. But, I am Pennsylvanian first and always, no matter where I live. Rather than hide this rather idiosyncratic speech, I find myself landing on each “Pittsburghese” word more and more forcefully. Sure enough, I will put aside my dialect when in mixed company. But when I am among family, I notice the familiar patterns slide right back where they belong.
Pittsburghese has been described as if a German-born speaker, say an Amish person, tried to learn English from a Scots-Irishman. And well, that is exactly what happened. Anyone who has driving along the Pennsylvania Turnpike can’t help but think they have been transported back to the old Irish countryside, with placenames like Donegal and Somerset, then onward to England via York and Lancaster, and then old Germany Strasburg and Womelsdorf. Early settlers, away from the east coastal towns, were forced to learn English in the thickest fog of accents. And so, until the late 20th century anyway, these dialectical oddities survived in Pennsylvania.
I am surprised that, given the ubiquity of American culture now, that any of these phrases have stood the test of time. I am glad that they have, for these little “incorrect” parts of speech and colloquialisms tie me right back into my Pennsylvanian motherland. When I travel through the Allegheny mountains to visit what remains of my family, I am heartened by these little things.
Some of these words and phrases meandered into my vocabulary through my dad’s side of the family, where his mother’s line, the Kriders, were likely Pennsylvania Dutch–Amish–at some point. My own surname has been in Pennsylvania since at least the 1780’s, and we have all mastered the dialect, if not contributed to its continuation. While I might not use some of these words and phrases, I certainly hear them when around my dad or my extended family.
So, if you ever catch me in a moment of speaking in my Pennsylvanian tongue, I hope this little guide below helps you get through the conversation. The following phrases and word pronunciations come through Pennsylvania Dutch and Scots-Irish, and have something in common with Appalachian, Kentucky and Ohio River valley dialects for good reason—as they share a common ancestry.(sources: http://www.pittsburghese.com):
- Crick, not Creek. Also, Warsh, not Wash, and Root, not Route.
- “Dawn” and “Don” are homophones.
- Eagle is “Iggle”—so much so that Giant Eagle grocery stores once had a mascot named Iggle.
- Elisions of couldn’t, wouldn’t and shouldn’t to “coulda, woulda, shoulda”
- “Ignernt”—said just like this, not necessarily meaning “ignorant” but “rude.”
- The lack of the infinitive “to be”—“This needs washed” rather than “ This needs to be washed.”
- Yammerin—babbling—as in “What is he yammerin’ about?”
- The lack of an “—ing” ending on most verbs—e.g. “Where are you goin’?” Note that this pronunciation is different that the Italian-American “go-in.” It is more like “go-un.”
- Words ending in -ower are pronounced -ar. Shower is pronounced as shar, power as par, etc. This also applies to the word hour (pronounced as “are”).
Pittsburghese—the mother tongue of Pittsburgh–is as unique as the three rivers that flow through the city. I have to imagine that once KDKA radio started broadcasting over the air in the 1930’s, that the Pittsburgese dialect landed in many a living-room, including my grandparents, who gave me these nuggets:
- Babushka—a head-scarf
- Buggy—a grocery cart
- Chipped, or “chip-chop” Ham—a low quality deli-meat found mostly at Isley’s, now at Giant “Iggle.”
- “City Chicken”—pieces of pork skewered on wood to resemble a chicken leg. Pronounced “Cee-e Chicken.”
- Cruds, or Cruddled Milk—Cottage Cheese.
- Brick Cheese—Muenster Cheese
- Dippy Eggs—this is from the Amish “Dippy Ecks”—but basically, over-easy eggs. Dippy lends itself to the more colorful “dipshit.”
- Dahn-Tahn is “downtown’”. However, dollar is “dauwler”, college is “cauwlege”
- Mall is more like “maul”
- Gumband—rubber band
- Hoagie—sub sandwich
- Jagger—a thorn, or something like a thorn, or a pejorative (jagoff).
- Jumbo meat—Bologna
- Kennywood’s Open—your fly is down.
- Neb, nebby—nosey person.
So, when you make your next sojourn or accidental pit stop in Western Pennsylvania, you will be about as ready as any Berlitz guide will make you for another foreign land. Everyone fawns over Boston’s accent or New York’s attitude. The greater Pittsburgh area is full of the same dialectical charm and abuse of the Received Dialect.