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Patter, patois or pidgin, it's the talk of the town

Sunday, February 11, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In communicating like a native it's all locution, locution, locution

If yinz think Pittsburghese is disappearing, yinz better think again 'n' 'at: Plenny a people in Allegheny Cahny still go aht the hahs t' buy sahrkraht for New Year's dinner or see a tagger at the Picksburgh Zoo.

Barbara Johnstone, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has just completed the first part of the first ever socio-linguistic study of Pittsburghese. (Franka Bruns, Post-Gazette)

The city's distinctive dialect remains especially popular among working-class guys under the age of 30 and may even be on the increase, said Barbara Johnstone, a rhetoric professor at Carnegie Mellon University who is doing research on Pittsburghese.

In this increasingly homogenized world, "It's still a source of pride for them. They like to laugh about it. They like to make jokes about it," Johnstone said.

In her research, she found that the shortened vowel sound in dahntahn was not heard on the Ahia River before the turn of the last century. But from 1900 to 1919, the dahntahn sound spread quickly among a large group of immigrants and reached the height of its popularity right after World War II.

Baby boomers, who watched television shows, did not say tahr (tire) or fahr (fire) quite as often. But younger people today seem to be using it more than ever.

The dialect is still a big dill because it's both a pastime and a commodity. Strip District vendors sell bits of the language stamped on T-shirts and coffee mugs. At http://www.pittsburgh
, anyone can submit favorite expressions.

Nahns 'n' 'at
The Web site needs read if you really want to speak like a native. Here are just a few selections from just the nouns section of the glossary.

Am-blee-unce -- Ambulance

Blinkers -- Turn signals

Bob wahr -- Barbed wire

Buggy -- Shopping cart

Caketown -- Mt. Lebanon

Clicker -- Remote control. Hun, I can't turn on the Stiller game 'cause the clicker got lost under the pillas in the caach!

Davenport -- Sofa or caach

Dinge -- A dent

Dupa -- Back side

Fillings -- Feelings

Gumbands -- Rubber bands

Gutcheez -- Underwear

Hills -- Heels. I'm wearing high hills to the wedding.

Jaggerbush -- A plant with thorns

Jumbo -- Bologna

Keller -- Color

Lozenger -- Lozenge

Meer/Mirra -- Mirror

Owl -- Aisle

Pisgetti -- Spaghetti

Pow -- Pile. Go and redd up that pow of stuff there.

Raht -- Route.

Rolly Coaster -- An amusement park ride

Shahr/Shire -- Shower

Tellypole -- Telephone pole

Worsh Rag -- Washcloth


Pittsburghese, Johnstone said, can be traced to the Scotch-Irish immigrants who lived first in Scotland, then in Northern Ireland and settled in Western Pennsylvania. Redd up, as in redd up your room, is a Scotch-Irish expression.

Johnstone, a State College native, has produced several papers about the Pittsburgh patois and has also studied Southern dialects. She gives her students local projects because she believes it gets them more involved and excited about their work. She hopes to expand the Pittsburghese studies to women and to African American neighborhoods.

To tune their ears, Johnstone and two doctoral students studied word usage reported in the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States and watched a series of police training films from the 1960s and 1970s and some of WQED filmmaker Rick Sebak's documentaries.

The students, Denise Wittkofski and Neeta Bhasin, heard an earful last summer in casual, tape-recorded interviews with construction workers, carpenters and plumbers.

While growing up in West Mifflin, Witt-kofski worked hard to avoid speaking Pittsburghese.

"I just cringe when I hear it. I was more conscious of the grammar part -- dahn 'ere an' 'at. The lazy lingo. I don't think anybody has to tell you it's not right," Witt-kofski said.

The women focused on working-class men because, "That's where we thought we would find this particular speech pattern," said Wittkofski, who lives in Ross.

"For a while, Denise and I were these women who were desperately seeking young men. It was so hard to find young, working-class men," said Bhasin, a doctoral student studying rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon.

When Bhasin asked construction workers for the location of The Andy Warhol Museum, "Quite a few said, 'Dahntahn,' " she recalled.

While the study was limited to analysis of 114 speakers, the students believe Pittsburghese "is not decreasing in the younger generation. If anything, it might be increasing," Bhasin said.

During one interview, Bhasin did a double-take while listening to a construction worker who spoke English with an Eastern European accent, then switched into "dahn my hahs" mode.

Bhasin and Wittkofski asked the men if they were born here and plan to stay here.

"There is some type of covert prestige in sometimes using this local way of speaking. It's some kind of pride. That's why we wanted to focus on people who are locally oriented," Bhasin said.

In a conversation with a 22-year-old landscaper, Wittkofski learned he was born in Japan but moved to Pittsburgh at the age of 4.

"He had a great Pittsburgh accent. You consider that he's working with all these landscapers. You don't have to be born here to gain the accent," Wittkofski said.

Both students told interviewees that they were conducting a brief survey about Pittsburgh. Neither mentioned that they attended Carnegie Mellon or that they were studying language and rhetoric.

They did not want to make their subjects self-conscious about their accent and vocabulary.

Until she came to Pittsburgh, Bhasin had never heard anyone say nebby instead of nosey or slippy for slippery.

"I also heard the car 'needs washed,' and this one was definitely someone who was very well-to-do, an upper-class woman, a lawyer. She has been living here for so long."

Bhasin, who grew up in New Delhi, India, and lives in Friendship, is attracted to different ways of speaking.

"I tend to label them less, partly because I'm a foreigner. I'm always waiting to hear these different expressions and see whether what we've done matches with the kinds of things I'm hearing. It's a great conversation starter."

Everyone has an opinion on Pittsburghese.

"There are some people who say it sounds silly. It's always someone else who does it. They never do it," Bhasin said.

Not all of the dialect is unique to Pittsburgh.

Many Americans say 'hans' instead of hands. The Steelers are the Stillers but many Americans shorten that vowel sound, too, Johnstone said.

Then there's Pensivania, instead of Pennsylvania.

"If you spell it without the 'l,' it looks substandard. But people say this all the time, right?" Johnstone said.

Many Americans, Johnstone asserts, say sammich, not sandwich.

"Those are words that can be heard elsewhere in the United States. Think of how someone says handbag. Your mom had a handbag. Does anyone really say handbag? Most people pronounce the word without the 'd' in it."

And as for yinz?

"Yinz is Irish. It is also heard in other areas of southern Appalachia where Scotch-Irish immigrants settled," Johnstone said.

But there, it's spelled you'uns, showing that it's really a contraction of you ones.

Needs fixed may need fixed but it's not unique.

"You find that in the Midwest," said Johnstone, who lived in Fort Wayne, Ind., before moving to Pittsburgh.

Midwesterners also put r's in wash or Washington.

"You hear that in the Midwest, Oklahoma and Texas. That's pretty widespread," Johnstone said.

Nuh-uh! Git aht!

But dear old 'n' 'at may be unique.

"It's a regional version of something that everyone does. I have not personally heard it elsewhere. I don't think anyone has ever studied it," Johnstone said.

"Most people have some way of doing this at the end of the sentence -- that there's more to say but they're not going to say it. It's not important to say it."

Such phrases are "general extenders," including "blah blah blah," "yadda yadda yadda," "and so on," and "stuff like that."

Johnstone's next step will be to use oral histories recorded in Lawrenceville and the South Side to trace the history of Pittsburghese through generations of the same family.

Over time, Wittkofski's view of Pittsburghese has softened.

"It's kind of endearing, in a way. I also think it's just who you associate with. The working-class men. They're together all day. They go out after work. They'll go to the Stiller game."

When Wittkofski asked them what they did for fun on their day off, many of them replied, "We go aht."

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