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Yinz tag
Graffiti a Pittsburgher could love: The word “yinz” is the plural form of “you.” (Flickr Photo / Matt Diemi)

Depending on who you talk to, or listen to, the popular belief is that there’s not really a distinct accent in Seattle. If you’re from the Northeast United States, or the South or parts of the Midwest, where people talk like (insert your impression) this or that, then Seattleites just sound kind of … nondescript.

But it’s a different linguistic story in Pittsburgh, where GeekWire is setting up shop in a second headquarters during the month of February. Part of our crew arrived last night, exploring the pubs and restaurants in the Lawrenceville neighborhood. While we seek to better understand the city’s ongoing transformation from one-time industrial city to tech and innovation hub, we surely want to learn everything we can about what we’re hearing.

The celebration of Pittsburgh’s history and culture can go in any number of directions, but for the purposes of this discussion, we stuck to dialect. And we did that with someone who literally wrote a book on Pittsburghese: Barbara Johnstone, a professor of English and linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University.

And before we get too far from that word, Carnegie, we asked Johnstone, who has been at the university for about 20 years, whether it’s “Car-NAY-gie,” with emphasis on the middle syllable, or “Car-nuh-gie,” a flatter pronunciation.

CMU professor Barbara Johnstone
CMU professor Barbara Johnstone. (CMU Photo)

“The stress is on the second syllable,” Johnstone advised. “But, you won’t hear the higher ups at Carnegie Mellon pronouncing it that way. They all pronounce it Car-nuh-gie Mellon, which, to local ears, sounds wrong. We have a system on the bus which automatically reads off the names of the stops, and when the system first was introduced, it said Car-nuh-gie Mellon, and there we complaints, and they changed it to Car-NAY-gie Mellon. I guess the president of the university and so on don’t ride the bus.”

Johnstone said that the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie pronounced his name with the accented second syllable, but that when he moved to New York City, she theorizes that he may have anglicized his name and made it sound more English with the Car-nuh-gie pronunciation.

“For the most part, the stuff that has his name in New York is pronounced Car-nuh-gie, and the stuff that has his name in the Pittsburgh area is pronounced Car-NAY-gie.”

Beyond the pronunciation of the name of that particular university, Johnstone said there are other words and little bits of grammar, and sounds and an accent that Pittsburgh visitors will hear.

“You have to be listening to or talking to the right people because not everyone has that accent,” Johnstone said, adding that some have much less of it than others. Most well-educated young people don’t have much of an accent anymore, aside from one or two things that might be picked up by a really good ear, she said.

There’s a fun website called Pittsburghese.com — not associated with Johnstone’s book — that offers up a glossary, translator, audio quiz and more. The site even links off to Johnstone for anyone doing “serious” research on Western Pennsylvania dialect.

A quick glance at a variety of words definitely informs the mind and tongue as you say them out loud (out lahd?) back to yourself. For example:

  • Arn: Iron
  • Dahntahn: Downtown
  • Jaunt Iggle: Giant Eagle (a grocery store chain)
  • Jano: Did you know

Outsiders, or people who just love comedy, would also do well to watch some videos from Pittsburgh Dad, a YouTube personality played by Curt Wootton. The videos are an excellent primer for anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by talk of Pittsburgh talk. He’s especially enthusiastic about the Pittsburgh sports teams, including the Steelers (Stillers).

It’s one thing to have grown up with an accent and have it be a natural part of who you are and how you speak, reflexively. It’s quite another to use words to endear yourself to a particular community in the hopes of fitting in.

“There are lots of people, and this includes lots of newcomers — we already have a bit of a tech boom going on here — who are sort of picking up on the fact that there is a local accent and they think it’s kind of cool and they learn some of the words and they recycle some of the words. Needless to say, they know something about Pittsburghese, but they’re not native speakers with that accent.”

“Yinz” is probably the most popular of such words. The word, which means “you all” or “you folks,” dates back to the area’s first English-speaking settlers, who came from northern Ireland, Scotland and northern England, according to a profile of Johnstone on the CMU website. “It has been used since the 18th century as a way to address more than one person,” the article said.

Today, the word shows up on local bumper stickers and T-shirts and Christmas tree ornaments and much more, perhaps in the hopes of spreading Pittsburghese far and wide.

Just this week, author Stephen King — a guy from Maine with an accent of his own — gave a random shout-out on Twitter to Pittsburghers and their accent.

Johnstone, who is originally from State College, Pa., said that picking up some words and using them for fun or to feel comfortable is different than trying to mimic the accent and make it your own. And she said that she doesn’t think the accent or Pittsburghese are a “liability” for the city as it tries to attract Amazon’s HQ2 or any other big company looking to set up shop in town.

“I think it’s something that people can be proud of, that sets the town apart a little bit,” Johnstone said.

“And if [GeekWire] wants to hear people with local accents, you can’t just hang around Google. You’ve got to go to some really local restaurant, for example.”

Thanks for dhat, Barbara. See you dare!

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