Accent Humor: Pittsburghese

Accent humor is often mean-spirited and stereotypical. But  I can’t resist sharing this loving parody of the Pittsburghese (created by comedians who grew up in the area):

The actors are exaggerating this accent a bit, but the salient features of the Pittsburgh accent are all here:

*A back, rounded pronunciation of words like “Donny” and “stop” (“dawny,” “stawp”, i.e. IPA [ɒ:].)

*Very fronted pronunciations of the dipthong “go,” “don’t,” and “no,” (IPA [ɜʊ]) as well as the vowel in “do” and “goofy” (IPA [ʉ]) (similar to London, Philadelphia and many American Southern accents.)*

*And of course, the vowel in downtown or now becomes a low-central monopthong (IPA [a:]), most comically at 1:03 in the video (“Go on and get that nah, stop screwin’ arahnd!”)

The characters here are supposedly from Johnstown, about 60 miles outside Pittsburgh, and I’m guessing the actual Johnstownian accent is milder than Pittsburghese.   Accuracy aside, though, this is a pretty spot-on caricature of the regional dialect as a whole.

Pittsburghese has remained a fairly obscure dialect within American culture.  (The city has never had been as iconic as New York, Boston or Chicago.)  As someone not particularly acquainted with the region, its accents sounds like an interesting mishmash of Eastern New England, American Southern, Philadelphia and Great Lakes accents (which is fitting given Pittsburgh’s location between the East, South, Midwest and North.)

Western PA was the original heartland of the Scots-Irish immigrants who arrived in America in the 18th-Century.  There are some indicators of this influence in the dialect, namely the second-person plural yinz (This Pittsburgh verson of “youse” or “y’all.”).  Although the accent itself has very little that would suggest an Ulster or Scottish influence.

The funniest part about the above video, of course, is that the characters seem blissfully unaware they even have an accent.  It’s an absurdity found wherever English is spoken, whether we’re talking about an Oxford Don who thinks his accent is “neutral,” or a Michigander who thinks he speaks “normal American English.”  The English-speaking world is filled with those who think they “don’t have an accent.”

*Rough approximations.  As you can tell from the video, these vowels show a lot of variation.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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31 Responses to Accent Humor: Pittsburghese

  1. dw says:

    Although the accent itself has very little that would suggest an Ulster or Scottish influence.

    Wells suggests that the cot-caught merger may come from Scotland/Ulster. It’s certainly found there today, as a result of Aitken’s Law.

    • trawicks says:

      You’re right, there may be some evidence for Ulster Scots influence in terms of that. Western PA and the surrounding area is (at least to my knowledge), one of the only places in North America where the LOT vowel can extend to cardinal 6 for some speakers. That would suggest some kind of influence beyond run-of-the-mill vowel shifting.

    • TT says:

      I was gonna say that, but I figured someone else would. Wells also suggests that the neutralization of the contrast between intervocalic /-t-/ and /-d-/, e.g., latter vs. ladder may come from Ulster.

    • Latrice says:

      Haha, shouldn’t you be chargnig for that kind of knowledge?!

  2. Andrej Bjelaković says:

    “The city has never had been as iconic as New York, Boston or Chicago.”

    What movies, shows etc. would you recommend that have characters speaking with authentic Chicago accents?

    • trawicks says:

      Not many. You usually hear exaggerated caricatures in films and TV (e.g. that Saturday Night Live sketch from a few years back with the Bears Fans). It’s an accent heard frequently in the US media, however, thanks to all the actors and celebrities who come from there (Gary Sinise, the Belushi brothers, Joe Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Siskel and Ebert). But I’ve seen few films set in Chicago with more than a smattering of Chicagoans in the cast.

  3. Amy Stoller says:

    You might enjoy these:

    http://www.pittsburghese.com/ (A loving celebratory website devoted to Pittsburghese)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8ihyTbi2Kw (Barbara Johnstone is an acknowledged expert on Pittsburghese)

  4. Charles Sullivan says:

    From what I’ve read “yinz” or “yunz” (spellings vary) is derived (over time) from “you ones.”

  5. AL says:

    Very entertaining video! I definitely get a “country”-ish feeling from it, though even I can tell it’s not “Southern.”

  6. Mike says:

    I promise you there is nothing exaggerated in this clip. If anything, the actors are showing restraint. The true hardcore yinzer accent is even more extremely weird than any attempt to parody it.

  7. Charles Sullivan says:

    Maybe you can find a clip of the TV show The Wire where the character Dennis Mello talks. His dialect feels very Pittsburgh (even though the show is supposed to take place in Baltimore).

  8. trawicks says:

    @AL,

    Appalachian English is typically thought to have derived from this region, so that’s not entirely coincidental. Obviously, as you go more south, more typical Southernisms come into play.

    @Mike,

    I will say, they did show some restraint with one feature, l-vocalization (i.e. they pronounced their l’s a bit more). My girlfriend, who went to school in the region, has made a similar statement, though: real yinzers have much thicker accents!

    @Charles,

    There are some commonalities with Baltimore/Philadelphia accents here, namely l-vocalization and fronting of the GOOSE and GOAT sets. I’m betting those features originally spread from Eastern to Western PA.

  9. boynamedsue says:

    In Italian, Pittsburghuese would be ‘pitsborghese’, which is cool I feel.

  10. TT says:

    That sounds like a sauce I put on my pasta the other night. Yeah, Italian’s just cool in general.

  11. boynamedsue says:

    even better “pizzborghese”

  12. Charles Sullivan says:

    Among Pittsburgh speakers,. the word “color” (or colour, among the British), is pronounced “keller” or something pretty close. Is there a vowel shift that explains that?

    • trawicks says:

      I’m not sure about what the “e” in “keller” indicates, but I will say that Pittsburghese does seem to have some vowel shifting in terms of that vowel. The vowel in words like STRUT or FUDGE appears to move toward the vowel in words like TOP or FATHER (i.e. “straht”/”fahdge” or maybe “strawt”/”fawdge”).

      “Keller” may have something to do with the presence of an “l,” which changes the preceding vowel in Pittsburghese: hence “stillers” for “steelers,” “melk” for “milk,” “roller” for “ruler.” Or it may be a pronunciation specific to that word.

  13. It’s an absurdity found wherever English is spoken, whether we’re talking about an Oxford Don who thinks his accent is “neutral”…

    Yes, this is absurd, although not totally meaningless in context. Most people are aware of how “broad”they talk compared to whatever is the relevant prestige model, or to put it another way how local their accent is, and the broader it is the more of “an accent” they have. To defend the hypothetical Oxford don (lower-case d), presumably chosen to represent the epitome of the RP speaker (though why, I have no idea — this isn’t the 1890s), RP is indeed in a very meaningful sense “neutral”. It’s an accent which by definition shows where the speaker is from socially rather than geographically, or to put it another way it’s an accent which is heard over a wide geographical area, yet there’s no place in which it is spoken by everyone.

    To get back to the subject of Pittsburghese, you don’t mention a feature that jumps out at me: [d] for /θ/ (voiced “th” in case that character doesn’t show up for everyone). Also, aren’t they calling it “Picksburgh”? That fronted GOAT diphthong is a feature of certain Southern accents, isn’t it, but I’m not clear exactly which ones.

    • trawicks says:

      It’s funny, stopped variants of “th” (whether voiced or unvoiced) are so common among urban accents in the US that I barely take note of them anymore. Although it would be unusual if said stops weren’t dentalized–I’d have to watch the video again to see if that’s the case.

      I’m not entirely sure what is going on in the “Pixburgh” pronunciation. Back allophones for ‘t’ are/were indeed part of some Southern accents, most famously in the pronunciation of “skreet” for “street” (although these appear to be recessive). This is normally attributed to the specific consonant cluster “str-,” although I couldn’t say for sure what kind of rule creates “Pixburgh.”

      Regarding the Oxford don thing, I use that as an example because it’s so often associated with the near-extinct (or maybe just extinct) U-RP accent. Which, as you suggest, has it’s roots in late-Victorian/Edwardian prestige accents. Contemporary Oxford dons may have Lancashire, Welsh or marked London accents, of course.

      • I use that as an example because it’s so often associated with the near-extinct (or maybe just extinct) U-RP accent

        Well, in a Central-Casting-stereotype way I suppose, but that’s a very dated stereotype (even the as the old-fashioned word “don” implies), but you could say the same about bishops or Church of England clergymen. If it’s that particular old-fashioned RP you’re aiming to invoke, age is the main factor. I’d say it’s extinct among people of all social classes below at least middle age.

        Also, the reference to Oxford dons implies, perhaps misleadingly, that the more highly-educated a speaker is the more likely they are to speak RP. That’s arguable nowadays, when education in the UK is no longer a luxury commodity or the birthright of a chosen few (thank God and enlightened social reforms, though pessimists might counter “watch this space”). It’s as much a matter of social poshness as education. The ageing aristocrats who archetypically speak U-RP are not necessarily all that highly educated.

        Sorry for going off-topic a bit!

        • trawicks says:

          Off-topic is welcome! (I mean, unless it devolves into conversations about sports or hotel accomodations).

          I sometimes wonder if there’s more of a correlation between accent and education in the States these days than in the UK. Universities are often politically progressive places, and while the political dimension of dialect is something Britons are aware of, it hasn’t quite hit home in the US yet. Cultural diversity is a focus of many American campuses, but “linguistic diversity” in America hasn’t moved much beyond the “Ebonics” debate of the 1990s.

    • TT says:

      “That fronted GOAT diphthong is a feature of certain Southern accents, isn’t it, but I’m not clear exactly which ones.”

      As an American from outside the South, I think of it as a feature of most Southern accents. It sounds a lot like RP/southern English GOAT to my ears. There is a nice table here that gives you a good overview of typical Southern realizations of the lexical sets. GOAT fronting is more common among younger speakers according to that chart, as you can see (although older speakers have mild fronting). And with the fronting of GOAT and GOOSE, I wouldn’t say that they’re restricted to rural areas or small towns (despite that it says “rural”) in the South. I’ve heard strong fronting of those vowels from people from larger cities, who otherwise don’t have very strong accents. Actually, I think it might discuss that here. As you can see, the realizations of certain vowels are surprisingly similar to Australian or southern English realizations, even though people don’t typically think of those accents as sounding remotely similar to each other. I hope that helps.

      • TT says:

        It says my comment is awaiting moderation. I hope I didn’t say anything too naughty in it :)

        • trawicks says:

          No, not at all. I use Akismet, a standard-issue spam blocker. It’s very effective, but tends to put comments with more than one link into the moderation queue.

          Although I suppose “goat fronting” doesn’t have the most wholesome ring to it ;)

        • TT says:

          Well, I think it’s more wholesome than DRESS raising.

  14. Wow, some well trained ears here, all i could hear was a weak southern accent.

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