Yes/No Intonation: The Pennsylvania Question

Yes or No?

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I lovingly tease my wife for having the most General of American accents I’ve ever heard. She grew up in an area with a unique dialect (the Philadelphia region), yet betrays little of this upbringing in her speech*. Except, that is, for one possible giveaway which I’ll call the Pennsylvania Question.

In much of America, if you ask someone a yes/no question like ‘Is it warm outside?’ the intonation will inevitably go up at the end, sounding roughly like this:

———————————side——–
———————–out——————-
———–warm—————————-
Is it—————————————–

In parts of Pennsylvania, however, the intonation sometimes does something different. It falls after the stressed word in the sentence:

————-warm———————
——it———————————
Is————————-outside—–

(Don’t you phoneticists rush at once to steal my WordPress-Friendly Intonation Transcription system.)

My first impression of the pattern was that it sounded like an American who’s enjoyed a spell overseas. British RP and Southeast England treat yes/no questions quite similarly in certain contexts. (Phonetician Esther Grabe has found this pattern in London and Cambridge; less so in Northern England). But after attending a few events in Western Pennsylvania, the phenomenon’s state-specific nature became more obvious.

I found that a few scholarly works (e.g. this one) passingly mention a specific source for falling intonation in Pennsylvania: German. Tellingly, in her paper The Pennsylvania German English: The language of the Pennsylvania Germans, linguist Kirsten Vera van Rhee attests to a falling intonation among PA German English-speakers in ‘did it bother you?’ and ‘don’t it fit?’

But this raises a few questions. First, this is to my knowledge one of the few instances where PA German has a noticeable influence on PA English. By contrast, Germanic languages bear an unmistakeable stamp on the accents of the Upper Midwest. Yet despite German being still spoken natively in PA, its impact on the phonetics and phonology of Pennsylvania English seems limited. So why this one feature?

I’m also unclear as to the geographic provenance of this pattern. I’ve personally noticed it in the speech of folks from the Western Suburbs of Philly and areas of Western and Central PA, but I’m not entirely sure if it extends into the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia themselves.

Where is this intonation pattern found? Are there other instances of German influence in Pennsylvania accents?

*Side note: Dawson’s Creek fans may remember actor Kerr Smith, who played Jack on the show. He grew up near my wife, attending the same high school, yet unlike her has an unmistakeable Philly accent (an obvious tense/lax split for TRAP words, advanced fronting of the GOOSE and GOAT vowels, etc.). Strange how people can grow up in the same area in America, under near-identical socioeconomic circumstances, yet speak very differently. Also, I have watched way too much Dawson’s Creek lately.

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About Ben

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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14 Responses to Yes/No Intonation: The Pennsylvania Question

  1. Mike Jones says:

    Do you have any audio examples of this?

    • Alas, I don’t! Given the (relative) infrequence of Y/N questions in speech, plus the fact that this pattern strikes as fairly inconsistent, it’s hard to track down a sample unless someone has done a study of this particular subject.

    • Jenny Anders says:

      Here are some examples from a lecture on Pittsburghese at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s a good lecture if you want to know about Pittsburgh speech and you have the time to watch it.

  2. Jonathon says:

    Interesting! I heard about this several years ago from a friend who went to Pennsylvania to visit another friend and was completely flummoxed by it.

  3. Thoughtful Troll says:

    NYC here, and my intonation would fall after “warm” as well; I don’t think I’ve even ever heard the other version!

    (I can think of an exception though, based on context:

    “It’s cold inside”
    -Well, is it warm OUTside?” [intonation rising until first syllable of last word]

    • Ellen K. says:

      Are you perhaps thinking of stress instead of intonation?

      Frankly, I’ve no idea what my intonation is. But, as far as stress, I would stress “warm”, though, in the exception, I would stress out. The same exact pattern, except for stress, not pitch.

    • I agree with Ellen; I think you might be confusing stress with intonation here. ‘Warm’ is still the stressed word in the sentence, but intonation-wise, the phrase still ‘goes up’ in most American accents. It’s kind of like the difference between notes and dynamics in music; you might have a piece with the three adjacent notes C-D-E, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that D and E are louder or more emphasized than C.

  4. Tom says:

    I’ve definitely heard this intonation from my relatives in Western PA, and I may even do it myself from time to time (Philly suburbs, grew up in South Jersey), but it also seems to me that this intonation is used in Amish speech, if I’m understanding you correctly. Of course, the Amish in PA are also known as Pennsylvania Dutch (one of my grandmothers came from that heritage), so is this what you’re talking about as far as the German influence?

    • It is, yes. Not quite sure if you’re implying this or not, but “PA Dutch” is not actually Dutch, but rather dialects of German that originated in what is present-day Switzerland, Western Germany and Eastern France. ‘Dutch’ used in this way is just an anglicization of Deitsch, the Pennsylvania German word for their language.

  5. m.m. says:

    >>(Don’t you phoneticists rush at once to steal my WordPress-Friendly Intonation Transcription system.)

    a nice chuckle was had xD

    >>Strange how people can grow up in the same area in America, under near-identical socioeconomic circumstances, yet speak very differently.

    you can get the same effect within households, cause a degree or two in social network difference can make difference what speech is acquired/practiced~

    • Especially true given the nature of the nuclear family. Due to various moves, there are siblings within my own family that ended up with entirely different regional accents (if, for example, the family moved to a new area when one child was 16 but the other was 10).

  6. Charles Sullivan says:

    Maybe temperature matters more than location, or vice versa.

    Maybe some poor, cold-ass Philadelphians who were tired of freezing their butts off invented that phrasing(?) or not.

  7. mark says:

    This is prevalent in Lancaster County, PA. I’m a native who moved away at the age of 1, but it still seems natural to me.