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Diphthongs and Dahntahn

June 30, 2010—Professor Shari Robertson, of the Department of Special Education and Clinical Services, and her daughter Brianna talk about what distinguishes our Western Pennsylvania dialect.

Sometimes, it’s as much about how you say it as what you say.

Take, for instance, the speech that native Western Pennsylvanians use. There are many reading this story now—native Pittsburghers and proud of it—who may not know they have a dialect. For decades, pundits and comedians alike have poked fun at Pittsburghese—how its users omit, add, or overemphasize some consonants, combine syllables, and under-maneuver vowels—“dahntahn” for “downtown,” for example.

My own parents, native New Englanders who moved to the wilds of Western Pennsylvania and then had children, actually poked plenty of fun at my brothers and me for how we overemphasized Rs—“park” for “pahk”, “yard” for “yahd”—as in “Hahvahd Yahd.” If you ask me, they were the ones who had the accents.

But, really, what distinguishes a Western Pennsylvania dialect from others?

According to IUP speech language pathologist Shari Robertson and her daughter, Brianna, an alumna of IUP’s speech language pathology program, how we Western Pennsylvanians say words is as significant, perhaps more significant, than what we say. And the accent reaches far beyond Pittsburgh’s three rivers.

Robertson and Robertson recently presented research at the American Speech Language Hearing Association convention that indicates speakers of the Western Pennsylvania dialect are distinguished as much through syntax and semantics (grammar and meaning) as through phonology (pronunciation habits).

Shari Robertson believes the dialect formed largely because of the region’s topography: Immigrants tended to travel to the western part of the state to seek opportunity and then settled atop ridges and into deep valleys, where versions of American English developed and stuck—like a jagger (that’s Western Pennsylvanian for thorn).

Brianna and Shari Robertson

Professor Shari Robertson, of the Department of Special Education and Clinical Services, and her daughter Brianna Robertson ’09, an alumna of IUP’s speech language pathology program. Photo by Keith Boyer.

“There’s been quite a bit of research on this. Many of the people who originally settled here were not literate. So all language was passed on verbally, and there was not a written standard to go back to. And so that’s why some of the interesting pronunciations have stayed—because language was passed on orally,” Shari Robertson said. “Spigot is one that I particularly notice. In the Midwest, ‘spigot’ is the thing you turn on. Around here, people say ‘spicket.’ I teach phonology, and when I mention this to my undergrads, they say, ‘But it’s “spicket.”’ Again, it’s because many of the early settlers here passed along that pronunciation verbally.”

Western Pennsylvania vocabulary usage is heavily based in usage by Irish immigrants who made their way to America by way of Scotland, and then further influenced by German and Slavic settlers who also made their way west.

Brianna Robertson’s research suggests that there also is a strong Southern influence in the pronunciation of many words and some phrasing. For example, many Western Pennsylvanians drop the helping verb “to be.” Many say, “The potholes need fixed,” when the rest of the nation would say, “The potholes need to be fixed.”

Far Beyond Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers

Map of Pennsylvania showing locations of study participants

The Western Pennsylvania dialect can be found far beyond Pittsburgh. Click the image for a larger version.

Brianna uncovered evidence that the dropping of the helping verb can be linked to sentence structure in African languages—which were over time sprinkled into the American English spoken in the South. It is believed that these speech characteristics made their way north through venues like the Underground Railroad and the influx of workers who came to work in coal mines and steel mills.

Brianna uncovered evidence that the dropping of the helping verb—as in “The potholes need fixed”—can be linked to sentence structure in African languages.

Owning the Dialect

The Robertsons’ research included people born in twenty-six Western Pennsylvania counties, as far north as Erie and down to the Maryland border and from the Ohio state line to the eastern tip of Cameron County. Brianna gathered and compiled the data, while Shari analyzed it, and together they made conclusions—including the fact that the dialect reaches well past Pittsburgh city limits.

“When asked about their personal perceptions of the dialect, younger speakers reported more positive perceptions of the dialect than older speakers,” Shari Robertson said. “Many younger speakers asserted that they were proud of their dialect and would continue to use it. However, older speakers were much more apt to report negative feelings and perceptions about the dialect. No older speakers reported they were proud to be a speaker of the dialect and used words such as ‘hickish,’ ‘uneducated,’ and ‘odd-sounding’ when asked how they thought others perceived the dialect.”

Robertson also said older speakers were more apt to say they would not use the dialect when speaking with non-Western Pennsylvanians.

“When asked about their personal perceptions of the dialect, younger speakers reported more positive perceptions of the dialect than older speakers.”

“It was interesting to note that there was little to no correlation between self-identification as a Western Pennsylvania dialect speaker and the use of the vowel markers investigated,” she said. “In other words, most speakers were not aware that they were using vowel patterns that were not typical of standard American English. Speakers were more apt to associate dialect use with where they lived and the vocabulary that they used. Typically, participants who lived closer to Pittsburgh, which is considered the culture center of the dialect, were more likely to self-identify than those who live in the northern and eastern parts of the dialectical region.

“The farther you get away from Pittsburgh, there is more diversity [in dialect]. That’s the interesting thing about studying dialect,” she said. “What’s making it converge to stay the same or diverge. What’s making people less apt to speak it, or more apt to speak it.”

“We looked at family, too,” said Brianna Robertson. “We asked if parents were born in Western Pennsylvania and about their backgrounds, to see how far back their families had settled in particular towns.”

In addition to vocabulary, the dialect comprises certain vowel patterns, syllable stress, and grammar structure. Western Pennsylvania dialect speakers, Shari Robertson said, are more aware of some of the vocabulary – but not all.

“When asked to identify vocabulary that is typical to the dialect, most provided words that are typically discussed in print: yinz or yunz [for you—meaning “you ones”], dahntahn [for downtown], jeet jet [for “Did you eat yet?”]. Although, they demonstrated numerous dialect-specific vocabulary in their conversational speech.”

In Translation

The Robertsons provided the following sample of Western Pennsylvania vocabulary.

Term Western Pa. Variant
dented stove in
softball mush ball
vacuum sweeper
shopping cart buggy
thorns jaggerbush
baloney or bologna jumbo
frightened ascared
untied aloose
nosey nebby
town square diamond
slippery slippy
lately anymore (“Anymore, I seem tired out.”)
let the dog out leave the dog out

How We Say It

Both Robertsons, who moved to Western Pennsylvania from the Great Lakes Region when Brianna was in fourth grade, were quick to provide examples of how Western Pennsylvanians miss the point of diphthongs—two adjacent vowel sounds in one syllable.

“The ‘aw’ sound is used for more words here—in mom, pop, and holler,” Shari Robertson offered as an example. “That’s the number one vowel marker for the Western Pennsylvania dialect—that use of aw.”

“Pool and pull,” Brianna Robertson said, mimicking the dialect so that they both sounded the same. “People here say them exactly the same.”

This notion was lost on my Western Pennsylvanian ears until I started digging around and discovered that, in fact, Standard American English suggests the word we use to describe the body of water is pronounced so that the “oo” sound is distinctly different from the “uh” sound in pull.

“The vowels are the hardest thing for people to change here—not the consonants. As a speech-language pathologist, I can show you how to make certain consonant sounds. But, with vowels, it’s only tongue position—listen to the difference between the sounds of vowels—eh, ee, ah, uh. It’s very subtle. The Western Pennsylvania dialect is known for the collapsing of the vowel sounds,” Shari Robertson explained, noting that intonations borrowed from German cause Western Pennsylvanians to shorten some syllables; in some cases, we add sounds—or we change them completely.

Removing or Collapsing Sounds

Term Western Pa. Variant
towel tal
company cumpny
iron arhn
battery battry
fire far
foul ball fahl ball
library liberry
napkin nakin
aisle ahl
pound pahn
problem prollem
sandwich sammitch
tire iron tarn
older oder

Changing Sounds

Such as changing the sounds of “pool” and “pull.”

Term Western Pa. Variant
chimney chimley
spigot spicket
meal mill
broom brum
creek crick
jail jell
picture pitcher
roof ruff
radiator rahdiator (rhymes with gladiator)
really rilly
sure shore
don dawn

Collapsing Syllables or Words into Smaller Units

Term Western Pa. Variant
and that n’at
i’m up here mup-ere
with onions thunyuns
supposed to apostu
down to the club downa club
didn’t dint
with you witchew


Adding Sounds

Term Western Pa. Variant
wash warsh
cousin cousint
drawing drawling
chiropractor quiropractor
elm elum
especially ekspecially
once onest

Syntactic/Grammar

Eleven foot tall or seventy mile per hour (deletes plural)
Where’s Susie at? (“at” is redundant in standard dialect)
I went downstairs once (“once” not commonly found in this context in standard English)
I did it on accident (rather than “by accident”)

Is It Disappearing?

Shari Robertson maintains that as time marches on, dialects will homogenize. She points out that in the eastern United States, there are many dialects, but in the West, the dialectical maps are large, covering vast amounts of geography. She said there is not a vast difference between how people in Montana speak compared to how people in Wyoming speak.

“By the time they got to the West, people were pretty melted in the melting pot,” she said. “Some researchers will tell you that all dialects are disappearing. Others will tell you that people hold onto them out of pride.”

“Television, radio, all of the communications we have now are now mostly oral, so we hear it and it’s causing some change. Mostly mobility and travel are causing change. When we go to Michigan to visit family, we code switch,” Brianna said, referring to the ability many people have to drop a dialect when they find it necessary.

“My family thinks Bri now sounds very Western Pennsylvanian,” Shari said.

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