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).