Pittsburghese: The Evolution of a Dialect

Jason Alley/ Flickr

Many areas of the country have distinctive accents, dialects, and lingual patterns, but none quite like that of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania. “Pittsburghese,”[1] as it is known, is a cultural goulash of speech and mannerisms derived from the many immigrants who settled the area. The geography of the region, in addition to the people who settled it, contributed mightily to the modern dictation (and creation) of words, including such examples as “yinz,” “jaggers,” and “slippy.”

Sociolinguists track the origins of the Pittsburghese speech pattern to Scots-Irish settlers in Southwestern Pennsylvania in the 18th century. What was most curious about this group of immigrants was their inflection of Gaelic-infused English; much different from their close-to-London brethren. Coincidentally, over the years the dialect was passed on to newcomers such as Germans, African-Americans, and Eastern Europeans who also settled in the region; but this trend was not as widespread as originally thought. Barbara Johnstone, professor of Rhetoric and Linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University, noted a Pittsburgher who moved away in 1960 might have identified the accent with those from working-class neighborhoods; but if that individual returned in 2000, they would be met with an entirely different lingual (and cultural) experience.[2]
The development of the dialect after World War II occurred via the cultural and industrial renaissance of Pittsburgh. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, the city dedicated itself to urban renewal and environmental cleanliness, and modernization. This included building such works as the Civic Arena and the Fort Pitt Tunnel, refurbishing the dilapidated and inefficient Golden Triangle, and reducing the pollutants from industrial mills. The collapse of the steel industry in the 1970’s forced many Pittsburghers to leave the city to find work, but people retained their fierce loyalty to the city, its sports teams, its industrious history and, for our purposes, its dialect. Representations of the language became ubiquitous in advertising, publishing, and culture; producing a sense of “Pittsburgh patriotism” in a combination of remembrance of what was and anticipation of what will be.

“Yinzers,” as the locals are called, embrace their Pittsburgh heritage through their ethnic and lingual roots. Pittsburgh phrases and words have been published in newspapers for over a century, defining the curious lexicon of the region. You can now find dictionaries dedicated solely to Pittsburghese: the most popular of which was published by Sam McCool in 1982. Depending on the Pittsburgher, speech patterns and accents depend largely on their interaction with the dialect itself. Today, it is common to find sayings and words on T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other paraphernalia. Walk into most local establishments and you can find evidence of some kind of Pittsburghese reference. So whether you’re going to the “Giant Iggle” to push your “buggy” around, or going “dahntahn” to get a “hoagie,” you can always be sure to encounter some distinctive lingual flair in Pittsburgh.

[1] Also known as Western Pennsylvania English and Pittsburgh English.

[2] Barbara Johnstone, Speaking Pittsburghese: The History of a Dialect (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013), 4.