Is the Pittsburgh Accent 'Ugly?'

Oct 14, 2014

  

Live in the city long enough and you'll be sure to hear bits of "Pittsburghese."
Credit Shaun / Flickr

Updated at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday: Pittsburgh has advanced to the final round of Gawker's "America's Ugliest Accent" tournament. But is this a source of pride or a source of embarrassment?

Some area linguists argue that when people make fun of local accents or describe them as “ugly,” they’re actually making fun of poor and working class people.

University of Pittsburgh linguistics professor Scott Kiesling has researched the Pittsburgh accent in collaboration with Barbara Johnstone, CMU professor of English and linguistics and author of "Speaking Pittsburghese."

Kiesling emphasizes that you can’t talk about accents without talking about the people who speak them.

“You’re actually talking about a certain kind of person when you’re thinking about how they’re talking, and usually that person is not a prestigious person in the case of a local accent," Kiesling said. "It’s very much a kind of working-class or poor person, and so there’s a kind of, almost, a linguistic discrimination going on in this case, I’d say.”

This Howcast by voice and speech coach Andrea Caban claims to teach viewers "How to do a Pittsburgh accent."

Like many other distinct cultural features of Pittsburgh, its accent is rooted in the region’s immigrant history, Keisling explains, although its precise origins are not fully clear.

“We guess on that one,” Keisling said. “But it starts off with the Scots/Irish — or Scotch/Irish — immigrants, and then it seems like there’s a layer on top of that from a lot of the Slavic immigration in the industrialization period, so in a lot of ways the Pittsburgh accent is similar to everything that’s east and west of it — especially west of it. But then there’s things like the ‘downtown’ that is actually unique to Pittsburgh. So, it looks like it’s this sort of layering of a couple of different things that happened.”

With regard to Gawker’s ugliest accent tournament, Kiesling said he’s not sure what to make of it: Why would people want to claim the ugliest accent? What does it mean to call an accent ugly?

“I think we (need to) ask why people think it’s ugly," Kiesling said. "Is it the accent that people are talking about, or is it their stereotype of Pittsburgh? … It’s still interesting that a lot of people think it’s a source of pride that they’re the ugliest accent, so I don’t know — it’s kind of weird to me.”

Embracing the Pittsburgh accent at a PA Resources Council recycling event.
Credit PA Resources Council / Flickr