The famous, or perhaps infamous, Pittsburgh accent is as central to the Steel City’s identity as Terrible Towels and yellow bridges.
Clothing, merchandise and even license plates are branded with some variation of “yinz,” “n’at” or “jagoff.” For newcomers to Pittsburgh, the words and pronunciations can be surprising.
Even though it was once voted "ugliest," the speech of western Pennsylvanian is distinct, and developed in a very interesting way.
Recipe for Pittsburghese: Two Parts Scots-Irish, Boats Of Immigrants, Mix Well
Pittsburgh’s unique jargon is the most recognizable element of the region’s dialect, but according to University of Pittsburgh professor in the Department of Linguistics Scott Kiesling, its subtleties in cadence and intonation are just as significant, as is the way they came to be.
“It’s all those immigrants coming together and mixing up, learning English on the street. Then that became the way English was spoken,” Kiesling said. “This migration upset a lot of the pronunciation and that’s why western Pennsylvania has a unique dialect.”
Most English language accents in this part of the United States originate from English, Scottish and Irish speakers, said Kiesling. Many Pittsburghese terms, like “slippy,” “nebby” and “jaggerbush” derive from Scots-Irish immigrants.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Pittsburgh’s population nearly doubled, as waves of immigrants moved to work in the city. Kiesling said the laborers were largely non-English speakers, who learned the language through conversations with other non-native speakers.
“All the workers were the ones talking to each other,” Kiesling said.
Even though these newcomers were still speaking their native tongues at home and in their neighborhood spaces, Kiesling said a bastardized form of English was beginning to form, with accents melding in a way that didn’t happen many other places.
“All this migration upset a lot of the pronunciation,” Kiesling said.
Accents in Pennsylvania, and in most parts of the country, depend largely on migration patterns. Immigrants might come in through a port on the East Coast and move west, taking their culture and language with them.
“That’s why Buffalo sounds a lot like Chicago or Cleveland, but Cleveland is different from Pittsburgh,” Kiesling said.
The accent didn’t really garner a lot of attention until the 1980s, when, according to a 2014 Slate article by Matthew J.X. Malady, Sam McCool’s New Pittsburghese: How to Speak Like a Pittsburgher, was published.
“[It was] the first time that someone had detailed for a mass audience the sounds and words that make up the dialect, and it provided thousands of displaced Pittsburghers a way to reconnect with their home town.”
The book’s publication coincided with the decline of the steel industry and exodus of many young native Pittsburghers from the region, so many readers were reminded of their childhood communities.
Monophthongization on the Mon
Barbara Johnstone, an English and linguistics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has published many papers and written one of the most in-depth books about the Pittsburgh accent, "Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect." In it, she describes the language experiments and interviews she conducted. It’s the quintessential book on the Pittsburgh accent.
A great way to test if someone may be from Pittsburgh based on pronunciation, said Kiesling, is to have them say the phrase “Knox’s Pierogi House.”
“So you’ve got to get the ‘aw’ in Knox and the ‘oh’ in pierogi and the ‘ah’ in house,” Kiesling said.
This illustrates a vowel shift called monophthongization. It’s when vowels merge and make words a little shorter. It’s evident in how the “ow” in “downtown” changes to “ah” in the Pittsburgh pronunciation, “dahntahn.”
In a 2016 article for the Glassblock, Johnstone wrote that people inclined to monophthongize “do so not just in ‘dahntahn’ but in any syllable that includes this sound and ends in a constant sound.” Not only would the monophthongization apply to “downtown” and “house,” but to “deal” and “really.”
Monophthongization started appearing in western Pennsylvania dialects around the 1920s, according to this CMU study.
Another linguistic feature common to Pittsburghers is what Kiesling called the “merger.” Most English speakers in the United States pronounce the words “bot” and “bought” or “cot” and “caught” exactly the same. They’d be “baht” and “baht.” This is an example of a merger.
In parts of the eastern United States, words like “caught” and “cot,” have distinctively different pronunciations. Someone from upstate New York might say “caught” sounding like “cawght” and cot as “caht.”
In Pittsburgh, however, instead of the previous pronunciations, natives say the words the same way, but differently than the rest of the country. They might pronounce the words “bawght” and “bawght.”
Gumbands, Dippy Eggs and Buggies
To truly know if someone grew up in the Pittsburgh region, their vocabulary might be a good clue.
Words like “nebby,” “redd up” and “jagoff” have Scots-Irish roots, said Kiesling. To “jag” means to tease or irritate, as defined in the Pittsburghese dictionary, so applying the idea to a noun makes a “jagoff” a person that is dumb or annoying.
Another list of Pittsburghese vocabulary words can be found here.
There’s also regional-specific jargon like “Kennywood’s open” (your zipper is down) and “parking chair” (furniture to save your car’s spot). They’re distinct for the area and would sound pretty strange to an outsider.
“Gutcheez,” “Hunky” and “dupa” are derived from the city’s Eastern European population. The Slavic population in Pittsburgh was once one of the largest in the country.
Passing Down Pittsburghese
While there are still many born-and-raised Pittsburghers living in the region, Kiesling said the accent will eventually evolve from how it sounds today.
“Every generation speaks a little different from the generation before,” Kiesling said. “Some things, you could suggest, are dying out, but slowly.”
Some of the pronunciations and regional vocal ticks, however, Kiesling said are likely here to stay. Plus, he added, “yinz” has become a brand, something synonymous with the city of Pittsburgh, and that’s something that's not going away.