Where does Pittsburgh speech come from?

The Origin of U.S. Dialects
The earliest English-speaking immigrants to North America brought their dialects of English with them. The people who settled in New England and in the South came mainly from southern England, and they brought elements of southern dialects of English. But the people who settled in the middle part of what became the U.S. came from northern England and from Northern Ireland, and they brought different pronunciations, words, and grammatical structures with them. As a result, there are still three major dialect areas in the United States. Pittsburgh, like most of the rest of Pennsylvania, is in the middle, or "midland" area. This is the dialect area, by the way, that has had the greatest influence on the English of the midwestern and western states.

The Scots-Irish
The Scots-Irish were the first Europeans to settle in Southwestern Pennsylvania in large numbers. These were people who had migrated to northern Ireland (Ulster) at the beginning of the 17th century. Many of them the emigrated to North America at the end of the 17th century and during the 18th century. When they arrived in Pennsylvania, typically via the Delaware River, the Scots-Irish found that Germans, Quakers, and other English settlers had already settled much of eastern and central Pennsylvania.

Though some Scots-Irish did settle in southeastern Pennsylvania, the majority headed west, bypassing these settlements. Arthur Lee, who visited Pittsburgh in 1784, noted that the settlement was "inhabited almost entirely by Scots and [Scots] Irish, who live in paltry log houses" (Wayland F. Dunaway, The Scotch-Irish of Colonial Pennsylvania University of North Carolina Press, 1944, p.83). These settlers spoke
a Scottish variety of English, which was influenced, in Ulster, by Irish English. Among the many words
and structures used in this area that are Scots-Irish are "redd up," "nebby," "slippy," and "diamond"
for a town square. "Yinz," which is found throughout the Appalachians in various forms (such as "you'uns"),
is Scots-Irish as well.

Germans also made up a large part of the earliest European population of western Pennsylvania. "Gesundheit" and "sauerkraut" are among the many German words that are widely used in the U.S. "Butterbread" comes from the German word "Butterbrot" for buttered bread. Expressions borrowed from the Pennsylvania Dutch (Amish and Mennonites who settled in eastern Pennsylvania and migrated west more recently) are familiar in more rural areas of southwestern Pennsylvania. These include "outen" for "turn out," as in "outen the light." The characteristic Pennsylvanian pronunciation of some questions with a rising then falling tone at the end probably also comes from German.

Africans, who were first brought to the U.S. as slaves, moved to western Pennsylvania in several waves. Some came as early as the Civil War, when Pittsburgh was an active stop on the Underground Railroad. Many others migrated north in the later 19th century and the early 20th century, sometimes to work as "scabs" during labor strikes. Because the steel industry boomed earlier than many other heavy industries, the African-American population of Pittsburgh has particularly deep roots. Many words that are in widespread use throughout the U.S. have African-American origins. "Jazz" is one example. African-American Pittsburghers share some distinctive words and grammatical patterns with white Pittsburghers. For example, they may use the "needs + x-ed" construction or the word "redd up". They also pronounce the vowels in word pairs like "cot" and "caught" the same way, just as white Pittsburghers do and unlike African-Americans. But many speak a variety of English that shares pronunciation features and words (like "y'all") with the dialects of the southern U.S. This way of speaking may also be influenced by African languages.

Other Immigrants
Other immigrants from continental Europe, many of whom came at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, included Italians, Croats, Poles, Slovaks, and Jews from many places in Eastern Europe. We use many words that come from their languages, including "babushka", "salami", "pierogi", "halushky" and "flanken." It is possible that the pronunciation of words like "downtown" and "out" as "dahntahn" and "aht" is the result of contact among speakers of different languages—perhaps speakers
of a Slavic language learning English found it easier to pronounce "aw" as "ah", but we don't know
this for sure.

Commercial Words
Other words that are sometimes associated with "Pittsburghese" have commercial sources. "Jumbo" lunchmeat, "Klondike" ice-cream bars, and "chipped ham" all originated as names for things produced
or sold by one company, Isaly's. The spelling "East Liberty" as "S'liberty" was invented as a part of an advertising campaign, and "Giant Iggle" (and "Iggle Video") are also the inventions of a marketing guru. More recent immigrants to the Pittsburgh area include Russians and people from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, as well as people from South Asia and Southeast Asia. There is also a growing Mexican population in Pittsburgh. Like all the earlier groups, they are bringing words that will in time enter
into local speech.

© 2011 Hosted by the University Library System at the University of Pittsburgh. ULS Logo