• What is a middle-class suburban teenager doing when he or she adopts
an "inner-city" speech pattern?
• Beyond the media controversy it produced, what was the scientific basis behind "Ebonics"?
• Why do people talk one way to their employers and another way to their friends?
• Why are certain accents associated with certain personality traits? Certain places?
• Would Tony Soprano be as convincing a mobster if he had a Georgia accent or a West Indian accent?
The sociolinguists who carried out the Pittsburgh Speech and Society Project were interested
in the relationships between:
• Language change: How does language change over time? What causes language change?
Are certain members of society more likely to accept change or hold to traditional speech forms?
• Dialect awareness: Is a speaker of a dialect aware that they are speaking in a dialect? Or does the way they talk just sound "normal" to them? Are they aware of the prejudices other people may associate with their dialect, and if so, are they able (or willing) to alter their speech in certain circumstances?
• Place and identity: What sorts of identities do people associate with specific places? How do such identities become ascribed? What are the connections between social, cultural, and economic facts
about a city and the people who live there? Why do we assume a Pittsburgher would be different from
a Los Angeleno?
Like other "rust belt" cities, Pittsburgh is a product of early immigration, industrialization, and (to
a certain extent) regional isolation. And, like other heavily industrialized cities, foreign outsourcing of the manufacturing base during 1980s and 1990s nearly destroyed the local economy, resulting in social upheaval and considerable migration to other parts of the United States.
Today, as Pittsburgh continues to evolve from its industrial past into a city based on education, healthcare, and high-tech, it serves as an excellent microcosm in which to study linguistic change against a backdrop of shifts in regional identity, socioeconomic (and spatial) mobility, globalization, and the effects of social upheaval on the way individuals represent themselves through language.
Because Pittsburgh is similar to other post-industrial cities around the world, our questions, methods, and findings may be of value to researchers with similar interests.
We're looking at Pittsburgh speech in a number of ways:
• Bibliographic, archival, and historical research. By looking at historical texts and archival work done by previous linguists, we are able to assemble a picture of previous migration and speech patterns and use them as a basis to chart change over the years.
• Talking to our colleagues. Research such as this is not done in a vacuum, it's a larger dialogue with others interested in regional speech. We constantly seek feedback and ideas from our sociolinguistic colleagues, as well as our colleagues in other disciplines, such as history, anthropology, and geography.
• Newspapers, books, radio, websites… Part of our research looks at how Pittsburgh speech is represented in popular usage. We look at references to Pittsburgh speech in newspapers, folk dictionaries, radio broadcasts, and even on the Web, to study what people think "authentic Pittsburghese" is and how they create these ideas.
• Talking on the telephone. Some of our data comes from calling Pittsburghers and recording their answers to various questions, some of which are designed to elicit responses that measure accent, word choice, and speakers' awareness of the Pittsburgh accent.
• Face to face interviews. Following up initial telephone research, we focused on four Pittsburgh-area neighborhoods, interviewing 20-30 people in each. These neighborhoods were Lawrenceville, the Hill District, Forest Hills, and Cranberry Township. Recording face-to-face interviews not only gives data for studying the occurrences of Pittsburgh speech, it allows us to ask people what they think about Pittsburgh speech—or if they even notice it!
• We learned a lot about the history of Pittsburgh speech.
• We've explored what's likely to happen to the dialect.
• We've explored who uses Pittsburgh Speech.
• We've learned how people feel about local speech.
• We've described the Pittsburgh accent.
• We've listed Pittsburgh words and researched their origins.