Introduction to American Dialects
| Southern Drawl
| Tawking the Tawk in Noo Yawk
New England's Wicked Good Accent | Philly Talk and Pittsburghese
The Midwestern 'Non-Accent' | Da Chicago Dialect and the Northern Cities Vowel Shift
Pennsylvania, USA has a long and storied history. Its two largest cities are Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the former in the far east of the state and the latter in the far west of the state. They have developed very differently despite being only about 250 miles from each other. Linguistically, the two cities and the immediate areas around them are as different as if there was an ocean in between them.
Pittsburgh is a special case. Generally, local dialects have been absorbed by larger regional ones. But Pittsburgh, though part of the Midland, has retained its own speech patterns.
- Professor William Labov, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania
The Pittsburgh accent, common in western Pennsylvania, is quite distinctive and 'Picksbergers' (that is, people with this accent) are quite aware of it in their day-to-day lives1. The accent is of course more pronounced in the city of Pittsburgh proper, with people just outside the city perhaps more influenced by it than consumed by it. The case of Erie, a city in western Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh, is interesting. To again quote the eminent Professor William Labov -
Erie in the 1930s and 1940s was strictly Northern, but now it’s shifted over and it's now part of the western Pennsylvania dialect...As for why, you obviously think of Pittsburgh residents maybe taking their vacation time there at the beach, but people in Buffalo and Cleveland go there, too. So we don’t have an answer for that.
The Pittsburgh accent is not as all-encompassing as other accents, and tends to present itself in a relatively small number of specific words rather than coming out in all kinds of words. It is not terribly far from the 'midland' or Midwestern accent, and some linguists refer to the Pittsburgh accent as a part of North Midland US English. That phrase is quite a mouthful, though, and the local word 'Pittsburghese' is more colourful and makes for better T-shirts. The western Pennsylvania/Pittsburghese dialect finds its roots in Scotch-Irish settlers who were among the first white people to settle in western Pennsylvania. It has been modified and influenced by the Slavic and Polish immigrants who came later to work in the steel mills. When steel production was the dominant industry in the city of Pittsburgh, different ethnicities settled in different neighbourhoods, and they developed their own vernacular, which was eventually combined into a citywide 'Pittsburghese'.
Still is Still Movin' to Me
People with a strong Pittsburgh accent pronounce the name of their town like 'Picksberg', or sometimes call it 'the Burgh'. Pittsburgh is nicknamed the 'Steel City', because of the numerous large steel mills that proliferated around the city from 1875 onwards. In the early 20th Century, half of America's steel production (or more) took place in Pittsburgh. Yet, just as east Texan oil magnates and workers pronounce the object of their labours oddly (they pronounce 'oil' as 'all'), so do Pittsburghers pronounce the word 'steel' oddly. In Pittsburgh, 'steel' sounds like 'still'. The Pittsburgh American Football team, the Steelers, are locally known as the 'Stillers', a term that may be more appropriate to a sports team from Kentucky, where moonshine is distilled. The local brewing, however, is done by Iron City Beer, whose eponymous product is shortened and pronounced like 'Ahrn'.
In Pittsburgh, if you're told to 'redd up' something, that means to clean it or tidy it. It's an old Middle English term, adopted apparently for no particular reason. A modern effort by city government to encourage Pittsburghers to pick up litter and waste was called 'Let's Redd Up Pittsburgh'. If you're redding up, incidentally, you might be washing something - Pittsburghers pronounce the word 'wash' with an 'r', like 'warsh'. Another odd word seen only in Pittsburgh is the term 'nebby' to mean 'nosy' or 'intrusive'.
Picksbergers outside of the city may find themselves in trouble in shoe stores. If they ask for 'rubbers', what they want is rain boots, or galoshes. What they may receive is confused, disturbed looks from a salesperson wondering why this person would look for condoms in a shoe shop. Perhaps the salesperson would assume the best and give the obviously deranged Pittsburgher some rubber bands. This would cause further confusion, as Pittsburghers refer to rubber bands as 'gumbands'.
The most distinctive word used by Picksbergers though, is their second person plural 'yinz'. When someone says 'y'all', you know they're from the American south. If someone says 'yinz', you know they're from Pittsburgh. The word seems to be a shortened form of the Appalachian second person plural 'you'uns', which is a shortened form of 'you ones'. An alternative Pittsburgh phrase is 'yinz guys', not dissimilar to the Eastern urban second person plural 'youse guys'. Some blue-collar workers from the steel town areas around Pittsburgh refer to themselves as 'Yinzers'.
There are no particular rules about vowel pronunciation or use of the 'r' sound that accompany a Pittsburgh accent. There are the basic big-city characteristics of quicker speech and the rushed pronunciation of 'dis' and 'dat' (this and that). However, there are some pronunciations that are recognized as uniquely Picksberg. Downtown is 'dahn-tahn' or 'don-ton', a drought is a 'drooth' and if you're told to go back to your 'hass' or 'hoss', go home.
The city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has a name which means 'Brotherly Love', which is very nice. Of course, in a city at the middle of an urban area with six million people, brotherly love is not always achievable for all citizens. Abruptly greeting someone with the word 'Yo!' doesn't exactly help either. Often known as Philly, Philadelphia served as America's first capital city and remains one of the country's largest cities. It has a very distinct and in many places downright weird dialect, influential throughout eastern Pennsylvania as well as central and southern New Jersey.
There is some argument about the different accents within Philadelphia itself. Some say that the predominantly African- American South Side of Philadelphia has a completely different accent from the other parts of Philly. This is probably true, but ignores the fact that this divide is not unique to Philly at all. In fact, many minority groups, especially African-Americans, do not adopt a regional English accent at all, but have a wider cultural dialect. Most of the rules about pronunciation and vocabulary in this guide only apply to white persons in America.
Many big cities have a food that is associated with them, and for Philadelphia, it's the cheesesteak. Quite simply, the cheesesteak is a roll of steak and melty cheese on bread. The fact that Philadelphians were the only one to come up with this idea earns the sandwich the title of 'Philly cheesecake' outside of the Philadelphia area. After a cheesesteak or a hoagie (the local word for a submarine sandwich) you might want some wooder to wash it all down.
One of the strangest parts of the Philadelphia accent is the way they pronounce the word 'water' as 'wooder' (or 'wader'). Water towers are Wooder towers, water glasses are wooder glasses and water fountains are, you guessed it, wooder fountains. Oddly enough, the delicious treat that is called Italian Ice in the rest of the country is called Water Ice ('wooder eyes') in Philly.
There is lots of wooder down-a-shore. Like the residents of New Jersey, Philadelphians call the place where land meets the ocean 'the shore' rather than 'the beach' and going to the beach is the same as going 'down-a-shore'. The Jersey Shore and Ocean City, New Jersey, are popular destinations for Philadelphians, especially in the summertime. Going down-a-shore, or simply an invocation of 'the shore' almost always refers to the New Jersey Shore.
In Philadelphia you can use the word 'jawn' like most people use the word 'thing'. 'Hand me that jawn' is not an unusual phrase to hear in Philadelphia. Another j-word unique to Philly is the word 'jimmies', which means 'sprinkles' - like the ice cream topping.
The Iggle Has Landed - Pronunciation
Philadelphians shorten long 'a' and 'e' sounds when they come before a 'g', for whatever reason. One offshoot of this is that fans of Philly's professional American football team, the Eagles, pronounce the team's name to rhyme with 'wiggle'. Incidentally, the word 'American' comes out more like 'Amurcan' in Philly talk, so the United States' national bird would be the 'Amurcan Bald Iggle' to Philadelphians.
Like their New York neighbours, Philadelphians are influenced by their ethnic communities (many of whose native languages don't use the 'th' sound) to say 'dis', 'dat' and 'dese' rather than 'this', 'that' and 'these'. Philadelphians are also like New Yorkers in that they pronounce the vowel sounds in the word 'caught' and 'cot' differently. However, unlike New Yorkers, Philadelphians have always had a distinct ability to pronounce their 'r' sounds at the end of words. They have never had trouble saying 'car' rather than 'cah', which is unusual for an Eastern American dialect. It is said2 that all the lost 'r' sounds on the eastern seaboard find their way down the Delaware River into Philadelphia, like swallows to Capistrano.
Like some parts of the south, Philadelphians pronounce the word 'crayon' as 'crown'. If a child is writing on the wall with 'crowns', a Philadelphia mother may scold her 'bastid' child for its terrible 'addytude' and mutter that he shows no 'graddytude'. She might do it a 'hunderd' times before he learns.
In terms of phonetic differences from the rest of the country, here are some classic Philadelphia distinctions:
In Philadelphia, the 'ow' sound shifts to a short 'a' sound, so that a towel becomes a 'tal' and an owl becomes an 'al'.
There is also a local preference for pronouncing an 'l' in the middle of a word in a way that avoids pressing the tongue against the front teeth. This creates a barely perceptible 'gl' where one would normally expect a simple 'l' sound.
Philadelphians tend to drop the 't' sound in the middle of a word. Consider for example the Walt Whitman bridge, which connects Philadelphia to New Jersey. The poet's surname is colloquially pronounced like 'women'. In the same way, a dentist is sometimes called a 'dennis'.
An 'h' sound sometimes sneaks into the 's' sound, so that street ends up being pronounced like 'shtreet'.