America’s Loveliest Accents: Pittsburgh

I think it was an important move for linguists to divorce our field from aesthetics. There can be a science of taste, but science itself is not the arbiter of taste. It is not the place of linguists to judge accents or languages. Just as biologists study animals and plants that many people consider repugnant, linguists may study words and phrases that alarm or disgust people.

That said, objectivity doesn’t mean you have to like everything. Linguists have the right to our own personal tastes about languages. For example, I think German can sound very cool at times, but there are other linguists who disagree with me, and that’s okay.

Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh dialect, with its Northern Cities-shifted vowels, is pleasant enough, but what I really love about it is its grammar. They have their own second person plural pronoun, “yinz,” from “you ones” – it’s like our “you guys,” but shorter. (Some of my neighbors have “youse,” but I never heard it in my family.) Their “an ‘at” corresponds to our “and stuff.”

The best thing about the Pittsburgh dialect, though, is that they drop the useless “to be” from certain phrases, notably “that coat needs washed.” When I visited Pittsburgh, the friendly bus driver was chatting with me on the way in from the airport. We passed a bus stop with some people sitting on a bench, and she said, “Oh, they don’t want picked up.” I wish my dialect had that! Who needs that “to be,” anyway?

Musician and comedian Mark Eddie, a native of nearby Steubenville, Ohio, plays up all these features of the Pittsburgh dialect except the “needs washed” construction in an adaptation of “Downtown,” the song made famous by Petula Clark. There are a couple of objectionable lyrics – objectifying “Shadyside chicks” and referring to transgender people as “trannies” – but beyond those you see that there’s nothing mean in his teasing; you hear a real affection for Pittsburgh and its dialect.

This is part 4 of a series where I say nice things about all of the accents that Gawker’s Dayna Evans nominated for “America’s Ugliest Accent.” Previously: New York City. Nextly: Philadelphia.

3 thoughts on “America’s Loveliest Accents: Pittsburgh

  1. Pete

    It has the creatively-named “Pittsburgh Shift”. Basically, “cot” and “caught” are both “*cawt”. “Cut” then comes to sound more like “*caht”, which is OK, because “cot” doesn’t sound like that. My impression is that a similar shift can occur in Boston and Canada, which are other places where “cot” and “caught” sound the same.

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