Press Release: Pittsburghese: Carnegie Mellon's Barbara Johnstone Uncovers the Story of a Dialect-Carnegie Mellon News - Carnegie Mellon University

Monday, November 4, 2013

Press Release: Pittsburghese: Carnegie Mellon's Barbara Johnstone Uncovers the Story of a Dialect

Contact: Shilo Rea / 412-268-6094 / shilo@cmu.edu



PITTSBURGH—What's in a word? Plenty, if you're from Pittsburgh, Pa., where phrases like "Yinz going dahntahn to watch dem Stillers?" are symbols of local identity.

A new book by Carnegie Mellon University's Barbara Johnstone uncovers that there is much more to "Pittsburghese" than how native western Pennsylvanians speak. "Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect" traces the history of Pittsburgh's language as it is imagined and used by Pittsburghers. Johnstone asks why the city's words and expressions are so strongly linked to local identity that Pittsburghese is alluded to almost every time people talk about what Pittsburgh is like or what it means to be from the area.

"The Pittsburghese phenomenon is unique," said Johnstone, professor of rhetoric and linguistics in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences' Department of English. "Pittsburghese words and phrases appear on t-shirts, bumper stickers and dolls. I wanted to find out why Pittsburghers became so interested in how they spoke."

Pittsburghese Book CoverJohnstone discovered that many things had to coincide for Pittsburghese to develop.

"I was surprised to learn how many people and events had to come together to make this story happen," she said. "For example, the steel industry collapse in the 1980s left third generation immigrants - baby boomers - without jobs. It was at the same time that personal computing was coming on the scene. The fact that Pittsburgh is hilly contributed. In the 1960s, there was a Pittsburgh linguist who was willing to talk to newspapers about Pittsburgh speech. And I could go on and on. All these seemingly unrelated things are part of the reason Pittsburghers became aware of how they talk and came to use Pittsburghese the ways they do."

According to Johnstone, the story of "yinz," one of the most frequently used Pittsburghese words, is the history of Pittsburghese in microcosm. Meaning "you all" or "you folks," the origins of "yinz" are in the speech of the area's first English-speaking settlers, who came from northern Ireland, Scotland and northern England. It has been used since the 18th century as a way to address more than one person.

"Starting around the 1950s, people became aware of this word and have started to talk about it," Johnstone said. "And it is now used in completely different ways than it was before. People use it as an adjective or as a prefix, as with 'Yinzburgh' or 'Yinzer'."

Walt Wolfram, the William C. Friday Distinguished Professor of English Linguistics at North Carolina State University, said, "No dialect in the United States is quite like Pittsburghese - in linguistic distinctiveness, public awareness and sociolinguistic commodification. And no linguist is better suited to describe the creation, construction and circulation of this unique sociolinguistic situation than Barbara Johnstone. This book offers a powerful, perceptive analysis presented in engaging style - a sociolinguistic masterpiece."

In addition to what her research shows about how language changes over time, Johnstone hopes the book sheds light on the importance of Pittsburghese to the Pittsburgh area's cultural heritage and shows how a regional dialect can be an entry point for an interesting perspective on a place.

Oxford University Press published "Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect."

For more information, watch a video of Johnstone discussing the book at http://youtu.be/TX4kxkV5kxQ.
     
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