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Johnstone releases book on history of “Pittsburghese”

After 12 years of research, Barbara Johnstone recently released her book Speaking Pittsburghese about the speech patterns of Pittsburgh natives. (credit: Courtesy of Barbara Johnstone ) After 12 years of research, Barbara Johnstone recently released her book Speaking Pittsburghese about the speech patterns of Pittsburgh natives. (credit: Courtesy of Barbara Johnstone )

Pittsburghese, an American-English dialect unique to the Steel City, has been immortalized in the book Speaking Pittsburghese, recently published by Carnegie Mellon professor of English and linguistics Barbara Johnstone.

Becoming an expert on Pittsburghese has been a significant undertaking for Johnstone, who has been working on the book for 12 years.

She started field work over a decade ago, and by her account, “I’ve had interviews with over 200 Pittsburghers to get how people talked here.”

Johnstone has written a number of articles on the topic already.

When asked to explain the motivation behind her work, Johnstone said, “[I like to] piece together the story of the dialect and Pittsburgh speech. Why do people buy these mugs, these shirts?”

Johnstone attributes the different ways of speaking English in the U.S. to Americans’ diverse roots. “People in different areas came from different areas of Europe,” she said (Pittsburgh’s early European settlers came from England and Scotland).

Pittsburghese is based on a western Pennsylvania dialect, but is not just a term to describe the dialect of Pittsburghers. “There’s a difference between how people here talk and Pittsburghese,” Johnstone said.
The term, first printed in 1967, emerged after “people thought about what it meant to speak like a local.”

The dialect was commonly embraced after World War II, when steel workers and labor unions not only “made very good wages, but were also thought of as very courageous,” she said. Even well-educated Pittsburghers, like politicians, embraced the dialect.

“Around the 1980s, the steel production industry collapsed in Pittsburgh, causing a major economic upheaval for Pittsburghers,” Johnstone complained.

People who had identified with the steel industry in the area had difficulty doing so after the collapse. “The bottom just got pulled out from under them,” Johnstone said. “People would then start to identify with the Steelers and connect with other Pittsburghers.”

The population grew more interested in cultural elements that reminded them of the past; language was one of them.

Multiple opinions exist regarding Pittsburghese. “Some see it as raw, uneducated, and ugly. But others think it’s a cool, hip, gritty thing,” Johnstone said.

Johnstone’s work keeps her busy, but she enjoys it. “People’s speech patterns are still changing,” she noted. “But that interest is even stronger. I enjoy piecing this story together.” Her spare time is often spent “professional eavesdropping,” she joked.

Pittsburghese’s popularity is highlighted by the popularity of Johnstone’s book. According to Johnstone, “the public library bought 20 copies,” and patrons have checked them all out.

First-year economics and mathematics major Benjamin Jang said, “I think it’s certainly unique to Pittsburgh, and wherever you are, someone’s going to have their own spin on a language. And it’s nice, here at Carnegie Mellon, to hear it and realize that we’re in Pittsburgh, a unique city.”