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A sign using Dahntahn to mean Downtown. (Photo: Doug Kerr/Wikimedia Commons)

Pittsburghese as Lingua Franca

• February 02, 2014 • 11:39 AM

A sign using Dahntahn to mean Downtown. (Photo: Doug Kerr/Wikimedia Commons)

Bringing people together with shared language.

I’m not finished with artisanal toast. But before I break coconuts with cosmopolites on the coasts, I need to talk to yinz about Pittsburghese. Ethnographer Barbara Johnstone responds to Chris Potter (in boldface):

Still, isn’t there kind of painful paradox here? The Pittsburgh accent seems more popular than ever, even as the city’s local working-class identity is dwindling. It’s like the same thing that makes us cling to the accent is also what’s pulling it away from us.

Exactly. And Pittsburgh is staking its future on the same things every other city is staking its future on. One group of people who are not interested in Pittsburghese are the people trying to plan the economic future of the area. During the G-20, people who were serving as hosts were instructed not to speak Pittsburghese. And they didn’t even know what they were being asked not to do. …

This is what happens in globalization in general. Globalization has been going on here forever: The fact that the Scots-Irish came here in the first place was globalization. But there’s that famous quote from sociologist Anthony Giddens: Globalization unites as it divides, and divides as it unites. People get thrown together with people who aren’t like them, and you talk more like the other person, because you want to be understood. But at the same time, you’re drawn to notice what is different. There’s an inevitable process of accommodation. Kids go to college and automatically accommodate their speech to other people — at exactly the same time they are talking about how they talk differently from each other.

Kids going to college, automatically accommodating their speech and n’at is bowling with strangers. What’s bowling with strangers? My partner in crime, Richey Piiparinen, describes the Robert Putnam (Mr. Bowling Alone) paradox:

While outsiders are crucial for a city to become demographically dynamic, change also can occur from within. Cleveland, like most American cities, has had its challenges regarding segregation. Generally speaking, the more segregated a city is, the less it communicates with itself. Neighborhoods are inward-looking, and this behavior can breed “homophily,” which is defined as “the likelihood a person speaks only to members of a same group.”

For Pittsburgh to git on with globalization, dahntahn needs to redd up. No more Pittsburghese. Learn to trust the stranger from across the river and in the hollow you didn’t know existed.

The nostalgia about Pittsburghese is a different story. Again, Dr. Johnstone:

The stereotypical “yinzer” is always white and working-class. But lately there’s been a sort of hipster celebration of it all: You can see Pittsburghese-themed crafts at Handmade Arcade, bought and sold by people who may not have an accent at all. In your research, how do native speakers feel about that?

That’s a good question, and it’s hard to answer because this wasn’t happening even 10 years ago. They had the T-shirts, but the consumers were mostly Pittsburghers sending them to their relatives.

I think when outsiders start messing with Pittsburgh speech, it can easily sound patronizing. One reason people like Pittsburgh Dad is they can tell he’s local. [Actor] Chris Preksta has an accent himself when you talk with him personally.

So can non-natives traffic in this sort of “jagoff paraphernalia” without being patronizing?

This is a question I get all the time. I’ve had rather hostile questions from fellow academics who say, “Why don’t you talk about what’s wrong with this? This is really objectionable.” I just say, “I’m an ethnographer; I’m a describer of the culture.”

And people are not offended by this. I think people can do this lovingly, and I think a lot of the hipster stuff is kind of loving.

In Pittsburgh today, the Rust Belt city overwhelmed with outsiders, Pittsburghese is a coconut. It’s a kind of artisanal toast. Hipster love, on toast:

Trouble’s owner, and the apparent originator of San Francisco’s toast craze, is a slight, blue-eyed, 34-year-old woman with freckles tattooed on her cheeks named Giulietta Carrelli. She has a good toast story: She grew up in a rough neighborhood of Cleveland in the ’80s and ’90s in a big immigrant family, her father a tailor from Italy, her mother an ex-nun. The family didn’t eat much standard American food. But cinnamon toast, made in a pinch, was the exception. “We never had pie,” Carrelli says. “Our American comfort food was cinnamon toast.” …

… At first, Carrelli explained Trouble as a kind of sociological experiment in engineering spontaneous communication between strangers. She even conducted field research, she says, before opening the shop. “I did a study in New York and San Francisco, standing on the street holding a sandwich, saying hello to people. No one would talk to me. But if I stayed at that same street corner and I was holding a coconut? People would engage,” she said. “I wrote down exactly how many people talked to me.”

The smallness of her cafés is another device to stoke interaction, on the theory that it’s simply hard to avoid talking to people standing nine inches away from you. And cinnamon toast is a kind of all-purpose mollifier: something Carrelli offers her customers whenever Trouble is abrasive, or loud, or crowded, or refuses to give them what they want. “No one can be mad at toast,” she said.

How do thousands of people from all ends of the Earth get along? In a sense, Trouble (or a coconut) is a bowling league for immigrants working at a mill in Port Clinton, Ohio. For the unwashed, Pittsburghese is a Rosetta Stone for parochial Pittsburgh. Yinz want fries on that $4 toast?

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

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