by Aaron Zvirman, contributing writer
Pittsburgh, we have a problem. According to some folks on the Internet, the city of Pittsburgh has “the ugliest accent in America.” Or, at least those who voted in a 2014 contest on the website Gawker
think our city deserves that title. But hey, 2014 was a long time ago, why is this a problem now? Well, to a lot of Pittsburghers, our accent is something far worse than ugly. And that’s a problem.
In my lifetime here in Pittsburgh, “ugly” is one of the nicer things I’ve heard or read about our dialect. Growing up, both at home and at school, I heard the same tired claims over and over about the Yinzer dialect and about Yinzers, as people: Yinzers are uneducated, white trash, an embarrassment, dumb — a bunch of unsophisticated, lower-class yokels who reflect poorly on our city.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our accent is as much of a melting pot as the city itself, and the Yinzer dialect – and the Yinzers who speak it – reflect centuries of history, as well as the diversity of those who’ve called Pittsburgh home long before any of us were around. With Scots-Irish, Germans, African-Americans, Poles, Croatians, and other Eastern European migrants coming to Pittsburgh and communicating in their own dialects as early as the late 1700s, different pieces of those dialects came together over time and began to form a distinct regional dialect.
The word “yinz,” itself, evolved from the Scots-Irish “you ones” — which also evolved into “yuns” in Eastern Pennsylvania dialects and “youse” in the New York City dialect.
In large part, though, the Yinzer dialect is a product of those who literally built this city. Migrant workers, many of whom didn’t know English, learned the language by talking to each other at work. By using words from their native languages mixed in with English, and learning new words from other workers in other languages, a common English began to emerge and grow into the Yinzer dialect we speak today.
Our dialect embodies the origins and history of this city. And, history aside, it’s important we recognize this simple truth: there is nothing wrong with our dialect, and there never has been. And the same is true of any other dialect. The Yinzer dialect is a unique one, and it is a reflection of us, our city, our history, our identity, and our culture. We talk like Pittsburghers because it’s where we’re from. Call it the Yinzer dialect, call it Pittsburghese, call it Western Pennsylvania English, call it whatever name you prefer — just don’t call it uneducated or dumb.
Once when I was in the city with my family, we walked by a restaurant called “Taste of Dahntahn,” a name that annoyed someone in my family. “Why would we embrace talking like that? Yinzers are a bad reflection of this city!”
We kept walking. A few minutes later, I asked if we were getting closer to where we were going. “We’re close, actually it’s right dahn this street,” they said.
We’re from Pittsburgh, and whether we like it or not – or even realize it – people from Pittsburgh talk like people from Pittsburgh. So we might as well learn to embrace the truly unique way we express ourselves, and learn to appreciate the Yinzer dialect as distinctly ours and worth being proud of.
In many ways, taking pride in our dialect is one of the most Pittsburgh things we can do. After all, there’s no shortage of hometown pride when it comes to any of the countless other aspects of Pittsburgh and our culture. We take pride in our sports teams as much as any city anywhere, if not more (even the Pirates); we take pride in the beauty of our city, the three rivers, and Mount Washington; we take pride in the history of this city and our identity as Pittsburghers; we take pride in the people that come from this city, like Fred Rogers, Rachel Carson, and Andy Warhol. We’re even proud of the little things, like being the birthplace of Heinz ketchup, putting fries on our sandwiches and salads, and having more bridges than anyone else. We’re proud of Pittsburgh, and we’re proud of being from Pittsburgh.
We just have one problem: we’re not proud of sounding like we’re from Pittsburgh.
About the Author: Aaron Zvirman is a writer and a recent graduate of Arizona State University. He has a passionate and unwavering love of sports, especially Pittsburgh sports, and some of his favorite activities include watching sports, talking about sports, writing about sports, and reading about sports. He also likes playing guitar and ukulele.