Do Yinz Speak Pittsburghese?
Updated: May 3
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The first time I got an indication that my English was different from the rest of Pennsylvania's was during a family vacation to Lancaster County. We had stopped at a gas station to fill our Buick's tank, and my parents thought I was old enough to wander into the convenience store alone to find something to quench my thirst. This was during the 1980s when gas stations did not resemble anything remotely close to Sheetz or Wawa, so all I saw were cartons of cigarettes and candy bars. When I shyly asked the cashier where all the pop was, the man looked at me like I had two heads. I repeated the word "pop" a few more times, thinking the old codger was deaf, but his bushy, furrowed brows and tilted head told me he'd heard me all right. The man was just confused. Finally, I said, "You know … Pepsi, Coke, Mountain Dew." The cashier's face instantly lit up as he said, "Soda! You want soda!" I think he might have slapped his leg and let out a huge belly laugh as he pointed to an old, rusty refrigerator. I was not amused.
Years later, when I was in college, I warned my friend Fawn that the steps outside the computer lab were slippy. She said, "You mean slippery." I said, "No. I mean slippy." She then proceeded to explain to me that slippy was not a word. Neither were gutchies, jagger bush, or nebby. (I believe I may have called my particularly nosy roommate nebby on more than one occasion.) Fawn and I had an interesting conversation that day about regional dialects, wherein I realized that people from Western Pennsylvania talk funny, while those from Harrisburg do not.
A view of dahntahn Pittsburgh from June 2016. My daughter and I had just finished a duck boat tour of the city.
When I moved to Philadelphia to work for the NLRB after graduating from Penn State, co-workers often asked me if I was from the South or Midwest. They couldn't quite place my accent. Well-meaning people often pointed out that I did not pronounce or use certain words correctly, so I grew a little self-conscious and made an effort to shake some of the colloquialisms I'd grown up with. It took some time, but I was mostly successful at softening my Pittsburgh accent and dialect. However, when I was teaching high school German several years later, a student named Kyle irritated me one day, and I shouted his name angrily. In my exasperation, I reverted to my Pittsburghese and pronounced his name as if there were no "e" on the end. What I yelled sounded more like "Kyl." One of my students immediately asked, "Where the heck are you from?" The whole class got a good laugh out of my slip-up, and we had an entertaining conversation about dialect, which was also very relevant to the study of German.
People who are not from Pittsburgh may wonder how our unique—and sometimes comical—dialect formed. The answer is simple—immigration. The Scottish and Irish were the first to arrive in Western Pennsylvania in the 1700s, and they brought with them the English second-person plural "you ones." Over time, the word evolved into the endearing pronoun "yinz," of which Pittsburghers are so proud. It is believed that words like slippy, nebby, and jagger bush also came from the Scots-Irish. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Eastern and Southern Europeans poured into the region to work in the steel and coal mining industries, they influenced the development of Pittsburghese as well. Since most of these workers were non-English speakers, they often had to learn their new language "on the street" through conversations with other non-English speakers. As these immigrants adopted each other's mistakes in pronunciation and word usage, a bastardized form of English formed, and accents blended in a way that didn't happen elsewhere.
When my kids were little, my dad often said, "Yinz better redd-up that mess you made and worsh your hands!"
These days, I don't hear much Pittsburghese as I spend most of my time with people from Maryland and Delaware. But I do get a kick out of visiting my friends and family in the Burgh and hearing my native tongue a few times each year. I especially enjoy the looks on my kids' faces whenever my dad says something to them in his Western Pennsylvania dialect. He often tells my daughter that her gutchies are showing, he warns my son not to throw a canipshun when the Stillers lose, and whenever the dog shreds a roll of toilet paper, he yells, "Linda, get the sweeper!" We all laugh when he complains that his latest construction project turned out cattywampus, but he always feels better after a few chipped ham sammitches and an Arn City.
Although I haven't lived in Western Pennsylvania for over twenty years, I am still a Yinzer at heart. Whenever I meet someone new here on the East Coast who has roots in the Burgh, it's so easy to strike up a conversation and reminisce about all the things we love and miss about our hometown. The Steelers and Penguins are always at the top of our list as are pierogies, Primanti Brothers sandwiches, and the Potato Patch fries at Kennywood. And when the conversation about sports and food ends, we laugh about all the quirky phrases we used as kids and share stories about playing in the crick, shooting our siblings with gumbands, and drinking lots of pop.
Glossary of common Pittsburghese terms.
A native of Western Pennsylvania, Tammy Pasterick grew up in a family of steelworkers, coal miners, and Eastern European immigrants. Her debut novel, Beneath the Veil of Smoke and Ash, is being released by She Writes Press in September 2021. Visit www.tammypasterick.com to learn more.