Welcome to Knox’s Pierogi House!

NOTE: The Post-Gazette ran an article today about Barbara Johnstone, a CMU sociolinguist dedicated to studying the wild evolution of Pittsburghese. I interviewed Johnstone last year for an article on the history and culture of Pittsburghese. The publication didn’t run the piece, so I thought I’d post it here.


Welcome to Knox’s Pierogi House! [Welk-com t’ Nawk-sez Pro-ghee Hahs!]

Stanley P. Kachowski, hunched over the bar at Knox’s Pierogi House, finishes a gulp of beer before launching into a tirade. “Hey, woot the heck’s gowin owin?” he says, his words slathered in local veneer. “Dey’re trying to take arr, arr right t’ put chairs in fron’ a arr parkin’ spaces eway!” A dented boom box beneath a salon-style tableau of wall hangings — a pristine Terrible Towel, a glamour shot of Donnie Iris, a poster signed by every member of the 1978 Steelers — blares the last out of another Pirates’ loss, and goes to commercial. A chipper announcer, whose professional voice reveals no hint of his homeland, says, “Portions of this broadcast are brought to you by Pants N’at, the clothing store where yinz get more.” A man merrily chimes in, “I get my disabiwl-ty check n’ POW! It’s dahn na Pants N’at.” The announcer continues, “Shop Pants N’at this week for the area’s biggest sale on U.S. Open golf apparel.” A kid asks, “Ded? Hows come we buyin all dese gawlf clohze? Nun of us dun’t even play gawlf.” The father replies, “I told yinz, I won uh pass t’ the tor-nament ‘t the VFW wing eatin cawntest the uther night. We’re gonna geh-o mix it up with tha blue bloods. And I don’t want yinz stand-din aht like you did at Mario’s tor-nament ‘at one year. I’ll never forget the look a horror on Le Magnifique’s face when you asked for an autograph wearing a Buck the Frahwns shirt.”

Kachowski guides a piping hot pierogi past the overhang of his moustache, into his mouth, and vanishes, as fictional characters do when left too long without a speaking part. Stanley P is a “real guy,” but not in the “has a social security number” sense of the term. Like Cliff Claven or Larry the Cable Guy, Kachowski’s greatest achievement is being impeccably average, a comprehensive collection of all the traits that make the salt of the earth taste unique in different parts of the country. The person who synthesized Pittsburgh into one character is Jim Krenn, a comedian who has hosted a popular morning show on WDVE-FM in Pittsburgh for more than twenty years. Kachowski embodies the Yinzer — the stereotypical Pittsburgher, that working class guy who drinks too much beer, cries when the Steelers blow a game and still wears a mullet. Only, unlike Cliff Claven and Larry the Cable Guy, Kachowski doesn’t embody anything, because he exists only as a voice coming through the radio. Everything he signifies comes across in that voice, in the words he uses and the way he says them. “His language is only Pittsburghese. There is no other language for Stanley,” Krenn said. “He would be like: If you went to France and you talked to a guy who could only speak French? Well, if you go to Pittsburgh, Stanley P only speaks Pittsburghese.”

What keeps Stanley from being simply a local variant of Valley Girls or the Lake Wobegon City Council or the hundreds of other regional caricatures dotting the country is that around here he’s just one sentence in a much larger conversation, where language strives to define the city. Jim Krenn comes from working class Pittsburgh stock, but his normal speaking voice, though buoyant, sounds nothing like Kachowski’s gummy, constricted yelp. Krenn’s Pittsburgh accent is often just a whisper behind certain vowels and inflections, like a lizard camouflaged against the rocks at the zoo. Although thicker varietals of the Pittsburgh accent are most certainly yelled from second-story windows around town, newcomers can spend a long time in the city without ever hearing the local patois. Like the accented third beat in rock and roll or the rule of thirds in Hollywood framing, it hides in plain site until it’s pointed out. Then, suddenly, it’s unavoidable. It’s on the radio, in crowded elevators and at the back of the Giant Eagle check out line.

Although related to North Midland English found from Ohio to Nebraska, Pittsburgh English retains enough distinct characteristics for the New York Times to label it “the Galapagos Islands of American dialect.” The thought is that Pittsburgh English kept evolving after the early travelers heading farther west passed through the area.

Despite its name, Pittsburgh English is not bound by the city limits. Its features appear across Western Pennsylvania, even into Ohio and West Virginia. Its most unique elements are “downtown” becoming dahntahn, “mom” turned into mawm, “Dawn” and Don” pronounced the same, swallowed l’s and inflections that fall at the end of questions. It also includes unique lingo, yinz for second person plural, n’at as an all-purpose “et cetera,” redd up for clean up, slippy for slippery, nebby for nosy, and jagov for jerk, and grammatical constructions like needs washed for “needs to be washed,” the positive anymore, as in “it’s always hot, anymore,” among dozens of other oddities.

That way of speaking, heard around town or from a cabdriver in Seattle, telegraphs a Pittsburgh upbringing to Pittsburghers. It’s appreciated and mocked, imitated and corrected. To non-Pittsburghers, though, those features barely register. Anyone with a VCR can approximately the speech of Brooklyn, South Boston or the Ninth Ward, but movies set in Pittsburgh rarely showcase Pittsburgh English, and when Seth Meyers, the son of a Pittsburgher, used it in a Saturday Night Live sketch, most viewers heard “goofy,” but not “Pittsburgh” (though, to be fair, many Pittsburghers scoffed as well).

Contradictions? No. Pittsburgh English has two sides to it: humble Pittsburgh Speech and the fantastical wild child Pittsburghese. Pittsburghese is voracious, gobbling not only all of Pittsburgh Speech, but also national features spoken in Pittsburgh, like jeet jet (No, did you?) and sammich (i.e. ham, turkey). Unlike Pittsburgh Speech, there is little ambivalence toward Pittsburghese. It’s ubiquitous and widely celebrated. Life-long Pittsburghers use it, but so do Pittsburgh expatriates and new transplants just falling in love with the city. It appears on t-shirts, and menus, and bumper stickers. “Pittsburgh Speech is some sort of abstract description of what people in Pittsburgh actually do. What they actually sound like. What words they actually use,” said Dr. Barbara Johnstone, a Carnegie Mellon University sociolinguist who has spent years to studying how Pittsburghers talk about talking. “And then Pittsburghese is sort of an idea. It’s a set of ideas about what Pittsburghers do. And they’re related to each other, but they’re not the same.” The difference between Pittsburgh Speech and Pittsburghese is the difference between a uniform and a costume, a similar outfit worn for different purposes.

* * *

In one sense, Pittsburghese dates back to geologic time. The Allegheny Mountains, which separate Pittsburgh from the East Coast, also divide those who call pop “soda” from those who call soda “pop.” When an ancient ice sheet altered the courses of the yet unnamed Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers, it carved valleys into future cityscape of Pittsburgh, leaving behind hills and rivers that created naturally isolated neighborhoods, conducive to tight knit communities that spoke at close distances.

In another sense, Pittsburghese dates back to the 1700s, when thousands of Scots-Irish Presbyterians left the poverty and persecution of Ulster, in Northern Ireland, for the New World. The latecomers trekked progressively farther inland in search of farmland, eventually crossing the daunting Alleghenies to settle at the confluence of the three rivers. “They weren’t the first people to settle the area,” Johnstone said. “They were the first people to settle the area to stay.” From their writings we know they used variations on jag and you’uns. In their dialect poetry, in the phonetically spelled writings of their semi-literate and in the current Ulster speech, we find traces of Pittsburgh pronunciation and grammar, needs washed and anymore. “One thing it shows us is that they did not do the dahntahn thing,” Johnstone said. She believes that the most unique Pittsburgh features evolved in the decades before World War II, after thousands of European immigrants poured into Pittsburgh’s cloistered nooks like molten steel, creating linguistic alloys of their mother tongues and the Scots-Irish dialect in place for more than a century.

In yet another sense, Pittsburghese dates back to World War II. Speech acts differently under a spotlight. Dahntahn doesn’t become notable until the ear first hears it pronounced “downtown.” Sociolinguists study how spoken features take on new meaning once speakers realize they aren’t universal. William Labov, the famed sociolinguist who, among other things, scoured old Yellow Pages to pinpoint the year when “hoagie” jumped the Alleghenies to become part of the Pittsburgh lexicon (1961), breaks those features into three classifications: indicators, markers and stereotypes. Indicators offer clues about the speaker — it’s why “pahk yuh cah” registers as “Bostonian” to most ears — but for communities where those spoken details are widespread, indicators often hold little meaning, because, well, that’s just how everyone says it around here.

Markers are the product of self-awareness, as certain spoken details take on meaning within a community. Some Pittsburghers think dahntahn sounds ignorant. Others think it sounds homey. Rarely, though, is meaning assigned so simply, and a city and its citizens don’t move in lockstep. By triangulating various accounts of local speech over the past century, Johnstone traced the general of self-awareness of the distinctiveness of Pittsburgh Speech to World War II, ideas planted in the 1940s that sprouted in the 1950s and bloomed in the 1960s. “When I discovered that, I sort of thought, ‘Wow. Why in the 1960s?’” she said. “And then I did all this history.”

The military threw men from different parts of the country together and forced women into the workforce, the first steps many Pittsburghers took outside their tight-knit neighborhoods, Johnstone believes. After the war, when a manufacturing boom and strong unions brought steelworkers into the middle class, offering them East Coast vacations, summer road trips and houses in the suburbs, Pittsburghers increasingly heard a variety of regional accents, and in turn became self-aware of their own regional accent.

While light-heated accounts of Pittsburgh-area colloquialisms can be found in newspapers articles at turn of the century, “typically, the articles from before the war didn’t link the speech with local identity that much,” Johnstone said. “It linked it with being rural, with some ethnic group or something.” Starting in the 1950s, though, daily newspapers began publishing irreverent articles on unique aspects of local speech. “Our lingo is the district’s characteristic dialect: The unusual tricks and turns of speech that you hardly notice if you grew up here, but which jolt the ear of the newcomer with the impact of a baseball hitting a sore thumb,” the Pittsburgh Press decided 1959.

The earliest known use of the word “Pittsburghese” is a 1967 Pittsburgh Press article comparing Pittsburgh Speech to that of Buffalo and Cleveland. It features Dr. Robert Parslow, a University of Pittsburgh linguist who became the go-to interview for speech articles. Occasionally, these articles lamented campaigns to swap local speech for “standard” American speech. As Parslow prepared a survey of local speech in the early 1970s, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette framed it as a local conservation movement. “In the battle to preserve Western Pennsylvania English, Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty occupies a special place. When Flaherty opens his mouth, what comes out is virtually 100 percent Pittsburgh English, and Dr. Parslow believes that the presence of such a native speaker saying ‘dahntahn’ is enough to establish the prestige of the local dialect.”

Parslow is an archetype: the transplant who falls for Pittsburgh English. In 1979, he published “A Little Guide to Pittsburghese,” a folk dictionary of local terms and pronunciations. “Great cities develop and maintain their own distinctive ways of speaking,” Parslow wrote. “It is past time that Pittsburghese had a vace mecum to offer its guests.” It hit a nerve. In 1982, a University of Pittsburgh graduate expanded the concept with a slim paperback called “Sam McCool’s New Pittsburghese: How to Speak Like a Pittsburgher.” More than a quarter century later, this goofy little volume sits on the bookshelf of almost every transplant to the city, and quite a few locals, too.

Johnstone wasn’t interested in studying Pittsburgh Speech until she stumbled across McCool’s guide. “I thought, ‘This is just full of crap. This is wrong. I better show people what’s right. And in order to correct Sam McCool, I’m going to actually have to study this accent,’” she said. She created the Pittsburgh Speech and Society Project, a public repository of linguistically accurate information on local speech. Studying Pittsburgh Speech, though, pushed her thoughts on Pittsburghese. “Gradually, as I was trying to do this, I realized it wasn’t just a question of Sam McCool being wrong and me being right. It was that what I was interested in was connected with what Sam McCool was interested in — he wasn’t that wrong — that his dictionary was just one example of something people did all the time, which was to talk about local speech.”

Folk dictionaries aren’t unique to Pittsburgh. They are Labov’s “stereotype,” a stab at codifying ethereal aspects of speech. What was once spelled “you’ns,” “you-uns,” “yuh-unz,” or “y’nz” is now only “yinz” or “yunz.” (Yinz is the most widely accepted spelling today, but many devout locals cling to yunz as the “proper” spelling.) “The only thing that’s different here, and it’s different in degree and not different in type, is the way local speech has been linked to local identity,” Johnstone said. “And that really has to do with very specific things about the local economy and the times.”

Pittsburgh flailed in the 1980s. The steel industry finally collapsed and young people fled. The sports teams struggled. Local identity crumbled. By the 1990s, Pittsburgh Speech was increasingly suspect. “How you say Downtown can affect your career,” Pittsburgh Magazine warned in 1992. The Community College of Allegheny County offered courses where speech pathologists helped Pittsburghers “learn to lose that local accent.” In 1999, when a student working on her master’s thesis asked Pittsburghers to guess social status based only on voice recordings, she found they consistently ranked subjects with a Pittsburgh accent below those with a standard American accent.

Johnstone describes a coming-of-age Generation X searching for its place in Pittsburgh. It didn’t have the motherland traditions of its grandparents, or the pride its parents took in building America. “So what does it mean to be a Pittsburgher?” Johnstone said.

Pittsburghese blossomed in those years. From 1988 to 1994, Sophie Masloff, the only female and only Jewish mayor in city history, created a hardscrabble, but loveably bumbling persona from her thick Pittsburgh accent. Krenn started his career in those years, and remembers the painful transition time as exciting, too, a time when nightclubs, art galleries and music venues sprung up in former working class neighborhoods like the Southside, a former steel-working district on the banks of the Monongahela River. Krenn found himself wandering the Southside one day, humming the Lou Reed classic “Walk on the Wild Side.” He imagined all those gritty working class men he grew up around in the Strip District, all those authentic old Pittsburghers, finding their collective voice in Stanley Kachowski singing “Take a Walk on the Southside,” with lyrics extolling the virtues of “hot babushka mammas and hot hairnet honeys.”

“That song just took off,” Krenn said.

Krenn began using Kachowski in his stand-up routine, one in a long line of comedians who mine their neighborhood for comedic material and present their findings to a gathering of neighbors. “People from outside the city don’t understand when we say, ‘Hey yinz gowin dahn Gi Iggle pick up uh pahnd uh jumbo?’ People are like, ‘What is that?’” Krenn said. “So I would describe it a bit, comedically. People would laugh at how we have our own unique way of speaking, our own language in a way. It’s kind of an inside thing that we were proud of. We have our own little bond here in Pittsburgh.”

* * *

Pittsburgh looks radically different depending on where you stand in its craggy nooks; the clustered roofs of Bloomfield’s tenements look charming from the bridge heading into the neighborhood, but can be gloomy at street level. Naturally, the speech born from that landscape can also be a weed or a flower depending on the bouquet.

Pittsburgh appears in Chris Miskis’ voice the way it does in Jim Krenn’s, in small doses that might not register unless you went listening for them. “I learned how to pronounce the words ‘keller’ (color) and ‘sore’ (sewer), just because that’s the way my grandma said them,” said Miskis, a father in his late twenties. Miskis grew up on Mt. Washington, the flat-topped peak overlooking Pittsburgh from the south. Through high school bussing routes he befriended kids from the Hill District, the historic black neighborhood just outside Downtown, who introduced him to hip-hop music. Before the end of high school, though, his family moved to Westmoreland County, an eastern suburb of the city, where he began playing in punk rock bands. After college, he worked as a disc jockey for WDUQ, a local public radio station heavy on jazz.

His speech shifted by degrees from world to world. In his hip-hop recordings, his voice assumes the drawn-out vowels of east coast rap, alternately mellow, melancholy and forceful. On public radio, he said he consciously adopted a neutral tone, trying to find a voice that connected to both the “89-year-old woman sitting at home doing her gardening, listening to jazz on Saturday afternoon” and the “guy calling me up saying, ‘You hip, daddio? You got that old Charles Mingus?” Today, he schedules appointments for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the largest employer in the region, and finds the Pittsburgh accent unexpectedly coming to his aide. “I notice myself slipping into it from time to time when, let’s say, somebody calls trying to find directions to get to the Sports Medicine Center on the South Side, or something like that, and I’m familiar with the area, and the guy says, ‘Eh, I’m dahn here by de, uh, FBI builden, you kneoh where I guhn dahn ‘ere?’ And then, you know, I don’t put it on overtly, but I do find myself telling him, ‘Yeah, sure, I know. Go dahn Second Avenue. What do you see in front of you? You see where the bank used to be?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, yeah. I see it.’ And then I am able to kind of relate, express to him a familiarity with the fact that I know what I talking about (abaht) in a way that he understands it. It seems to make everything go a little bit smoother than if I talk like Frasier Crane.”

Miskis can lose himself in the local language, or study it from a distance. He notices his shifting speech only in retrospect. He says the local dialect isn’t “right or wrong, just different. I usually think its cute to hear little old ladies add ‘n’at’ to the end of sentences, and think it’s normal to hear educated people slip into the accent even in professional environments.” If placed behind the WDUQ microphone today, he said it wouldn’t seem necessary to change his voice; his thinks his youthful concerns about sounding unprofessional were misplaced. Yet he knows he pronounces certain words with a Pittsburgh accent and consciously tries to pronounce them “properly.” He acknowledges ownership of Pittsburghese. When people poke fun at the local accent, it sounds like they’re poking fun at his grandmother. “If somebody grew up in St. Louis, and comes here and starts talking about ‘Yinz ge-owin dahn there get a hoagie n’at?’ then it sort of feels like, ‘Well, what do you mean? Why are you talking that way?’ I guess it is a little bit of protectiveness,” he said. But at the same time, he occasionally finds himself overtly tossing Pittsburghese around among friends. “And it’s hilarious.”

These complications are standard. In a recent paper, Scott Kiesling and Marc Wisnosky of the University of Pittsburgh Department of Linguistics set out to find who in Pittsburgh still said “ah” for “ow.” Surprisingly, they found it most common among young men, followed by old women and old men, and least common among young women. They called that limited resurgence “heritage prestige,” a longing among young Pittsburgh men for a specific archetype from the city’s past. They compared it to pride in Cajun or Okracoke Island heritage. “The difference in Pittsburgh is that this pride is restricted locally,” they wrote. “Pittsburgh is not the vacation destination that Okracoke is, and it doesn’t have an exportable and commodified music and cuisine the way Cajun culture does. These facts mean that the Pittsburgh’s local pride remains restricted, because there is no economic motivation to amplify the pride in Pittsburgh heritage.”

There is economic motivation, but like everything else in Pittsburgh, it’s focused inward. On a Saturday morning in the Strip District, among the craft markets, and the produce wholesalers, and the fishmonger with silver scales dotting their aprons, Yinzers hawk t-shirts covered with Pittsburghese phrases. Cars all over town bear bumper stickers in local code: “N@” and “YNZ.” Yappin’ Yinzer dolls, like the mullet-wearing Chipped-Ham Sam, blurt out I’m takin’ na trawee dahntahn. In my finals years of college, in the middle of the last decade, a friend started a literary journal called “The New Yinzer.” The name riffed on the New Yorker, but also stated its purpose: to redefine what it meant to a stereotypical Pittsburgher, to reclaim “Yinzer.”

It didn’t, at least not entirely. Troll the Internet, and for every loving rendition of Pittsburghese, you’ll find another laced with mocking condescension. Critical letters to the editor follow every jovial article on Pittsburghese in the local press.

Pittsburgh is still in transition. Universities and hospitals have replaced the steel industry as the largest employers, but efforts to brand the city as an “eds and meds” Mecca haven’t entirely seeped into the local bloodstream. While many are still trying to grasp the significance of hosting the G-20 Summit last fall, far more want to know why it took so long for the city to plow the snow after a massive snowstorm this past winter.

In Pittsburgh today, hip main streets slice through humble residential blocks, intersections where Pittsburghese becomes Pittsburgh Speech. “It’s a very middle class, upper middle class thing to do, to be part of the Pittsburghese conversation,” Johnstone said. “And to actually speak with a Pittsburgh accent is still a working class/middle class thing to do. There’s an area of overlap, but there’s a lot of people who are in one category, but not the other.” Johnstone got blank stares when she showed a list of Pittsburghese phrases to children in Lawrenceville, children with a local accent. “Yinz” and “n’at” meant nothing special to them, even if though they used both in regular speech. Knox’s Pierogi House, where Stanley Kachowski rants about parking chairs, isn’t any more real than Pants N’at. It’s an establishment dreamed up by a 17-year-old known to us as “Jason E” when asked by Johnstone for an example of Pittsburghese. Nawk-sez Pro-ghee Hahs. “It’s a really ugly accent, I think,” he told Johnstone.

It’s also a white accent. A 2007 study found that many of the features most commonly associated with Pittsburghese, like dahntahn, aren’t common in the local black community. It’s also increasingly static. While Pittsburgh Speech, defined here as speech heard in Pittsburgh, will evolve indefinitely, Pittsburghese is increasingly codified. Somewhere along the line, Polish phrases like pierogi and babushka slid between the Scots-Irish lingo to enter the Pittsburghese canon, but the Vietnamese and Indian immigrants who arrived in recent decades will almost certainly never get their words onto a Pittsburghese t-shirt. Being an institution makes Pittsburghese ripe for appropriation. Johnstone said a marketing firm recently called her to ask if certain Pittsburghese terms would be offensive if used in a local ad campaign.

* * *

Dialect is studied in the aggregate, and it’s impossible to narrow it down to a single person. Under duress, though, most in Pittsburgh would point to the late Myron Cope, long-time color commentator for the Steelers. Cope not only used many of the features of Pittsburgh Speech in his regular speech, but the slang he coined during his energetic broadcasts — particularly “Yoi!” — wormed their way into Pittsburghese.

His voice has been described as “cutting through concrete,” as sounding like “a tornado going through a junkyard,” as “obnoxious,” “harsh,” “abrasive” and “grating,” an “anal voice” of “mid-range sandpaper” with “all the shrill subtlety of an attack-dog whistle” that “falls upon the public’s ears like china crashing from shelves in an earthquake” and demands attention “just as motorists slow down to look when passing a wreck.” And Cope dreamed up at least half those descriptions himself.

Early listeners demanded he be pulled from the air, but his unique voice came from Pittsburgh and ultimately belonged to it. “Perhaps one reason my local commercials succeeded was that, according to some, I speak to Pittsburghers in a dialect that is the quintessential Pittsburghese,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Out-of-town speech professors and newspaper columnists whose occupations move them to Pittsburgh call our manner of speech just that — Pittsburghese. The professors conduct disapproving studies of it while the columnists poke fun at it. Yet I fail to recognize any peculiar nuances when I speak, nor when I hear other native sons speak. To my ear, we sound normal.”

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