How’s Your Pittsburghese?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

You probably didn’t realize that natives of Pittsburgh speak their own language, usually called “Pittsburghese.” Google the word “Pittsburghese” and you’ll get a wealth of information about this language – well known to residents of Western Pennsylvania but absolutely foreign to outsiders, or in Pittsburghese, “ahtsiders.”

Wikipedia says this about the local dialect: “Pittsburgh English, popularly known as Pittsburghese, is the dialect of American English spoken by many residents of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Many of the sounds and words found in the speech of Pittsburghers are popularly thought to be unique to the city. This is reflected in the term ‘Pittsburghese,’ the putative sum of these features in the form of a dialect.”

Wow, that’s a bit technical for the average Pittsburgher. Let me give you a simpler introduction to this delightful dialect, my native tongue.

Pittsburghese has its own pronunciation of familiar words. It tends to flatten its vowels so, as already indicated, outside becomes “ahtside.” Downtown becomes “dahntahn.” Pittsburghers live in the North but they often vacation in the “Sahth.” (One of Pittsburgh’s most colorful neighborhoods is the “Sahthside.”) Depending on the weather in Pittsburgh, “April shahrs” will bring May flahrs.” In Pittsburgh you might ask a bride if her father is going to walk her down the “owl.” And if someone asks you what your favorite “keller” is, they’re not asking about a member of Helen’s family, but rather, whether you prefer, red, blue or green.

Pittsburghers also eliminate certain consonants from their native tongue, for example the letter D. So, couldn’t becomes “coun’t,” wouldn’t becomes “woun’t” and didn’t becomes “din’t.” I saw this dialogue in print recently: Question: “Jeatyet?” Answer: “Nodju?” Translation: “Did you eat yet? No, did you?”

Pittsburghese has its own wonderful vocabulary. In our language a rubber band becomes a “gumband,” a telephone pole is a “tellypole,” thorns are “jaggers,” a chipmunk a “grinnie,” slippery becomes “slippy,” and bologna morphs into the ever popular “jumbo.” (By the way, I still haven’t found anything in Rhode Island that compares with Pittsburgh’s “chipped ham.”)

Other examples. If someone calls you “nebby,” it’s not a compliment; It means that you’re nosey. And if your mother tells you to “redd up” your room before you go “ahtside,” it means that your room had better be nice and neat before she inspects it. And the typical Pittsburgh word for you plural is “yunz,” sometimes rendered, “yinz.”

As a native Pittsburgher I’m not completely immune to the influence of Pittsburghese. The neighborhood I grew up in wasn’t as strong in the local dialect as some others, but still, once in a while (“wow”) an occasional “ahtside” or “dahntahn” will slip “aht.” And on more than one occasion here in Rhode Island, people who have heard my Pittsburgh brogue have asked me what part of Ireland I’m from!

Now, if you’re even slightly tempted to ridicule Pittsburghers because of our strange dialect, remember that Rhode Island has its own little linguistic foibles. I’ve yet to figure out why it’s called a bubbler, and I still find “side-by-each” hilarious. I chuckle when someone talks about the nice birthday “cod” they received. (You people send fish on your birthdays?) And I remember being in a local church last Christmas when the lector announced: “The opening hymn today is ‘Hock, the Herald Angels Sing’.” The image wasn’t pleasant.

Of course language has other, more serious ways of distinguishing us. In my travels around the diocese I’ve been in churches where the traditional language is Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, French or Haitian Creole, among others. One of my regrets is that I don’t speak languages other than English. And my restaurant-friendly Italian hardly counts.

And yet, I have to say, in visiting churches here in Rhode Island where other languages are spoken, even for the liturgy, I’ve never felt excluded; I’ve always felt very much at home. That’s because, first of all, the people themselves have been gracious, warm and welcoming. And it’s also because within the Church there’s a language we share – the language of faith.

In a Catholic Church I can worship in English, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, French, Creole or any other language – even Latin! – and still speak the language of faith with other Catholics. Despite the differences of the spoken word, we understand one another, accept one another and support one another.

You see, what we share as Catholics is far greater than anything that divides us. We share a faith in God and in His Son Jesus Christ who suffered, died and rose again for the sake of our salvation. We share our commitment to the Church that Jesus founded, a willingness to work for the Church, and we want the Church to prosper and grow. We are united in celebrating and receiving the Holy Eucharist, which we profess to be the veritable Body and Blood of Christ. We believe that the Ten Commandments are the unchangeable Word of God and we strive to do our best, to live a moral life everyday. And we have a common commitment to share our material resources with the poor and the weak, our disadvantaged brothers and sisters around the world and around the corner.

Indeed, the languages we speak are many and varied. They distinguish our heritage and our homeland. We should be proud of them, speak them and teach them to our children. And yet when we come together in the Catholic Church, there’s a language we share. It’s the language of faith. It’s the language God speaks.