Pittsburgh Dialects (Daniela Ganelin, 10/2/13)

We talked about Pittsburgh speech and dialects in preparation for Daniel Ginsberg’s visit next week. Unrelated — register for NACLO!

The talk was based on this paper. Please take a look, especially if you couldn’t make the meeting. Most of it’s pretty easy to read; you can safely ignore any sentence that starts with “ethnometapragmatically.” There were no slides.


Let’s talk about Pittsburgh. But first, let’s take a tanget and talk about England. A couple of centuries ago, the people in SE England spoke a certain way. A lot of those people were rich and upper-class. Over time, the way they spoke (“dialect”) came to be associated less with the geographic region and more with the socioeconomic status. Today, BBC announcers speak in this way, no matter where they’re from. People perceive it as a more “proper” or “upper-class” way to speak.

In Pittsburgh, the opposite happened. Features such as saying “hass” instead of “house” and using “yinz” to mean “you” (plural) were originally used by people of lower class (archetypally, working-class males of Scottish origin). Over time, this dialect came to be associated less with social class and more with Pittsburgh as a whole. Today, someone from Pittsburgh will probably be able to draw a distinction based on class — but to someone from outside the area, the speech is just “Pittsburgh”, not “working-class white male from the Pittsburgh area whose ancestors or associates are Scottish”.

And that brings us to a very interesting way to think about language features. Features that you use all the time, regardless of circumstances, are first-order; you don’t think about them, you don’t adjust them based on your conversation partner, and you probably couldn’t change them even if you wanted to. For example, somebody who has spent their whole life associating exclusively with a certain ethnic group in a certain geographic area won’t really think about their manner of speech.

But at some point, people start thinking about how they talk — we’ll call that second-order. For example, say our somebody from above suddenly moves to a community with a very different way of speech. He’s going to become much more aware of his speech features, and might talk differently depending on whether he’s talking to his new neighbors or to his family back home.

And beyond that — what’s we’ll call third-order — people start making generalizations about how groups talk. So Mr. Somebody’s new neighbors might associate Mr. Somebody’s way of talking with everybody of Mr. Somebody’s ethnicity, geographic origin, or social class. And Mr. Somebody hismelf might consciously think about how people react to his manner of speech. And so on and so forth — depending on which obscure school of sociolinguistics you subscribe to, you might stop with three levels or just keep adding on.

Things to think about:

  • What is a “dialect”, a “language”, or an “accent”?
  • How much do you think about the way you speak?
  • What factors determine the way people speak?
  • Why do people change the way they speak in different circumstances?

BONUS: Read this. It’s excellent.

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