Yinzers proud of their dialect n’at
Did yinz guys know there’s a whole lot of history behind Pittsburghese n’at?
A Carnegie Mellon University professor has spent years researching the phrases true ‘Burghers like to claim as their own. Barbara Johnstone’s “Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect” traces the history of Pittsburgh’s unique language and explores the ways locals have made it part of the region’s identity.
“No other city in the United States that I know of pays nearly the amount of attention to local speech as Pittsburgh does,” Johnstone, professor of rhetoric and linguistics, says. “It’s been part of how we think about who we are for quite a long time.”
Johnstone relies on historical research, media reports and interviews with locals to pinpoint the reasons why words such as “slippy,” “worsh” and “nebby,” and pronunciations like “dahntahn,” “Stillers” and “sammitch” have become defining factors of the region and its inhabitants.
The book takes readers back to when first-generation immigrants made up Pittsburgh’s population. Johnstone cites the story of “yinz” as a perfect example of their impact on local language. Meaning “you all” or “you folks,” “yinz” was part of the language used by natives of northern Ireland, Scotland and northern England. The use of the word has evolved over time.
“Starting around the 1950s, people became aware of this word and have started to talk about it,” Johnstone says. “And it is now used in completely different ways than it was before. People use it as an adjective or as a prefix, as with ‘Yinzburgh’ or ‘Yinzer.’ ”
While variations of “yinz” are used in other parts of the country, Pittsburghers’ application of the word is unique.
“No one spells it the same way,” Johnstone says.
Today, many locals can relate to stories of traveling and being immediately outed as Pittsburghers the second they begin to speak. That can be a source of pride or irritation, Johnstone says.
“A lot of people both embrace it and hate it,” she says. “It depends on how you think about it. They hate it if someone suggests it makes them sound uneducated or provincial. At the same time, they don’t mind it as a symbol of being local.”
Johnstone points out that while Pittsburghese is stronger with older generations, there’s no fear of younger Yinzers letting it fade away just yet.
“It won’t happen as fast as some people think,” she says. “Some young people have pretty strong local accents. Some even claim they do it themselves even though they don’t really. Kids who go away to college sit around and talk about their regional accents.”
Johnstone also points to the popularity of “Pittsburgh Dad,” the wildly popular web series based on a Yinzer everyman who embodies all the hilarious quirks unique to many local fathers. Curt Wootton, who portrays the man, admits since taking on the role, he’s slipping Pittsburghese into his everyday speech more frequently.
“I also have to constantly stop myself from dropping the verb ‘to be’ in my sentences,” says the Greensburg native. “ ‘The furnace needs fixed,’ or ‘The car needs warshed.’ These sentences sound normal arahnd here cause we don’t gawt to be wasting all that extra time on words that don’t need to be in there anyhows! Geeze Louise.”
Wootton’s family embraces a spin on another Pittsburgh-centric word.
“ ‘Jagoff’ is very traditional here in the Steel City and very fun to say, but I am more partial to the less known variation of that classic, ‘Jag-O-Five-O,’ ” he says. “It was my grandfather, Roger Deschamps’, favorite phrase of all time. He called everyone Jag-O-Five-O. Everyone!
“It was a term of endearment, or so the entire family all hoped. My grandfather worked for years at Bettis in West Mifflin, and it is believed that ‘Jag-O-Five-O’ had its origin there sometime in the late ’60s or early ’70s. The next time you notice a friend or relative in a mall, Heinz Field or Giant Eagle and wish to discreetly get their attention, go ahead and yell, ‘Hey, Jag-O-Five-O!’ I think you’ll like it.”
Pittsburghers also are unique in that they love to plaster local sayings on everything from T-shirts to towels, coffee mugs to coasters, Johnstone says. Stores like Mike Feinberg Co. in the Strip District cash in on the love of all things local with items covered in sayings like “dahntahn,” “jagoff” and more. Yappin Yinzers dolls Chipped Ham Sam and Nebby Debbie, which spout sayings like “Jeetjet?” and “Get aht a tahn!” continue to be big sellers.
“It’s fun,” says Marcia Feinberg, company president. “When people move away, then come back, and hear someone say ‘jagoff,’ they say, ‘I haven’t heard that since I left!’ We just love those sayings. It’s Pittsburgh!”
Richard Coursey, owner of YinzBurgh BBQ in Shadyside, knew he had to give his business some local flavor when it opened earlier this year. The Georgia native who came to Pittsburgh 16 years ago knew there was no better way to pay homage to his new hometown than with a nod to local lingo.
“Down in the South, we say ‘ya’ll,’ ” he says. “When I moved north in my mid-teens to New Jersey, everybody made fun of ‘ya’ll,’ but I held on to it because I thought it was nice to hold on to something from when you were growing up.
“I wanted a name that was unique to Pittsburgh and had a list of 150 names. The day I went to sign the papers (for the business), somebody said, ‘yinz.’ And I said, ‘YinzBurgh.’
“I love these little local dialects,” Coursey says. “Had I opened it down South, I would have called it ‘Ya’llsBurgh. People have been very accepting of it. They embrace Pittsburgh’s past.”
Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or [email protected].