In the summer of 2011, I spent five days in hot pursuit of the Pittsburgh accent, and I think I’m in love.
I had low expectations of this city overall. Just before leaving Charlotte, NC (new recordings in hand!) for Pittsburgh, a friend said he was sorry I was having to go to that “dirty city.” I had images of the closed steel mills in my head, and I expected it to be a rather rough city with lots of pollution and a chip on its shoulder, but I couldn’t have been more wrong…
First of all, I have to admit that I was bought out by the people of this city to get me to say nice things about them. During my attempts to record a variety of Pittsburgh dialects – which was faster and easier than I could have imagined – I was given, unsolicited: a free meal at Primanti Brothers, two free t-shirts at Yinzers, a free beer at another Primanti location, and a free Pittsburghese coffee cup. What’s up with these people?!
I actually got most of my dialect recordings thanks to the fine people at two of the Primanti Bros locations, in both the Strip and the South Side. I also ate a grand total of FOUR of their sandwiches over four days in a row. Beginning to see a pattern? Love this city. As good as their sandwiches were, their hospitality was even better. If that’s possible.
Everybody was kind and open about discussing the accent, the city, and the changes that have taken place over the last few decades. This is not a dying steel town in the rust belt. This is a vibrant city of culture and business. I was able to catch a show at the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre (which included a former student in the cast), and our discussion about the potential for theatre and the incredible range of museums and other cultural institutions surprised me. Granted, by then I’d already had two Primanti sandwiches, but I was still thinking straight!
The accent shares a number of elements with the Chicago accent, which I’m quite familiar with from living there for ten years. The placement and intonation are very close, as well as their “flat” quality, but there are some major vowel and diphthongal changes in Pittsburgh that make it quite distinct from Chicago-speak. Father, cop, cost and all all have a similar slightly rounded vowel, whereas Chicago’s vowels for all of those are usually unrounded. The major change that makes downtown sound like dahntahn is probably the biggest Pittsburghese stereotype, and it’s definitely present, at least to some degree, in even the lightest Pittsburgh accents.
After five days, I’m actually open to the idea of living in Pittsburgh, which would have never entered my mind before this trip. I’ll certainly begin to recommend it as a possible destination city for graduating actors at the university. But only if they’ll take good care of it. Did I mention I love this city?