Very shortly after returning to the United States after living abroad for five years, I was buying some new eyeglasses. The saleswoman asked me where I was from. I named a town a few miles away.
“No,” she said, “What country are you originally from?”
Without even realizing it, I supposedly sounded ‘foreign’, which amused me because I had just been trying to identify her foreign accent. So I paid closer attention to what exactly I was doing, and that’s when I heard it: subtly changing /th/ sounds to a soft /t/ (voiceless) or /d/ (voiced); saying ‘yah, yah’ instead of ‘yes’; clipping my diphthongs ever so slightly so they sounded more ‘pure’.
Oh! I was mimicking her. And apparently quite well.
There is a phenomenon known as the Chameleon Effect wherein people who are getting along well with each other start to mimic each other’s mannerisms, both vocal and gestural. It’s mostly done unconsciously, but in fact, it can be a deliberate behavior done by those who would like to make a good impression, strengthen a bond or increase solidarity with another person.
I’ve never been one of those people who always knew what to say or do to make people feel comfortable. I’m shy and kind of awkward when meeting new people. I never thought the Chameleon Effect was something that I could do well, even unconsciously. It appears, however, that I might be wrong about that.
Maybe this explained in part how my idiolect – my personal way of speaking – had become a smorgasbord: sometimes New York, sometimes Southern, sometimes foreign. For my entire life, I’ve been exposed to different dialects and languages for extended periods of time, starting from hearing my parents and many of my friends’ parents speaking with foreign accents, to living in different places in the U.S. and abroad. What effect might this have had on me in a more permanent way, and not just temporary mimicking for the sake of conversation and social bonding? How have other dialects affected my speech?
Allow me to introduce you to Pittsburgh. If you watch the first half of the video below, you’ll see a highway winding through green hills down towards the Fort Pitt Tunnel. You’ll also see the traffic that is typically slowing the entrance into any of the tunnels into the ‘Burgh. Then, after a stretch in the long, narrow tunnel, you’ll see why the New York Times once called Pittsburgh “the only city with an entrance.”
I lived in Pittsburgh for four years, which was enough time for me to learn that icy roads in winter are slippy and that every eight weeks or so, my hair needs cut. Everyone should go see a Stillers game at least once, and enter the city from the Fort Pitt tunnel on the sahth side so yinz can see how beautiful dahntahn looks when it suddenly appears at the end of the tunnel, across The Mon.
Picksburghers are very proud of their accent, even though it’s not actually limited to Pittsburgh. According to the PBS series, Do you speak American?, “many Pittsburghers employ a dialect variety that is known as ‘North Midland’ or ‘Lower Northern’ English.” This region roughly follows the Ohio River Valley, then extends further west, past the Mississippi and almost to the Rockies.
The term redd up, for example, means ‘to clean or tidy up’, and it extends through the Ohio River Valley. The tendency to add an /r/ in words like ‘wash’ (‘worsh’) is also not limited to Pittsburgh. Yinz (you plural) can be found in the Appalachian dialect.
Though the Pittsburgh dialect may share features in common with the larger accent region, it certain is unique in the particular combination of features that converge in its urban reach. Perhaps the most famous feature – saying dahntahn or cahch instead of downtown or couch is something that Pittsburgh can claim for its own. I can certainly attest to hearing the sentence, “Get aht the hahse!” more than once from some quarrelsome neighbors. (Okay, maybe listening with a glass against the wall was not for, uh, ‘linguistic research.’)
Just take a listen (start at 1:06) to Myron Cope, the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers (the Picksburgh Stillers). No one ever got as excited about a touchdahn like Myron Cope. He also gave us the Terrible Towel (the Terrible Tahl).
While I didn’t change the way I pronounce words to match a Pittsburgh accent, I certainly developed a fondness for some of the vocabulary and grammatical features of the dialect. While I am far more likely to say that I need to get my hair cut, I will occasionally tug at my hair impatiently and say, “My hair needs cut.” My focus at the time is on my hair, which prompts the use of the passive voice, and because this grammatical feature of the Pittsburgh dialect was so often explained with this example, my mind must have learned it as a chunk.
That doesn’t really explain the reason I will say those cats need fed, or this floor needs cleaned. Admittedly, it’s only once in a blue moon that I use this construction, but it’s clearly embedded firmly enough in my brain that it will continue making brief appearances for as long as I speak.
I will also admit to having adopted – nay, embraced – the word jagoff. It’s a derogatory word that is used in place of jerk or jackass. I don’t know why I enjoy it so much. I do tend to employ it in limited situations: when driving, when watching sports, or when teasing Buzz about voting Republican.
There were other things I didn’t – nor wouldn’t – add to my personal variety of English. Until my dying day, for example, the sweet carbonated beverage will be a soda and never a pop. I can’t bring myself to use a gumband instead of a rubber band, and I’m unlikely to ever order a hoagie, since I’d probably be asking for a wedge in New York, or possibly a sub when I’m in a more generic mood.
It’s hard to explain why a person picks up some aspects of a new or even familiar dialect but not others. Our speech is very personal and we have irrational reactions to different words or sounds. We pick and choose what we like, whether it be a sound, an association, or a reaction. We avoid what we don’t like for the same reasons.
For me, choosing a few bits from dialects is like bringing home a souvenirs or mementos of the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met. They are regular reminders of the more pleasant experiences I’ve had in the places that have shaped my life. Every time I hear these words slipping out of my mouth, I smile and remember.
You can learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about the Pittsburgh dialect at the Pittsburgh Speech and Society website.
What are your favorite things about your dialect?