Decades ago, while living in California, North Side native Marilyn Caye dialed the operator for assistance.
After hearing only a few words, the switchboard employee chuckled and said, “You sound like a Pittsburgher. I’m from East McKeesport.”
Pittsburghese, it seems, is a universal language. So why would anyone want to redd up their yinzer accent?
Caye, who is now a resident of Mt. Washington (or, as the locals call it, Mt. Worshington), teaches How to Lose Your Pittsburgh Accent at the Community College of Allegheny County’s main campus. She doesn’t want to erase the regional dialect, just help some folks sound more professional when they go dahntahn to git a job, n’at.
The two-part course is offered several times a year. The next session will be held Feb. 16 and 23 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Due to Covid concerns, the school is still determining whether it will be an in-person or online class.
Past attendees include a court reporter who wanted a more polished vocabulary, a New Yorker who had a hard time communicating with her own Pittsburgh-born children and an Iranian family perplexed by words such as “slippy” and “gumband.” Students perform various verbal exercises to help them enunciate and be more persuasive in a conversation. The course isn’t graded; it’s meant for personal development.
Caye, a professor, disc jockey and scriptwriter who does voice-over work, says not everyone thinks of Pittsburghese as a speech impediment. For some, it’s a badge of honor.
Children around the world grew up listening to Mister Rogers’ dulcet tones and many Hollywood actors, including Michael Keaton, Billy Gardell and Joe Manganiello publicly showcase their native tongue on talk shows. Last week, “Late Night” host Seth Meyers — whose father is from the Steel City — went into full Myron Cope-mode to decry Sen. Ted Cruz’s comments about the Paris Agreement and about how President Joe Biden is “more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh.”
He even called Cruz a “jagoff.”
On social media, people have suggested offering a class on how to gain a Pittsburgh accent.
Marc Wisnosky, who graduated with a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh, studied Pittsburghese, or as linguistics call it, Pittsburgh Speech.
“I found that Pittsburghers like to make fun of their own pronunciations and special vocabulary words (like gumband and jumbo), and that it acts kind of like a way to show in-group status,” Wisnosky says. “I also worked with Pitt’s Dr. Scott Kiesling and CMU’s Dr. Barbara Johnstone on the Pittsburgh Speech & Society project, and Dr. Kiesling and I co-authored a conference poster and paper about how Pittsburghers seem to want to hold on to their dialect as a kind of sign of authentic prestige, as a marker of their true Pittsburgh heritage.”
Wisnosky, who hails from Pottstown, PA, but has lived in Pittsburgh since 1995, says the dialect is spoken mostly by working-class white people.
“When I was in college, I worked in a warehouse for a summer,” he explains. “It ended up being a kind of ‘Pittsburghese immersion’ course. That’s when I knew I had become a Pittsburgher.”
Caye is proud of her heritage and the town’s quirky vocabulary, but she says it’s nice to be able to turn it on and off depending on the situation.
“It’s a fun tool,” she says. “It makes us feel included and that’s why it’s not wrong to use it every now and then.”