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History: Yinz can learn about Pittsburghese online

Podcasts provide origins of the city's most colorful words

The Internet's foremost resource on Pittsburgh's distinctive local dialect, pittsburghspeech.com, now features podcasts.

Carnegie Mellon University professor Barbara Johnstone -- who partnered with Scott Kiesling, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh, to create the site -- is promoting The Pittsburgh Speech and Society Project with previously unheard content.

While the site's origins trace to 2000, Johnstone says that it wasn't until summer 2007 that the group recorded its NPR-esque podcasts, each less than two minutes long. Lacking the resources to transmit their research via television or film, Johnstone says the group starting pursuing the idea of recording radio broadcasts, which in turn led to podcasts. The podcasts, which are modeled after the brief radio segment Earth & Sky, give listeners quick hits on words like "nebby" and "yinz."

The podcast on "yinz," for example, explains that the word grew out of non-native English speakers' desire to differentiate between the second-person singular and plural pronouns. In English, one uses the word "you" to refer either to a single person or a group -- and, as the podcast explains, many Irish immigrants "must have found this gap curious, even problematic, because the Irish language has a singular second-person pronoun, ',' as well as a plural form, 'sibh.' In response, these speakers coined 'yous,' which they or their descendants brought with them when they emigrated to New Jersey and elsewhere."

Similarly, the podcast links the contractions "y'all" (you all) and "yinz" or "yunz" (you ones) to Irish immigrants.

PittsburghSpeech isn't the only site to address Pittsburgh's dialect, but Johnstone believes the research behind it sets it apart. She wanted to create something scholarly on a subject that is often discussed, but frequently misrepresented. "Some of the things that [people] were posting [on other sites] were not examples of Pittsburgh speech at all," Johnstone says. "What they were doing was creating a stereotype or caricatures."

That's what happened on the site Pittsburghese.com, which was launched more than a decade ago by local Web designers OnTV Pittsburgh. According to Webmaster Alan Freed -- who is neither a linguist nor a Pittsburgher -- the site was meant to be humorous and promotional, but it evolved beyond his control.

Back when it was still being updated, users could submit their own examples to his site. "It got to the point where people were submitting anything Myron Cope had ever said in his life," Freed says, adding that in its heyday, the site was visited by more than 1,000 people per day.

"Not too long after we got the site," he says, "I got an invitation from Mensa to be a speaker on Pittsburghese. So I thought I should do some actual research." That led him to Johnstone.

There's a page on Pittsburghese.com titled "For Actual Research," which links to Johnstone's site. The site also includes a disclaimer: "The Pittsburghese.com Web site is purely intended to be fun. We know that some of the phrases used in the glossary may be used elsewhere in the country, and that some of the entries may be a bit of a stretch[,] to say the least. You could say that we're just jaggin' around."

Perhaps the most enduring mystery, though, is why local speech patterns command such interest. "The term 'Pittsburghese' is not very old," Johnstone says. "It seems to date back to the 1960s." People's interest in Pittsburghese grew even as the steel industry declined, and Johnstone surmises the two trends are connected. "People were looking for a new identity. One of the things they latched onto was local speech."

Johnstone is uncertain whether more podcasts will be forthcoming, but promises that "there will certainly be more updates to the site."

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