American Dialect: Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is unique among the fifty states in that it has two very distinct major dialectical centers, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Many states have internal variations of dialect, New Jersey for instance is split down the middle with half the state paying homage to New York City and the other have speaking like Philadelphians. But no other state has two urban centers each with its own dialect.

Philadelphia Dialect
The city of brotherly love is the only major urban center on the East Coast with a rhotic dialect. That is Philadelphians don’t drop their Rs the way New Yorkers, Bostonians, and Southerners do. But Philadelphia has other dialectical markers, mostly regarding the pronunciation of vowel sounds.

One such marker is the short E, which in Philly has an /uh/ sound after an R. So merry and Murray sound the same. Linguist William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania (remember him from the article on NYC speech?) conducted an experiment where one Philadelphian read aloud a random series of merrys and Murrays. Another Philadelphian marked down which one he heard. The results were completely random.

The long E also comes in for a change. It is pronounced as a short I. So the name of Philadelphia’s National Football Lig team is pronounced /iggles/, not Eagles. Colleague and fatigue are pronounced /collig/ and /fatig/, not /colleeg/ and /fateeg/ as they are elsewhere in the country.

Another feature, which Philly shares with the rest of the inland Northern-tier states, is the pronunciation of the short A. Before the N, M, TH, S, and F sounds, the short A has an /ih-uh/ sound. Thus, a Philadelphian doesn’t distinguish between the names Ann and Ian. They are both pronounce /ee-ann/. Note that this happens only before certain consonant sounds though. There are so many exceptions that only someone born and bred in Philly will consistently get the pronunciation right.

The long O is often preceded by a short E. So the expression “Yo Joe! Throw the ball!” is pronounced /Yeowuh Jeowuh! Threowuh the ball./

There are some consonant changes too. Like New York City speech, Philadelphians often reduce the T sound in the middle of words to a glottal stop, but only before M, N, and L sounds. So the Walt Whitman Bridge, which spans the Delaware River, is pronounced as the /wall women/ bridge.

And the initial S in words is often pronounced as an SH sound. Thus, to Philadelphian, /shity shtreets/ is not a comment on the sanitation department.

Pittsburgh Dialect
Pittsburgh is the major city in western Pennsylvania and it dominates the linguistic landscape in that part of the state. Pittsburgh is the starting point for the Midwestern pronunciation that stretches across much of the United States.

The chief pronunciation difference is in the /ou/ and /ow/ sounds, which are pronounced as /ah/. Therefore, downtown is pronounced /dahntahn/ and out is /aht/.

Pittsburghese is also known for dropping the verb to be with need or want. So the car doesn’t need to be washed, it needs washed. Another Pittsburgh usage is the phrase and that, usually clipped to n’at or en at, which is used as an intensifier. 

Pennsylvania German (Pennsylvania Dutch)
In addition to the two major dialectical centers of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is also home to a dialect of German. It is spoken by the Amish, Mennonite, and descendants of other German immigrants in the south central region of the state. It is commonly called Pennsylvania Dutch, a term that is a bit of anachronism. The term Dutch, which is related to Deutsch, used to be a term that was applied to German speakers as well as speakers of the Dutch language. This dialect has also had an impact on how English is spoken in the same region, with particular words and syntax transferring between the two languages.

The Pennsylvania German dialect is rapidly fading. As late as the 1970s, it was spoken by 25% of the residents of Lehigh, Lancaster, Lebanon, and Berks counties, and understood by 65% of the residents. The numbers have declined sharply since, although the influence of the German on English is still seen clearly.

Some of the pronunciation differences are that /v/ is pronounced as /w/, so valley becomes /walley/. Other changes include /p/ shifting to /b/, pull is pronounced as /bull/, and /j/ becomes /ch/, jam becomes /cham/. Vowel changes include lengthening of stressed vowels.

The verb to make does not have just the usual English meanings, but it is also used as one would use machen in German. Hence, in Lancaster County one can make down the road (instead of go) or make the door shut (instead of close). Ain’t is often used in place of won’t, and ain’t can also serve to mark a question, as nicht wahr does in German or isn’t it in English, as in Nice day, ain’t? Other stock phrases include outen the light for “put out the light” and tie the dog loose for “untie the dog.”

Pennsylvania Words

All, adj., finished, dead. Penn. German

Barn burner, n., a wooden or kitchen match.

Berm, n., the shoulder of a road; western Penn., also Ohio, Indiana, and West Virginia.

Butterbread, n., bread spread with butter; Penn. German.

Cheesesteak, n., a type of sandwich, thin strips of steak, melted white cheese, onions, and peppers on an Italian roll; Philadelphia.

Diamond, n., a town or city square.

Dressing, n., gravy. Penn. German.

Drooth, n., drought; western Penn., from Scots and N. Irish dialect.

Flitch, n., bacon; surviving dialectical relic from Old English.

Funnel cake, n., fried dough made by pouring batter through a funnel into deep fat; Penn German.

Gumband, n., rubber band.

Hap, n., comforter, blanket; from Scots dialect.

Hisser, n., type of firecracker, a dud that is broken open and the powder lit.

Hoagie, n., a submarine sandwich; Philadelphia.

Hutch, n., a chest of drawers.

Jag, v., to jab, stab; also to jag off, to annoy, irritate, vex; and to jag around, to fool around.

Jagger, n., a thorn or burr.

Jumbo, n., bologna; western Penn.

Medial strip, n., median strip elsewhere in the US, grass strip running between the lanes of a divided highway; also found in southern NJ and Hawaii.

Neb, n., the nose, also v. to neb or to neb about, to pry into another’s affairs, adj. nebby, nosy, snoopy, and n. neb-nose, a snoop; also found in English dialect.

Pavement, n., sidewalk; Philadelphia.

Redd, v., to clean, to tidy; from Scots and northern English dialect.

Scrapple, n., scraps of pork, ground, mixed with cornmeal, molded into a loaf, sliced and then fried; Penn. German.

Yinz, n., equivalent of y’all and you guys, clipping of you ones; western Penn.

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