I sat the grammar tests I mentioned last week for two reasons: first because, for me, language is fascinating, and second because I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is full contradictions and has an interesting history that often intrudes into contemporary life. Although Pittsburgh is small, it has just two hundred thousand people, it ranks eighth in America as a location for corporate headquarters; some of the biggest companies in North America are based in my city; many of them were founded here in the nineteenth-century hey day of robber barons and industrial tycoons. Immigrant laborers followed the sirens’ promise of work in burgeoning local industries like coal, steel, and transportation; today you can enjoy their story, ‘Babushkas and Hard Hats.’ By 1900 Pittsburgh had the largest concentration of wealth in America.
Pittsburgh’s great wealth declined as its founding industrialists moved to New York and other cities, giving Pittsburgh a Brigadoon quality. The city is situated in the middle of nowhere, the ‘gateway’ to the Mid-West, Appalachia and the North East, which explains why those captains of industry upped sticks for more glamorous addresses. The modern decline of the steel industry further isolated the area. Despite the urban decay of the 1980’s, Pittsburgh is now the third largest U.S. destination for making feature films and one of the busiest conference destinations in the country, which brings me to my point.
Last week the Linguistic Society of America hosted their annual conference here. Dr. Barbara Johnstone, professor of Rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University presented her research on ‘Pittsburghese,’ the local dialect that inspires intense pride. Pittsburghese is a fact of life here; when I first arrived it surprised me to hear people hum and shout colors when answering the telephone; ‘hmmmm, yello’ is the standard telephone greeting. Reading Approaches to Text helped me to understand that immigrants from northern England, Scotland and Ireland brought unique diction and idiom to this isolated area. They began arriving during the Great Vowel Shift and soon began to arrive in ever larger numbers. The wealthy industrialists preferred to keep rural communities, their country retreats, separated from the grimy city. ‘Pittsburghese’ was able to flourish undisturbed and undeterred.
Pittsburgh’s flourishing dialect is part of its unique history and modern personality; the city is, and has always been, a lively mix of languages, discourse, and stories. Stephen Foster composed his lyrics not far from my front door. You can still sing along with those musical stories at ‘Do-Dah Days’; today City of Asylum brings writers from around the world to write their stories here. There is more performance and ‘culture’ in Pittsburgh than any other city in America.
Last week, just as the linguists left town, Pittsburgh was named the fifth most literate city in America. I think the high literacy level in such a small, isolated place is related to its vigorous tradition of Pittsburghese, language, and its role in the community. I listen to the ‘Yinzers’ (Pittsburghese for Pittsburgher) talk and remember Salman Rushdie’s insight, ‘there is no such thing as just a story.’ How could there be ‘just a story’ when, like in Pittsburgh, language itself is a story?