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January 10, 2011

Dialectic would be a more typical subject for this blog than dialect; but effective communication is an important part of science, and computer techniques have been applied to dialect studies. My wife and I are both from Upstate New York. An example of the dialect we were accustomed to hearing can be heard here.[1] When we moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is just 370 miles and a six hour's drive from Syracuse, New York, we were amazed at the differences in speaking. Our first clue was a welcoming speech from our apartment complex caretaker, Jim, who talked for about three minutes in an apparent foreign language. As it turned out, he was speaking English, but just the Pittsburgh dialect of English. Fortunately, Jim's wife was much more understandable. An illustration of the extremes in the English language can be heard here.[2]

It's not surprising that Pittsburgh was the venue for the 2011 annual meeting of the American Dialect Society, which was held January 6-8, 2011. As stated on its web site,[3] the Society is "dedicated to the study of the English language in North America, and of other languages, or dialects of other languages, influencing it or influenced by it. Our members include academics and amateurs, professionals and dilettantes, teachers and writers." It's a non-professional society, but it had the good fortune to have its meeting in association with the 85th annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America.

A dialect is not just the "twang" in the speech, but also word usage and the specific vocabulary.[4] The Pittsburgh dialect is unique enough to be identified as a regional dialect that extends quite a ways past the city itself.[5] Carnegie Mellon University is in Pittsburgh, and researchers in its School of Computer Science have been looking at dialect markers on Twitter.[6] Dialect studies are usually done orally, since the written word is considered a formal platform, and writers will not write like they speak. Tweets, however, are conversational in nature, so they are more likely to mirror a person's speech. Since there is a geotagging option on Twitter, it's possible to associate the dialect with location.

Jacob Eisenstein, a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon, and his research team harvested data for a week of Twitter messages in March 2010. They filtered the dataset to include only geotagged Tweets from users who wrote at least 20 messages. They were fortunate enough to assemble a database of 9,500 users and 380,000 messages. As a result, their dialect analysis could predict the location of a Twitter user to around 300 miles, or roughly the distance from Syracuse to Pittsburgh, which is my anecdotal reference point. Eisenstein was scheduled to present this research on January 8, 2011, at the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting.[7]

Portion of fig. 1 of ref. 7.

Sure looks like science.
A portion of fig. 1
from ref. 7.

So, what makes the Pittsburgh dialect unique? Barbara Johnstone, a Carnegie Mellon professor, is purportedly the prime authority on this dialect.[8] For that reason, she was one of three plenary speakers on January 6, 2010, for the meeting of the Linguistic Society of America. When Johnstone arrived at CMU in 1997, she spotted an interesting book in a used book bin. It was entitled, "Sam McCool's New Pittsburghese." It described the Pittsburgh dialect that was generally spoken until mid-twentieth century and then relegated to working class neighborhoods and tee shirt slogans. That got her interested.

The dialect's roots are mostly Scotch-Irish, the largest immigrant group in the early years of the city. A very small dictionary of examples can be found on the pittsburghspeech.com web site, most of which are words from other languages that have come into contemporary use. Here are some examples of Pittsburghese:
• Unusual vowel/diphthong sounds, such as "dahn" instead of "down."
• Unusual syntax, such as "the car needs washed," and "the grass needs cut."
• The word, "yunz," a variant of the southern "you-all," or "yahl."

Not listed online, but what I remember from my Pittsburgh days, are the following:
• Pittsburgh people stand on line. Upstate New Yorkers stand in line.
• When a Pittsburgher mentioned "city chicken," I thought he was talking about pigeons. City chicken is actually a short kebab of meat chunks on a wooden skewer, often breaded to resemble a chicken leg, that's fried or baked.

Pittsburgh at night.

Pittsburgh at night. Photo by V. Chandra

One outcome of the American Dialect Society's meeting was the naming of the "Word of the Year" for 2010. The word, "app," won over a close second candidate, "nom."[9] I'm certain you all know what an "app" is, but some are likely unfamiliar with "nom," a word usually found in lolcat circles. Nom is described as an onomatopoetic word for pleasurable eating. It's typically found in the expression, "nom, nom, nom..." in text on a photo of a sated cat. The 2009 word was "tweet," the 2008 word was "subprime," and the 2007 word was "bailout." The Society admits that their process for choosing the word is subjective and unscientific, unlike Merriam-Webster, which chose "austerity" as the 2010 word based on the increase in queries at its web site for the word's definition over the previous year. The New Oxford American Dictionary chose "refudiate," based on a polling of lexicographers.[9]


  1. Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings Television Ad (YouTube)
  2. 21 Accents by Amy Walker (YouTube); available also on Amy Walker's Web Site.
  3. American Dialect Society Web Site
  4. Dialect definition on Princeton University WordNet
  5. Rick Aschmann, North American English Dialects, Based on Pronunciation Patterns, December 30, 2010
  6. Byron Spice, "CMU research finds regional dialects are alive and well on Twitter," Carnegie Mellon University Press Release, January 6, 2011.
  7. Jacob Eisenstein, Brendan O’Connor, Noah A. Smith and Eric P. Xing, "A Latent Variable Model for Geographic Lexical Variation," Preprint of paper presented at the Linguistic Society of America 85th annual meeting (Pittsburgh, PA), January 8, 2011
  8. Sean D. Hamill, "Expert says fewer folks use Pittsburghese? Git aht!," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 06, 2011
  9. Sean D. Hamill, "Linguists select word of the year: It's app," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 8, 2011.

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Linked Keywords: Dialectic; dialect; science; computer science; Upstate New York; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Syracuse, New York; English; American Dialect Society; Linguistic Society of America; Carnegie Mellon University; School of Computer Science; Twitter; Tweet; geotagging; database; anecdotal evidence; Scotch-Irish; pittsburghspeech.com; city chicken; kebab; Pittsburgh at night; V. Chandra; lolcat; onomatopoetic; Merriam-Webster; New Oxford American Dictionary; opinion poll; lexicography; lexicographer; Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings; Amy Walker; Princeton University WordNet.