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The last Sunday night I spent in Pittsburgh this Christmas found me at the McDonald’s where my cousin once worked, flaunting to Mother Nature that even though she insisted upon setting her thermostat at a level that could charitably be described as frigid, I would have no problem drinking a frozen caramel frappe. My parents had coupons, expiring that night, that granted us two frappes and two mochas for the price of one frappe and one mocha and the ten minutes it took for the guy behind the counter to understand what we wanted and how to make it.

Pretty frappes

Our frappes looked pretty much like this, except fluorescently lit, without the caramel, chocolate, and coffee beans props, with an irregularly-patterned and only half-hearted drizzle of syrup on top, and placed on a beige table that was hideous even back in its birthtime of the 70s.

There we were, the seven of us — if one accepts the argument that their long development makes the drinks full characters in this story — when an eighth character appeared to offer us his newspaper as he left. We readily accepted, looking for any excuse to linger away from the cold of the outdoors (and our house, where we save money by relying primarily on warm feelings and layers of sweaters to prevent hypothermia)

Finding two crosswords in the paper, we divided them; I taking one, and my parents sharing the other. We switched off on occasion, with each switch bringing another admonishment from my dad for me and my mother’s habit of neglecting to cross out clues as we fill them in. I tried to explain our negligence as a result of our finely-tuned crosswording minds: having only pens, we hesitated to commit to a word until we confirmed that another connecting word or two fit the first. As a result, we tended to have word cascades, where several clues came together at once, and it was difficult to find all of them to mark off. I even coined a phrase for it: “The spirit catches you, and you fill in.” (My conscience is forcing me to reveal that I coined this phrase only now, making it significantly less clever than it would have been had I coined it at the time.)

After one of the exchanges, I noticed that I now had enough letters to figure out a seven-letter word that would spring me from the prison of the upper-left corner. “Ersatz frisbees”, read the clue, and I had P I E _ _ _ _. Pie tins, of course. I filled it in, only to find a few minutes later that something was wrong. For a “quick trip”, I was getting jiunt, instead of the obviously correct jaunt. But that would mean that ersatz frisbess were pie tans, and that was clearly impossible. Then I realized that “don’t take no for an answer” also made more sense as press than tress, I realized that the crossword constructor was calling them pie pans, a phrase I’d never seemed to have heard in my life.

So I, in an allusion to my younger years in Pittsburgh, whined to my parents. “Pie pans?”, I asked incredulously, “What a huckster, trying to make this crossword more difficult by intentionally using the wrong word. It’s pie tins, right?” And my parents, no longer at an age where they had to pretend that their son was always right, said, “Maybe that’s how they say it where they’re from.”

I felt like Medusa gazing into a mirror, or whoever it was who was hoist by his own petard. I was gobsmacked. I exist on the Internet as a set of words lambasting others for doing what I just did — calling someone a lunkhead for having done nothing more than using the form most common in their dialect. I stewed for a second, and then muttered something about how this was totally different, because in a crossword you ought to stick to the more standard form, and everyone calls it a pie tin. My parents were too busy arguing over whether 99-Down really needed to have been crossed out to notice.

I had put this ugly episode out of my mind until this morning, when I found myself idly thinking about baked goods and suddenly the matter popped right back up. I was gentler now, as we had answered every last clue in both of the crosswords, and so I could afford magnanimy toward the crosswords’ designers. I now regarded pie pans as a delightful little trick, tripping me up momentarily with its uncommon usage. So I figured I’d assess how devilish a trick it was by seeing how much rarer pie pans is than pie tins:

Oops.

The lesson: each of us is fluent not in English, but in an idiolect of English. When you encounter someone who deviates from the form of English you use, don’t be too quick to assume that it’s them, and not you, who deviate from Standard English. And never start complaining about it until you’ve checked the facts. I’m just offering this story as a reminder that even if you, like me, haughtily think that you never fall into this fallacy, you probably still do.

There’s an unfortunate tendency to believe that we are the inheritors of a Golden Age of Punctuation, and that people today are ruining it with their errant apostrophes, unnecessary quotation marks, and overabundant ellipses. I consider it unfortunate for two reasons. The first is that it exposes a vanity within us, a belief that we were decent enough in our day, but that the younger folks are ruining the brilliant language we built and maintained. The second is that it suggests that new teaching methods or new technology are primarily to blame for modern linguistic shortcomings, when the fact is that these errors existed back in our day as well. The problem isn’t (primarily) that kids aren’t being taught what we were, but rather that the new ideas failed to solve our problems.

So I really enjoy collecting examples of incorrect usage from the past, such as an apostrophe to mark a plural in a famous 1856 editorial cartoon or its with an apostrophe in a 1984 John Mellencamp music video, as a reminder that errors in English are not solely the province of the current age. At least some sources of these errors are timeless, and it’s just as important to fix the timeless ones as any uniquely modern sources.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has put together a beautiful multimedia presentation of one of the great moments of Pittsburgh sports history, the 1960 World Series. The ’60 Series, which concluded 50 years ago today, was your standard David-Goliath series. The relatively-unknown Pittsburgh Pirates (David) were up against the nearly-universally-hated New York Yankees (Goliath), and through the first six games the Yankees had outscored the Pirates 46-17. Despite the lopsided scoring, the Pirates and Yankees had split the six games 3-3, setting up the deciding Game Seven in Pittsburgh. The final game was a back-and-forth affair that was capped with a walk-off home run by “Maz” (Bill Mazeroski), a popular second baseman known for his glove, not his bat. The home run moved Maz into the pantheon of Pittsburgh sports legends, and in the minds of a few ambitious Pittsburghers, into politics:

“President”. Maybe these fellows were just being temperate in their revelry, knowing that Maz wasn’t really in the running for the Presidency. But I think it’s more likely that they’re just your average guys, making the same average misuses as we do 50 years later. In fact, I’m reminded of a picture I found a month ago of some Steeler fans who’d made an error of their own:

[Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images]

So it goes.

One of the fun things about dialectal differences in English is how the poetry turns out. There are some rhymes that just wouldn’t work in your own dialect of English, but work fine in another. For instance, the way I learned that Canadian English has a different pronunciation of sorry from mine was by hearing a Nickelback song on the radio five hundred million times in 2002:

“It’s not like you to say sorry
I was waiting on a different story.”

My hometown of Pittsburgh has this too, as I found out reading a poem about the game in which the Terrible Towel (the original rally towel, which Pittsburghers wave at Steeler gamesOlympic award ceremonies, weddings, births, presidential inaugurations, etc.) debuted:

“‘It was easy,’ said Andy
And he flashed a crooked smile,
‘I was snapped on the fanny
By the Terrible Towel!'”

That probably seems like terrible poetry to you, not only because it is, but also because the bolded end-rhymes of the second and fourth lines aren’t remotely similar. But to native Pittsburghers, they are. That’s because we have two vowel shifts that move us away from the “standard” American English pronunciations. Both of them are “monophthongizations”, which is a really fun word to say once you figure how to. Monophthongization is the process of converting a diphthong to a monophthong (I’ll explain those terms in a minute.)

The first vowel shift is the conversion of /aɪ/ to /ɑ/ before an l or r. /aɪ/ is the phonetician’s way of writing what you learn in school as “long i”; it’s the vowel in sight, rhyme, or the pronoun I. It is a diphthong, which means that it’s really two vowels jammed together. If you say sight really slowly, you’ll notice that your lower jaw comes down as you start the vowel (the /a/ part), and then it starts back up, moving into sort of an “ee” sound (the /ɪ/ part) before you stop. If you don’t have anyone looking at you right now, try it yourself, and you’ll actually feel your mouth move from /a/ to /ɪ/. That’s a diphthong; it’s a sound where you start at one vowel and keep going until you finish at a new vowel. A monophthong, on the other hand, is a vowel sound that has the same sound throughout, like the /æ/ sound in American English hat. (Or the /a/ in British hat.) If you say hat slowly, you’ll notice that you start the vowel with your lower jaw down, and you only raise it back up when you start to make the t sound at the end, maintaining more or less the same vowel sound throughout.  If you’re having trouble seeing the difference between mono- & diphthongs, don’t worry.  The only crucial point is that the vowels in question are different in some way.

Returning to the Pittsburgh monophthongizations, we convert /aɪ/ to /ɑ/ before an l or r, so smile has a vowel that’s more like an “ah” sound than the standard “long i”.*  The other monophthongization is the conversion of /aʊ/, the sound in Standard American English town, to /a/, another “ah”-type sound. This is why Pittsburghers sometimes write “dahntahn” for downtown.   The first of these monophthongizations isn’t particularly rare in American English, occurring (if I remember correctly) in Appalachia, and parts of the Eastern Midwest as well.  The second monophthongization is pretty much unique to Pittsburgh, at least among American English speakers.

And that’s how the rhyme works.  /aɪ/ in smile turns into one “ah”-like vowel, and /aʊ/ in towel turns into another “ah”, and tah-dah! We get poetry that seems like free verse to anyone from another city!  And at the low cost making the word pairs dowel-dial, foul-file, towel-tile, and vowel-vile more or less indistinguishable.

*: Since this shift only applies to vowels before an l or r, Pittsburghers pronounce the vowels in smile and smite differently.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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