Short takes

New selections from Pittsburgh authors
by John Allison
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Speaking Pittsburghese: The Story of a Dialect
By Barbara Johnstone
Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics
Oxford University Press ($39.95)

Linguistics wizard Barbara Johnstone has spent years chronicling the intricacies of the Pittsburgh accent with the same work ethic and good nature that Pittsburghers love to celebrate in themselves. A professor at Carnegie Mellon University since 1997, she has collaborated with Scott Kiesling of the University of Pittsburgh on extensive research projects to nail down the nooks and crannies of our distinctive speech patterns.

As she concludes in this rigorously academic but highly useful magnum opus, “The set of circumstances that produced Pittsburghese has coincided nowhere else.” Or, as a New York Times essay on regional accents once put it, Pittsburgh “seems to be the Galapagos Islands of American dialect.”

A cardinal objective of Johnstone’s work is to draw a distinction between “Pittsburgh speech” and “Pittsburghese.” The former is “local language as linguists would describe it.” That means “the most salient morphosyntactic feature of local speech is a form of you’uns used as a second person plural pronoun… This pronoun is typically spelled or .” Pittsburghese, by contrast, is “local language as it is locally imagined.” That means Johnstone absorbs everything from the Yappin’ Yinzers (“plush dolls named Chipped Ham Sam and Nebby Debbie”) to the “Picksburgh” T-​shirts that provide translations of local argot (“slippy,” etc.).

The two realms of inquiry are masterfully merged in her dissections of hilarious DVE Morning Show radio sketches by Cris Winter, Randy Baumann and Jim Krenn, who plays the station’s fictional general manager, “Stanley P. Kachowski,” delivering a commentary (“commentehry”) in full-​throated Pittsburghese. Johnstone breaks down the linguistic mechanics — Krenn uses a “monophthongal /​aw/​, so that Kachowski can be pronounced ‘Kachahski’ ” — and nails the social context for what makes the sketches so funny.

The general consumer should be reminded that this is a work of academic research, published by the arm of a British university press — hence the identification of Dan Rooney as “owner of Pittsburgh’s American-​football team, the Steelers.” This book is not a plumper version of “Sam McCool’s New Pittsburghese: How to Speak Like a Pittsburgher,” which Johnstone generously cites for advancing the spread of Pittsburghese in popular culture. But for anyone seriously curious about how dialects come to be, and with a keen interest in how our little corner of America got so darn unique, Speaking Pittsburghese is essential reading. I jag you not.

The Johnstown Girls
By Kathleen George
University of Pittsburgh Press ($24.95)

Kathleen George appears to be the most Pittsburgh of Pittsburgh writers, with a series of authentic crime thrillers set in the city and starring homicide detectives Richard Christie and Colleen Greer. (Her seventh, “A Measure of Blood,” was published in January by Mysterious Press to the usual well-​deserved acclaim.) But her latest work, decades in the making, shows that her heart is equally in her hometown of Johnstown, the self-​proclaimed “Friendly City” where tragic loss is central to its history.

The Johnstown Girls makes intimate the sweeping story of the first, epic Johnstown flood of 1889, which devastated the town and killed over 2,200 people. Set in 1989, it focuses on two women who survived the catastrophe, framed through the work of two Pittsburgh Post-​Gazette reporters seeking a fresh approach on the flood’s 100th anniversary (“Get me something new,” their editor decreed). Ben, the seasoned scribe with a crumbling marriage, seeks out Ellen Emerson, 103, the oldest-​living survivor of the flood. Nina, a cub reporter in love with Ben, is a Johnstown native who helps Ben get the story — and ends up with the biggest scoop.

Ellen, an elegant and decent soul, has been the go-​to survivor for Johnstown flood stories over the decades, but has never fully described what happened in the chaos that vanquished her immediate family: She believes that her twin sister, Mary, actually survived the swirling waters, and that her venal little cousin saved himself at the expense of other family members. Meanwhile, in a Pittsburgh nursing home, we meet 103-​year-​old Anna, who is recovering memories of her murky childhood, before her adoption as a young child…

If this all sounds Shakespearean, it is— Kathleen George is a Pitt theater professor with an abiding interest in the bard, and her historical novel unfolds in layers of intrigue. Detective Richard Christie does make a cameo toward the end, but this is a work in a different tenor from her thrillers, though with the same compulsive readability. As she explores the powerful bond of twins, George gives a quick shout-​out to her dual affections: Pittsburgh, the reporter Nina observes, “is a little like a bigger Johnstown; it’s the other friendly city.”

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