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American Speech 79.2 (2004) 115-145

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"Pittsburghese" Online:

Vernacular Norming in Conversation

Carnegie Mellon University

In this paper, we show how a rhetorical and linguistic microanalysis of a conversation about regional dialect helps illuminate part of the relatively unstudied process of vernacular norm-formation (Milroy 1992, 81-122; Wolfram 2003). Our data is an online discussion of the speech of the Pittsburgh area. As the online discussion illustrates, vernacular norm-formation may involve discursive practices similar to those that result in language standardization. Like standardization (Milroy and Milroy 1985; Cameron 1995; Lippi-Green 1997), vernacular norm-formation of this sort is embedded in particular interactional, ideological, and historical contexts. In other words, (1) interactional: people who engage in talk about dialect have to do what it takes to claim and keep the conversational floor and successfully contribute to the activity at hand; (2) ideological: in doing so, they draw on and reshape local and supralocal ideas about language and dialect and their social meanings; and (3) historical: people are drawn to conversations such as this because of historical and economic developments impacting on their lives in ways that make them aware of and interested in local speech. Each of these sources of constraint on how dialect-normative talk is shaped plays a role in determining what the norms will be.

Our specific goal is to illustrate how each of these three types of context helps shape explicit norms for "Pittsburghese" in an online conversation prompted by the question "Is our local dialect charming or embarrassing?"

To illustrate the role of interactional processes, we explore several ways in which participants in the discussion claim the authority to speak. We show that the need to show that one is a legitimate contributor to the discussion results in a great deal of "feature-dropping," as participants show that they have the right to evaluate local speech by displaying their knowledge of it—thus reinforcing popular beliefs about what "Pittsburghese" is and suggesting new norms. Participants also find feature-dropping useful in building rapport with fellow participants and in making evaluative [End Page 115] arguments about the dialect, its speakers, and the region. In some cases, these interactional demands lead to an activity we call "vernacular lexicography," or explicit talk about what should be included in the dialect and why.

To illustrate the role of ideology, we explore how the structure of the conversation as a whole, as well as the structure of particular contributions to it, draws on and reinforces widely shared ideas about how places, people, and dialects are "naturally" linked, and we show that arguments about what counts as local are supported with reference to local ideas about what constitutes local identity. We suggest that these ideas and the ways they are deployed in the discussion can result in some local features being more strongly identified with local speech than others.

To illustrate the role of history, we show how geographic mobility caused by local economic changes has contributed to the heightened awareness of local identity that makes people engage in norm-forming discourse like this in the first place. Geographic mobility shapes the resulting norms both by privileging dialect features that resonate with participants' nostalgia and by privileging forms that are easy to compare with forms heard where the participants now live.

Variationists have used talk about talk and performances of dialect as evidence about language attitudes (Preston 1989, 1999; Milroy 2001) and have explored their role in explaining the existence and extent of variation (Johnstone and Bean 1997; Lane 1998; Schilling-Estes 1998; Johnstone 1999; Coupland 2001; Dyer 2002) and as a potential source of data for studies of dialect forms (Montgomery and Mishoe 1999; Dubois and Horvath 2002). At least in a preliminary way, we have explored the role of overt representations of dialect in the process of change (Johnstone, Bhasin, and Wittkofski 2002). But variationists have paid much less attention to the details of the discursive practices in which such representations and performances arise, and we have not typically asked why people talk...


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pp. 115-145
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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