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American Speech 75.4 (2000) 390-392

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Widening the Lens of Observation

Representing American Speech

Barbara Johnstone, Carnegie Mellon University


Sam McCool's New Pittsburghese: How to Speak Like a Pittsburgher (McCool 1982) contains a mishmash of semiphonetic respellings, jokey definitions, and references to Pittsburgh places and products. The entries represent pronunciations that are characteristic of southwestern Pennsylvania (aht 'out'), pronunciations heard in Pittsburgh but in fact much wider in distribution (arn 'iron'), pronunciations which are widespread in casual American speech everywhere (ats 'that's'), and pronunciations which are completely standard (bahks 'box'). The same spelling sometimes represents various sounds (a sounds three different ways in arn, at's, and Ahia). Of the two grammatical features that are represented in the pages for A and B, [End Page 390] one, positive anymore, is regionally variable among whites in the United S0ates, and the other, ahz 'I am', sounds more like rural Southern African American speech than like anything particularly characteristic of Pittsburgh. Some entries appear to make claims about Pittsburghers' interactional style rather than their pronunciation or grammar (alright is defined as a local reply to How are you?), and others seem to be about local history and taste rather than strictly local vocabulary (babushka, boilermaker). In short, How to Speak Like a Pittsburgher exemplifies a genre of popular dialectology which American Speech has always tried to counteract through reports of objective, nonevaluative dialect research.

Popular representations of dialect are not, however, irrelevant to dialectology. On the contrary, exploring them may be increasingly important. Nonscholarly representations of speech have always, in fact, entered into dialect research. From the beginning, dialectologists have asked their informants questions like "What do you call this?" or "What do people say around here?" The answer to a question like "What do people say around here?" is not an unselfconscious USE of local speech but rather a CLAIM about it, which, like all claims, has a strategic purpose. Sam McCool's choices about what to include in his booklet portray a stereotypical Pittsburgher (white, working-class, probably male, poorly educated but expert about local places and activities). Likewise, the choices dialectologists' informants make about how to represent the speech of people in their community constitute a claim about what a typical local speaker is like.

Parodies of dialect have also served as data for dialect study. An attempt to contrast the representations in the McCool booklet with the facts about speech in southwestern Pennsylvania was frustrated when we discovered that the McCool booklet was one of the sources for the authoritative accounts of the facts. How to Speak Like a Pittsburgher is cited as evidence in a number of western Pennsylvania entries in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE 1985-) and is among the sources for a list of local features in one of the few scholarly articles about Pittsburgh speech (McElhinny 1999). (DARE never uses McCool as its only source for an entry, and McElhinny's list serves as background information, not as the basis for the claims she tests.)

Representations of local speech may enter into sociolinguistic work in more covert ways, too, as researchers decide what to study in the first place. There are, to be sure, systematic ways of eliciting many aspects of a variety, including the dialect atlas questionnaires and the interview techniques pioneered by Labov (1984). But it is impossible to study every detail. The list of features on which we decide to focus is more likely to consist of things [End Page 391] we notice in everyday interactions with the variety than to be the result of comparisons of each sound and each atom of meaning in that variety with those in others. Sociolinguists do not study only features parodied in popular pamphlets. But it is probably not coincidental that the features most often studied (the laxing of /i/ that makes Steelers sound like Stillers in Pittsburgh, for example, or the pronunciation of /ay/ as [a] in the South) are those that appear most frequently in popular representations of the variety. Scholarly descriptions of language, like scholarly descriptions of any other aspect of culture...


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pp. 390-392
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Archived 2005
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