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American Speech 77.2 (2002) 148-166

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"Dahntahn" Pittsburgh:
Monophthongal /aw/ and Representations of Localness in Southwestern Pennsylvania

Barbara Johnstone, Neeta Bhasin, and Denise Wittkofski
Carnegie Mellon University


IN THIS PAPER we report on an exploratory study of the history of the monophthongization of the diphthong /aw/ in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We suggest that the persistence of this feature may be linked to the dominant role it plays in print representations of local-sounding speech. In sketching the history of the variable (aw) in the speech of working-class male Pittsburghers as far back as 1850 or so, this study contributes to the small body of descriptive and historical research about the North Midland speech of Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania. In addition, the study contributes to the growing sociolinguistic literature exploring the linguistic correlates of the rapid social and economic changes of the last few decades and their effects on people's senses of self and place (Bailey et al. 1993; Lane 1998; Schilling-Estes 1998; Beal 1999; Milroy and Watt 1999; Dyer 2000; Røyneland 2000).

In what follows, we provide evidence for two claims. First, we describe exploratory work that suggests that the use of the monophthongal variant of the diphthong /aw/ (as in [at] for out or [dantan] for downtown) by white, working-class male Pittsburghers is not disappearing, as might be expected on some grounds. Second, we show that of all the features of local speech that are the object of local stereotyping (Labov 1972, 180; Labov 2001, 196-97), the monophthongal pronunciation of /aw/ is by far the most salient, as measured by the frequency with which it is represented in the popular print media via nonstandard spelling. Pittsburghers tell each other over and over, in newspaper cartoons, editorials, and articles, on t-shirts and refrigerator magnets, and in occasional explicit public debate about the role local speech should play in local life, that "real Pittsburghers" say "dahntahn" for downtown, "aht" for out, and so on. At this point we can only suggest that the trajectory of monophthongal /aw/ in Pittsburgh may have [End Page 148] something to do with the role of this feature in local discourse about localness; we cannot demonstrate a causal connection between the persistent usage of the feature by younger speakers and its frequent representation in the local media, nor can we rule out other linguistic and social factors that may also help account for the feature's persistence. But the study suggests how representations of local- or regional-sounding speech may enter into the ideological process by which certain speech forms can come to index local identities, and how this process may intersect with the sometimes competing leveling pressures created by dialect contact.

This study was designed not only to begin an exploration of a new research site (Pittsburgh) and a new set of research questions, but also as a pedagogical endeavor. In this respect, the study illustrates the usefulness of documentary film as data for at least the exploratory phase of historical dialectology. Using film as data, instead of doing fieldwork, made it possible to carry out all of the theoretical framing and preliminary analysis for this project in the course of one semester, in a seminar for advanced undergraduates and graduate students with no background in linguistics. The study, and the course, were originally framed as an exploration of the "rhetoric of place." We worked inward from theories of place and identity and the larger-scale socioeconomic context of globalization and localization to the more particular context of local linguistic history and the details of phonetic variability. This made the project appealing to students who might not have thought of taking a course in historical dialectology and who were mostly unaccustomed to the discipline required for the systematic, carefully grounded research plan we developed, but who already knew they liked social theory and film. Two of the graduate students from that seminar continued to work on the project and are coauthors of this report.

Historical Sketch of Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh...


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pp. 148-166
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Archived 2005
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