Bring up the subject of the way Central Pennsylvanians talk, and you’ll soon find yourself in touchy emotional territory. As the following statements actually made by people in Central PA show, you may encounter incomprehension (“a bedroom suit? what is it — clothes, furniture?”), defensiveness (“I don’t care about Burt Lann-kast-er, the town is called LANK-a-ster!”) or even hostility (“when I hear people say ‘hain’t,’ I feel like I’ve walked into the movie Deliverance, and I want to hit them over the head with their own banjo”).
If you grew up here and have spent time in another part of the country, you were probably shocked to find that some of the pronunciations and expressions you took for granted are not quite standard American English. And if you moved into this area, you’ve doubtless done a double take at more than one thing that has come out of a local’s mouth.
Gene Rohrbaugh, associate professor of linguistics at Messiah College, knows the phenomenon. A native of York, Rohrbaugh once taught in Texas. Wanting to give his classes an example of regional speech without seeming to ridicule Texas dialect, he told them that, where he grew up, people might say, “The window needs washed.” The reaction was one of shock. “I had students look at me and say, ‘That can’t be understood!’” he recalls.
The way we speak is so important to us, says Rohrbaugh, because language is at the heart of our identity. “It’s true on a scale of our humanity — would we be humans if we didn’t have language? And as individuals, it has to do with the way we present ourselves. If you criticize the way people speak, it’s as if you’re accusing them of faulty thought. Language is like family. I can make fun of my dialect, but outsiders don’t have the right to.”
So how do we talk in Central PA, and why?
Because of its relatively long history of European settlement, the East Coast of the United States is complicated linguistic territory. “Here, if you go 40 miles south, you’re going to see regional differences,” Rohrbaugh notes. “Go 40 miles north, and you’re going to get differences.” Within the WITF broadcast area, there are as many as five recognized regional dialects — plus the distinct speech patterns of African Americans (retaining much pronunciation and vocabulary originating in the South), speakers of Pennsylvania “Dutch” (a German dialect with heavy borrowings from English) and in some areas, a Hispanic population concentrated enough to warrant Spanish-language signs and radio broadcasts.
Most of the region’s speech belongs to the Midland family of dialects, which extend from southern New Jersey through Ohio, into Illinois and as far west as Kansas. The one exception is Schuylkill County, where people speak the Anthracite dialect, a member of the Northern linguistic group with ties to upstate New York.
In our area, Eastern and Western PA Midland speech meet (see map above). Among the Eastern PA dialects are Lower Susquehanna and Lehigh Valley–Reading. Some experts designate an Upper Susquehanna language region, though it has yet been little studied. And when linguists use the term “Central PA,” they are referring specifically to the Western PA dialect spoken in all of the counties between the Susquehanna and the Allegheny Front, except Adams and York.
Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the region’s Eastern and Western PA dialects is how they deal with one of the English language’s most glaring omissions — no distinct standard plural form of “you.” Various dialects across the English-speaking world have come up with solutions, from the Southern “y’all” to “you guys” to obscure attempts such as “mongst-ye,” a term listed on some language websites as still being used in parts of Delaware.
Our own Phantom Diner periodically castigates waitpersons for asking, “Yous want anything else?” Philadelphians prefer this simple plural formation, which can be heard as far west as Lancaster and York Counties. But in the more westerly parts of the region, it’s “you’uns.” A contraction of “you ones,” it is even more contracted by Pittsburghers, who are known in some circles as “yinzers.” The term also made its way down through the Southern Appalachians. A few years ago a local newspaper columnist heard it in Cherokee, North Carolina, and expressed astonishment at the prospect of “a Cherokee speaking Pennsylvania Dutch.”
“You’uns” is not Pennsylvania Dutch, but many words and sentence structures in our local speech are. “From my own childhood I remember lots of German words,” Rohrbaugh says. “My mother used to say things like, ‘Quit fressin’ around before dinner.’” In German, the verb fressen means “eat,” but is normally applied to animals. When used with humans, it implies a somewhat uncouth eating style. Other Germanisms abound. Some older residents still refer to cottage cheese as “smear case” (German, Schmierkäse). Many Central Pennsylvanians were scolded as children for “rutching around,” meaning “squirming.” Rutschen means “slide” in standard German (a sliding board is a Rutschbahn).
But German words are not always adopted wholesale into English. Sometimes they’re translated, so that English words are combined in nonstandard ways. “It wonders me” for “I wonder,” “what for” meaning “what kind of” and “outen the light” for “turn the light off” are all attempts to translate German phrases word for word. Seemingly unnecessary uses of “once” (“Come here once”) and “then” (“Will you be coming over then?”) reflect the way the equivalent German words, einmal and denn respectively, are inserted into to sentences to add a particular flavor, nuance or sense of expectation.
One such phrase that seems to particularly annoy nonnatives is the use of “all” in phrases such as, “You can’t have any more pie, it’s all.” Those who are tempted to respond, “It’s all gone! You forgot the ‘gone’!” may be further annoyed to learn that in this construction, “all” actually means “gone.” Occupation by the armies of Louis XIV in the 1600s introduced many French terms into southwestern Germany, the region from which many of those who would later be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch would emigrate to America. One of those French words was allé, meaning “gone.” The pronunciation of this word was almost identical to the German word alle, meaning “all,” with which it merged. Once the expression got to Pennsylvania, the shift to the English word “all” was practically inevitable.
The German influence also explains peculiarities of word order (the stereotypical “Throw the cow over the fence some hay”) and sentence intonation (“I’m 20 years old” instead of “20 years old).
But not everything that sets our region’s speech apart is German. Along with “you’uns,” another expression that is often falsely labeled as Pennsylvania Dutch is the mysterious verb “redd up,” meaning to tidy up, to put things away or in order. If not German, many people’s theory is that it’s really “rid up,” because in the process you many get rid of things.
Actually, “redd up” is related to Central PA’s other early immigrant group, the Scots-Irish. The online American Heritage Dictionary traces the term to the Old Norse rydhja; in modern Norwegian, rydd op means to clear the table after eating. “Redd up” is still used in Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as Pennsylvania. A Web search reveals an annual spring cleanup in the Shetland Islands, called The Redd Up, and a Scottish folk band named Redd Up. The “windows need washed” construction that Rohrbaugh’s Texas students found so incomprehensible is also standard Scottish.
Tacking “ain’t?” onto the end of a sentence (“hain’t?” or “hainah?” in Anthracite dialect) is not only the equivalent of the German nicht wahr? but also the French n’est-ce pas? and the Canadian “eh?” Rohrbaugh notes that the practice, adding what he calls a “tag question” to a statement to make it interrogative, is a common strategy in languages across the globe.
Nonnatives also puzzle over what to them are strange meanings of common English words. “‘Anymore’ is at home in negative sentences for most people,” Rohrbaugh observes. But many Central Pennsylvanians use it in positive statements to mean “nowadays” (“Gas is so expensive anymore”). The use of “awhile” to mean “in the meantime” or “while you’re waiting” (“would you like some coffee awhile”) is common to many Midland dialects and is heard as far away as Ohio and Kentucky. “Yet” is also used in positive contexts where other English-speakers would say “still” (“He went to the store an hour ago and he’s gone yet.”)
In Central PA, a friend may leave you use her phone so you can let a message on someone’s answering machine. Rohrbaugh speculates that the confusion stems from indistinct verb forms. “The past tense of ‘let’ is ‘let,’” he says. “The past tense of ‘leave’ is ‘left.’ People don’t like not making a distinction between present and past, so they say ‘left’ for the past tense of ‘let.’ Once the confusion arises in the past tense, the present also becomes fuzzy and mushy.”
Even the names of objects are part of what makes the region’s speech distinct. Many people use the verb “sweep” when they mean they are running a vacuum cleaner, for instance. “In a lot of other areas, ‘sweep’ is only with a broom,” Rohrbaugh points out. An ongoing Harvard University study of American vocabulary places us in a transition area between those who refer to soft drinks as “soda” (mainly to the east) and those who call it “pop” (mainly west). The results show we are in the part of the country where the word “hoagie” is most likely to be heard, yet a significant number of us also use “sub” for the same sandwich. We’re almost unanimous in our choice of “crayfish” to refer to the freshwater crustacean, but close to areas that prefer “crawfish” (just south of us) or “crawdad” (just southwest).
Regional characteristic can be subtle and difficult for natives to hear. Rohrbaugh first became aware of what he calls a “falling intonation contour” when, as an adolescent, he met a girl from the Midwest at a national church conference. “I looked out the window and saw white, and I said, ‘Is it snowing?’ She said, ‘Is that a question?’” She did not recognize a tone of inquiry, because Rohrbaugh’s voice fell where she would have expected it to rise.
“Everybody has a falling intonation on content questions. Most have a rising intonation on yes/no questions, but Pennsylvania has falling.” It’s the opposite, he says, of Valley Girl “uptalk,” in which nonquestions get a rising intonation (“Like, I went to the mall? And I hung out with my friends? …”).
Linguists note many other distinctions that natives and even nonnatives may find hard to hear. There’s the “fronted o,” a characteristic Midland way of pronouncing the long “o” as an “o-ooh” sound instead of a pure vowel. The distinction between the words “cot” and “caught” or the lack thereof is a kind of litmus test for linguistic change. No one familiar with the social landscape of Central PA will be surprised that this area falls on the conservative side of the language divide, maintaining a pure “ah” vowel in “cot” and a blended “au-u” sound in “caught.”
From there, it’s a short jump to monophthongs, labial fricatives and postvocalic “r”s, esoteric territory only a professional could love. But for the rest of us, the question remains: How should we talk? Is there a pure American speech for which we should strive, or is regional dialect OK? If so, how local can you talk before you feel the impact of the banjo over your head?
“Most people become multi-dialectical,” Rohrbaugh observes. “You choose your language forms appropriate to the group that you want to affiliate yourself with.”
Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously, we adjust our language to be appropriate to the situation. One way of speaking might be fine for joking with family and friends, another for giving a college graduation speech.
“People use nonstandard speech almost as a way to express tenderness with the people they’re closest to,” Rohrbaugh says. “You let down your guard and are more vulnerable than you’d be with strangers.”
Regional speech, used inappropriately, can bring ridicule and a perceived lack of sophistication. Used appropriately, it elicits feelings of home, of belonging, of “us.” “It all comes down to context,” Rohrbaugh says. “It’s something we’re in control of.”
Published in Features
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