Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Dialects: a Pittsburgh State of Mind

Shane McAllister, the vampire hero of Wicked Game, hails from Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is at the western edge of the most specialized dialect in the country: Pittsburgh. One New York Times writer called Pittsburgh "The Galapagos Islands of American Dialect."

Wanting to sprinkle a little verisimilitude into Shane's speech, I consulted Da Pittsburghese Translator.

Just for yuks, I threw one of Shane's diatribes into the translator. Here's how it reads in normal English. (For context, he's arguing against our heroine's marketing gimmick, "WVMP, the Lifeblood of Rock 'n' Roll," in which the radio station aims for higher ratings by "pretending" the disc jockeys are vampires.)
But I’m not human. None of us are. If we spend too much time out in public, someone’ll figure out the real truth. Next thing you know, late one night we’ll find ourselves delayed on the way home. Then it’s ‘Good Day Sunshine,’ and they’ll be sweeping us into a dustpan.

And here's how a proper Pittsburgher would say it:
But I’m not human. None of us are n'at. If we spend too much time aht in public, someone’s bound to figger aht da rill truth n'at. Next ting jano, late one night we’ll find ourselves delayed on da way home n'at. Then it’s ‘Good Day Sunshine,’ annay’ll be sweeping us into a dustpan.

Hee. Don't worry, I'm never having him say 'n'at'. Writers have to be rilly really careful when using dialect. It's better to show an accent through vocabulary and sentence rhythm. Less is always more.

I recently got very annoyed with a book in which one of the main characters was supposed to be Scottish. Every once in awhile, he would call the main character 'lass,' and I'd be jerked out of the story, because 99.9% of the time he sounded nothing like a Scot. I tried reading his lines in my head with a Scottish accent, and it didn't work, because the sentence rhythm was pure Midwest American.

So back to Shane. As a DJ, he would have modified his native dialect as much as possible, so I went easy on the Pittsburghese. The only things I changed were to have him use 'anymore' to mean 'these days,' and call someone a 'jagoff' instead of a 'dickweed.' In both cases the meanings are obvious from context, so the reader doesn't hit a mental speed bump.

Oh, and the Steelers are the "Stillers," because that's like a religion.

What about you guys/y'all/yinz? Read any good dialects lately? Which accents do you find the most annoying/pleasing when done on the page or on the screen?

Best Baltimore accent by an actor: hands down, Danny DeVito in Tin Men.

A-Z Update: "Look to Your Orb for the Warning" by Monster Magnet

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My father came from New Castle, PA, south of Pittsburgh. I never knew him to have an accent such as you describe, but he came to Philly when he was 16, and I, of course, didn't know him when he was that young and maybe had an accent which he later lost. Nor did he love the Stillers, but was crazy about his Iggles.


Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 6/30/2007 8:42 AM

Not so much a religion as a cult. Go Browns. Yes, I know, they already did. They went to your area.

Jim Young

Posted by: Anonymous Anonymous at 7/03/2007 5:56 AM

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