Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Talk Like a Pittsburgher

During my college days, circa 1987, I was speaking to an acquaintance from Philadelphia and casually used the term "gum band". She stopped me and said, "What???" She had no idea what a gum band was. I was just as shocked at her as she was at me. When we recovered, I explained that in Pittsburgh, gum bands are those little stretchy things that everyone else in America calls "rubber bands". She seemed convinced that I was an idiot who could not speak proper English. Or American English, for that matter. It goes to show that you need not leave the country, or even your state, to experience some mild form of culture shock.

A few years later, at my first full-time job, a co-worker opined that I was one of two people on a staff of about 25 who had the strongest Pittsburgh accents. I could not see how that could be possible; I was a suburbanite, and though I grew up in a household with two parents and a grandparent who grew up in the city, I was never conscious of speaking like a real Pittsburgher. I never used "yinz" in place of "you"; I did not pick up my grandmother's manner of using an "f" sound in place of a "th", as in "Free Rivers Stadium"; and I made absolutely sure that I pronounced our first President's name as Washington and not "Whooshinton". I knew that this stuff could drive people crazy. I tried very hard to lose any semblance of a Pittsburgh accent, yet it somehow lingered on.

Obviously, Pittsburgh's history of being a melting pot for many ethnicities has had a great impact on the local dialect. But I was not able to figure out where the term "gum band" originated until 1994. I read a German magazine article about the bungee jumping craze and came across the phrase "Leben am Ende eines Gummibandes". Life on the end of a rubber band. On a gum band! The mystery was solved. I wasn't being an ignorant Pittsburgh type; I was speaking German. Never again will I be ashamed of my dialect. It is part of the regional character, and as a Pittsburgh-area resident of German descent, it is part of me.

(A good article on the subject, referencing gum bands and lots more, can be found here.)

1 comment:

Sandy said...

In parts of Wisconsin, (mostly eastern Wisconsin from what I can tell), drinking fountains are "bubblers". In Minnesota they drink "pop", whereas to most of the rest of the nation it would be called "soda".