Photo of Putneyville, Pennsylvania, by Dale Johnson. All rights reserved.
The Pittsburgh Chain Shift uniquely identifies Southwestern Pennsylvania. Neither tectonic nor glacial, it is a linguistic distinction. As the nineteenth century Scotch Irish, English, and Germans searched for coal, lumber, and arable land along the rivers of the Allegheny mountains, the settlers mingled their dialects and lost a vowel. Through monophthongization, the lowback vowels /a/ and /ɔ/ have merged to /aw/. “She caught the naughty doll Don in his cot in the knotty hall at dawn.” The sentence is one long internal rhyme, a northern Appalachian prose poem.
When I was a child, my parents lived in the Nolf family home in Putneyville, Pennsylvania. Nestled between two ridges covered in rolling forests, this collection of forty residences clustered on either side of the Mahoning Creek, the waters of which merged with larger rivers on its way to Pittsburgh. We formed clans of cousins playing endless baseball games in the summer and crack-the-whip skating on the frozen mill race in the winter. Nobody remembered anymore who owned the coal rights in their backyards. We mazed at the granite tombstones filled with a century of Nolfs, Putneys, Schreckengosts, and Doverspikes. Until we rode the schoolbus, we never knew there was a Catholic graveyard full of Bukoskis, Cerniks, Rossis, and Hlavics in the town next to us.
“I bet I drop six of them when I get over there” said the deputy on September 10, 1897. That day the local police shot nineteen unarmed Polish, Lithuanian, German strikers, recent immigrants, at the coal mine in Lattimer, Pennslyvania. Two years later, John Mitchell, President of United Mine Workers of America, pleaded, “The coal you dig isn’t Slavish or Polish, or Irish coal. It’s just coal.”
The cemetery graving “Nolf, Infant (son of E.E. & A.B. Nolf) Dec. 8, 1895 – age 1 da.” scared me and my sister. Mothers made sure we swallowed the sugar cubes for polio and took the tine test for tuberculosis. Most fathers worked outside of town on distant road construction projects or in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. My father drove his diesel truck hauling goods all over the East. When we went on long trips with him, he never used a map but navigated by frozen custard stands.
Few Westerners can make the frontal and lateral dental clicks unique to the Khoisan languages of the bushmen of South Africa. Until the age of six months, babies are capable of pronouncing the wildly assorted diphthongs, phonemes, and consonants that are the building blocks of the Tower of Babel of languages. After six months, babies start to develop a more limited phonetic blueprint based on the language they hear.
When I was in the fourth grade, my family moved to the Philadelphia area. We lived in a three-bedroom, rose and gray stone cottage covered with roses, which backed up against an extensive private forest. This fairy tale house was the servant quarters to a mainline mansion owned by the S’s, one of the founding families of the city. In a sense of noblesse oblige, Mrs. S. invited my sister and me for visits. We learned to conjugate the irregular French verbs of être (to be), avoir (to have) and pouvoir (to be able). To appreciate the delicate effect of a cabriole leg on the mahogany Chippendale chair posed against blue watered silk wallpaper. I developed a taste for the bittersweet lemon and quinine of the tonic she served us. The gin came later.
Pittsburghese is commonly considered the second ugliest accent in the United States. Linguistic studies indicate women tend to care more about the social stigma attached to regional dialects and transition to standard pronunciations during formal discourse. Men are more likely to celebrate their dialect with T-shirts: “Yinz are a buncha jag-offs.”
Through the years, I practiced saying “water” for “warter” and “wash” for “warsh.” I no longer pronounced hill with the drawn out lilting /l / of the Appalachians. I swallowed “yu’uns” and purged the “slippy,” “redd up,” and “nebby” of the Scotch-Irish. I no longer told babies the ice cream was “all gone” or reminded my boyfriends the cat “needs fed.” I accumulated college degrees, collected obscure words like Shaker baskets, and wrote in syntax as elaborate as the fraktur manuscripts of the Ephrata Cloister. But I was still trapped by the Caught-Cot Merger. I never found my lost vowel.
“Is this what you want? Is this what you want? I love you, Nick. Come on, Nicky, come home. Just come home. Home. Talk to me. What did you do to your arms? Do you remember the trees? Do you remember all the different ways of the trees? Do you remember that? Do you remember? Huh? The mountains? Do you remember all that?” From The Deer Hunter
I still dream of Putneyville. The basements fill with water and the roads flood as the depth of the Mahoning increases from inches to a Biblical rod of sixteen and half feet. The house backs up to a steep hill. I see the flickering white from the tails of a herd of deer and the red flash of a plaid-clad hunter crossing the ridgeline in the rain. The waters of the Mahoning keep rising, rising, rising. I struggle to climb that hill, grasping stunted pine and spruce, more bushes than trees. The mud keeps sucking me down to the rushing brown water, stained orange and silver with runoff from long abandoned coal mines.
P. S. Nolf writes articles about horses, humor, and history for online and national journals such as Equus and Chatham University’s Tributaries. Nolf is currently writing a narrative nonfiction book Raising Rough Riders in the White House: Roosevelt’s Youngest Sons Archie and Quentin and their Pony Algonquin. In any spare time, P.S. is working on a MFA at Lindenwood University.