Central Pennsylvania speech is closely related to Western Pennsylvania speech, which is generally referred to as Pittsburgh English, although the speech extends beyond just the city of Pittsburgh. It bears little resemblance to the Southeastern Pennsylvania accent spoken in the Philadelphia area, which is more similar to New York-New Jersey English than to accents spoken in the rest of Pennsylvania. For the most part, the speech of Central Pennsylvania is an accent, but there are enough distinguishing features for one to argue that it is not just an accent, but a dialect.
The first white settlers in Central Pennsylvania were predominantly Scots-Irish. The Scots-Irish were then followed by German farmers, most of whom originated in the South German Sprachraum. It was not long before the Germans grew to outnumber the Scots-Irish, but the Germans quickly became bilingual in English and German, and eventually, their descendants became monolingual in English. These German settlers learned to speak English from people with Scots-Irish accents and consequently, the Central Pennsylvania accent is characterized by a harsh, guttural sound one would expect to hear from a German speaker who learned to speak English by listening to Scottish-accented English.
The Central Pennsylvania dialect is most prevalent in the following counties: Centre, Mifflin, Snyder, Huntingdon, Fulton, Juniata, Perry, Cumberland, Adams, Franklin, Bedford, Blair, Clearfield, Northumberland, Lycoming, Union, and Clinton. Parts of Dauphin County and the northeastern corner of York County (Dillsburg) and southwestern corner of York County (Hanover) also have the Central Pennsylvania accent. As one moves further west towards Pittsburgh, the accent begins to blend into the closely related Western Pennsylvania Pittsburgh English accent.
There are some notable exceptions. State College in Centre County, home to the main campus of the Pennsylvania State University, has students and faculty from all over the world. State College, although located in the middle of Appalachia, is a cosmopolitan small city. Most people living in State College do not have a strong Central Pennsylvania accent, while just ten miles away in the county-seat of Bellefonte, the accent is commonly heard.
Other exceptions are the small towns of Belleville and Allensville in Mifflin County. These towns, located in close proximity to one another, have long been home to large Amish and Mennonite communities. The dialect in these two towns is much more influenced by Pennsylvania German than by the Central Pennsylvania accent. Thus, people in Belleville and Allensville sound more like people in rural Lancaster and Lebanon Counties than other residents of Mifflin County.
The Central Pennsylvania dialect has the following features:
- Typically, the infinitive form to be is not used. For example, one would not say "The car needs to be washed.", but rather, "The car needs warshed."
- Use of the term you'ns (pronounced /ˈjuənz/ with a slight but clearly audible catch between "you" and "unz") for the second-person plural. For example "You'ns need to redd up yur room before Gram and Pap come over." In Pittsburgh, the closely related word "yinz" or "yunz" is the you plural pronoun. This is in contrast to the Philadelphia area, where the colloquial you plural pronoun is yous.
- The following family relationship words are used: Gram is Grandma, Pap is Grandpa and Mum is Mom. Other family relationship words are the same as they are in Standard English, though cousin may be pronounced cousint.
- Use of the term one, where German phrases use the word eins, einen or eine. For example "Ich schlage dir gleich einen.", is literally translated as "I'm about to slap you one." The literal translation has become entrenched, even though most speakers of German in Central Pennsylvania today learned their ancestral tongue in school and not at home. The complete phrase as it is usually rendered is "I'm about to slap you one upside the head."
- Use of the term redd or redd up to mean "to tidy". See the example under you'ns. This is from the old Norse by way of Middle English and probably arrived with the Scots-Irish. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000)
- Use of the word goonie. A goonie is a big rock, which is still small enough to be thrown. If a rock is too big to be thrown, it is not a goonie. Conversely, if it is smaller than a human fist, it is also not a goonie.
- Use of the word about to mean "very". For example "You'ns are about dumb." means "You people are very stupid." Sometimes the word half is thrown in for added emphasis. Thus, "You'ns are about half dumb." means "You people are really, incredibly stupid." The about-half construction has evolved into the Central Pennsylvanian insult "You're about half!", which to outsiders sounds absurd, but is readily understood in Central Pennsylvania. The term about is not a true substitution for very but rather it is understood to be an intended understatement on the part of the speaker.
- Use of think at the beginning of a sentence in which the speaker seeks to elicit agreement. For example, One could say "Think she ain't about half?" To which the listener would reply "Think not." Think not is frequently used to convey agreement even if the first sentence did not begin with think. The phrase how 'bout it is also used to express agreement.
- Use of the phrase "that'd be odd" in response to something that happens frequently, and which is annoying to the speaker. For example, imagine the following conversation between two high school cleaning ladies:
- :Mrs. Aumiller: Them kids was openin' up library books and spittin' chew in them again!
- :Mrs. Hassinger: That'd be odd!
- :Mrs. Aumiller: Think not!
- Use of the term "hogged up" to mean very drunk. Imagine the following conversation on a Friday afternoon at a Central Pennsylvania factory:
- :Mrs. Kuhns: Me and Jack's gettin' in a fight tonight!
- :Mrs. Fultz: Is Jack your husband?
- :Mrs. Kuhns: No, Jack Daniels. I'll be all hogged up.
- Use of the interjections "so I do", "so it is", "so he does", etc. following declaratory sentences. Some speculate that this construction has its origins in literal translations from Celtic languages such as Irish and Welsh, but as of yet, there is no definitive proof. For example, "The car needs washed. So it does."
- Use of the word "ignurnt" to mean "rude", as in "You'ns are about ignurnt!" to mean "You guys are quite rude." Presumably, "ignurnt" was derived from "ignorant", as one who is ignorant of manners may be perceived as rude.
- The plural forms of game animals do not add an "s" or have any other plural marker; the singular and plural are identical, with the plural form being ascertained through verb declension or context. For example, one would say "I seen three turkey in them woods. So I did." Non-game animals have the same plurals as they do in Standard English. For example, one would never say "I seen three cow." or "I seen three horse in the Amishman's field." This peculiar feature of the Central Pennsylvania accent has long been the bane of English teachers in the region. At least one English teacher has speculated that this may be a hypercorrection, as the correct Standard English plural for deer is the same as the singular form.
- Many speakers of the Central Pennsylvania dialect use nonstandard past-tenses of verbs. This is primarily restricted to uneducated people, as educated people with features of the Central Pennsylvania dialect generally use Standard English verb tenses. Some of these nonstandard verb tenses are found in other nonstandard dialects of English around the world, such as African American Vernacular English and Cockney. The following is a list of Standard English past-tenses of verbs, with their Central Pennsylvanian equivalents:
Saw = Seen, Grew = Growed, Knew = Knowed, Came = Come, Gave = Give, We, You, They were = We, You, They was. Past participles are also different from Standard English. For example, one is more likely to hear "I should have went", than the Standard English "I should have gone" in the Central Pennsylvania dialect.
- The caught-cot merger is firmly in place. Caught and cot and Dawn and Don are homophones.
- Him, her, them and me replace the Standard English he, she, they and I as the subjects of a sentence, but only in sentences with a compound subject. For example, one would say "Him and Mike went to the store." instead of "He and Mike went to the store." However, one would never hear "Him went to the store." Likewise, one hears "Mike and them are coming to the party," but one would never hear "Them are coming to the party." In Western Pennsylvania, them can be the subject of a sentence, even as a single subject. For example, one could say "Them's good eats." However, them is never used as a single subject in the Central Pennsylvania dialect.
- With some speakers, the ile sound is pronounced owl. Thus, the following words may be homonyms: aisle and owl, file and foul; while and wow; mile and Mao; pile and pow; and Kyle and cow.
- With some speakers, the i between two consonants is pronounced like an e, as in Scottish. For example, the following words may be homonyms: did and dead, hid and head, rid and red, bid and bed.
- Pool and pole can be homonyms so that pole barn may be pronounced pool barn, which is confusing in a real estate transaction.
- In some words such as garbage, the second a is replaced by long e sound or ee, making the word garbeege. Also, the word him is pronounced eem (the h becomes silent). For example, at a football game Gedeem! means Get him! There are several other words that can follow this pattern, such as porridge=porreege and message=messeege.
- Verb placement is sometimes a literal translation from German, rather than Standard English verb placement. For example, "I saw him walking in town.", in German is "Ich sah ihn in der Stadt gehen." In the Central Pennsylvania dialect, the sentence would be "I seen him in town walking."
- The word creek is pronounced with a short "i" sound, making it a homonym with crick.
- The word "wash" is pronounced with an added "r" in the middle, hence "warsh" rhyming with "marsh" or it might also be pronounced "wersh". Thus, George Washington is pronounced "George Warshington".
- Intervening and trailing phonemes are frequently dropped or swallowed, as in some British dialects. Examples: "Uppair" for "Up There", "go-in" for "going".
- Use of the term "yonder" to describe an ill-defined place. A Central Pennsylvanian might describe his weekend activity thus, "I seen 'im goin' uppair yonder Scotia range huntin' turkey. He come back all dirty, an' had ta warsh his pants in the crick before his old lady letted him back in the house."
- Use of the term "let" in place of the proper word leave. For example, one in Central Pennsylvania would say, "Should I just let it on the table?" where the proper phrase would utilize the verb leave.
- Conversely, "leave" is also used in place of "let," where "let" means "allow." For example, a child in Central Pennsylvania might ask his friend "Is your mum gonna leave you watch South Park?"
- Bathe is replaced with the term bath as in some British dialects. A Central Pennsylvanian might say "bath the baby" , while the correct North American usage would be to "bathe the baby."
- The word "color" is often pronounced as "keller."
- The word "eagle" is almost invariably pronounced "iggle."
- The phrase in standard English, "What are you doing?" would be "Whatchya doin?", if said fast "Chya doin?".
- The word "nothing" sometimes is said as "nuttin", but in one opinion, this is uncommon but becoming much more widely used. "nuthen" may also be a good approximation.
- "Yammerin", this is to talk ones ear off. "What are you'ns yammerin about!" or "She'd been yammerin on the phone for 2 hour now!" (Note the singular "hour".)
- People of Central Pennsylvania often don't pronounce the "g" on verbs ending in "ing". For example, "Eating" would be pronounced "eaten". "Hunting" would be pronounced "hunten". Also, words in ending in "ting" are often replaced with "den". This holds true for words having similar endings to "ting" such as "tain". For example, "mountain" would be pronounced as "mounden" and "setting" would be pronounced as "sedden".
- When referring to consumable products, the word "all" is frequently used to mean "all gone." For example, the phrase "the bread's all" would be understood as "the bread is all gone."
- In words that have an interior "l" sound, a "w" sound is often substituted in cases when the "l" is immediately before an "r" sound or another consonant. For example "color" becomes "kewwer" and "Bellefonte" becomes "Behwwfonte."
- Women in Central Pennsylvania "arn" their good clothes rather than ironing them.
- "Have" is often replaced with a morpheme sounding closer to "of." "Coulda," "woulda," "shoulda," "musta," are good "examplesa" this. Also, when less educated central Pennsylvanians write these words, they tend to write "could of" instead of "could have." The same thing happens with "to." "Oughta," and "hafta" are common examples.
- The colloquial "Ain't" is freely used as a substitute for all of the following contractions: "Haven't," "hasn't," "isn't," "aren't" and for "am not." Examples: "She ain't seen Joe since Mondee." "Ain't you'ns been to the store yet?" "This ain't good." "We ain't crazy!" "I ain't kiddin'!"
- Words ending in -ower are pronounced -ar. Shower is pronounced as "shar", power as "par", etc. This also applies to the word hour (pronounced as "are").
- Often the h is dropped in words that start with "hu" like "huge," "humongous," etc. -- leaving the word sounding like "yuge" or "yumongous."
- Pumpkin is often pronounded "punkin" as in the Punkin Chunkin competition.
Many of these are not used to this day, although some still are.
Diglossia and code switching
The Central Pennsylvania dialect is different enough from Standard English that diglossia
are possible. Many educated Central Pennsylvanians can switch back and forth between the accent and Standard English, while the less educated are more apt to speak only in dialect or with a thick Central Pennsylvania accent. Most people do not develop the ability to switch back and forth between the Central Pennsylvania dialect and Standard English until they leave the area to attend college, join the military, or seek employment outside of Central Pennsylvania. Often, the code switching is subconscious. For example, one who has spent years living away from Central Pennsylvania and normally speaks Standard English may revert to the dialect when around other people who are speaking it.