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Good Morning Nanty Glo!

       Wednesday, August 25 2004 

Jon Kennedy, webmaster

Ah, Picksburgh

Yesterday's "joke," "Yunz from Picksburgh" brought more mail to the Forum than anything in months. Both the humorous recitation of local colloquial speech patterns and the email responses reignited my long-term interest in this topic, which was taken up before, in the early months after this Forum was launched in its present form in 2001. And several other inputs in recent months have piqued my curiosity to know more about phenomenal speech.

The first of these was a book I read of folklore and fairy tales of Ireland, compiled and edited by one of that nation's best-known literary figures, William Butler Yeats, its stories written by a dozen or so contributors. The book was more readable than I expected (fairy tales, even about the wee people of Ireland, are not high on my list of favorite literary genres). But an unexpected side benefit of reading the book, which was published in the late 1800s, was discovering many familiar speech patterns, which the contributing writers represented in the dialects they attempted to capture. Some of the colorful speech were items familiar from me mither's knee; others harkened to spoofing around on the TV stages between Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, but others, most surprisingly, sounded very much like "Ebonics," the dialect of some Black Americans that a group in Oakland, Ca., tried to get approved for use in public school language classes a few years ago. The most overused "ebonic word," probably, is "axed," for "asked." It's the most cliched word cited when standup comedians make fun of their Black-American friends or neighbors. But it didn't originate in 1980's Oakland, Ca., at all, but was used commonly—in the same meaning—in the everyday speech in Ireland in the 1880s and even earlier. And it, and many other terms like it, like "Picksburgh," were also repeated by Irish living in Pennsylvania in the same and subsequent generations.

The second surprising contributor to this curiosity was tuning in last week to the UPN "reality show," Amish in the City. I never watch reality shows, knowing full well they're about as far from reality as anything Hollywood can come up with. But I didn't tune this in with any illusions there would be any reality about it, but rather to see how the Amish kids plopped into a million dollar house in the Hollywood Hills could cope with the world their families and whole culture had brought them up to despise. And again, one of the most surprising things I encountered there was a familiar-sounding speech pattern. One of the Amish kids definitely had a Pennsylvania accent and it was obvious, in a kind of epiphany or sudden awakening, that it was the Pennsylvania Dutch way of speaking that was familiar; that (not surprisingly) has been with us Pennsylvanian-reared people for centuries.

Any demographic sampling of the backgrounds of Pennsylvanians, outside Philadelphia, reveals that by far the most dominant ethnic groups in the state have been Irish, Scots-Irish, and German (Pennsylvania Dutch). I daresay that few of us do not have some of the genetic makeup of one or both of those major ethnic groups. For example, both my father's and mother's families are Scots-Irish (or "northern Irish") families that have been in Pennsylvania from before 1800. But my father's mother was from a long and sometimes distinguished German family (Fusselman/Fosselman).

I think words like "axed" and "Picksburgh" originated in an attempt to play around with the language. In some cases, it became so commonly used that its users forgot the origin and became unaware that it wasn't the real or "correct" term. And I think that same playfulness in the use of English is behind both the phenomenal contributions to English literature by Irish writers, especially in the 19th century, and the hip-hop/rap revolution in pop "music" that has become dominant among youthful radio and recording audiences of our time.

And though Amish in the City is nothing to write home about...I just did. And if you're curious enough you might catch it tonight on the UPN (Wednesday, 8 p.m.).

Webmaster Jon Kennedy 

Foreign approach

People in other countries sometimes go out of their way to communicate with their English-speaking tourists. Here is a collection of signs seen around the world.



Sent by Mike Harris  

Thought for today

It's my cat's world. I'm just here to open cans.

Sent by Trudy Myers  

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