Peculiar Pittsburgh

Settling the debate: Is Pittsburgh in the Midwest?

We turned to experts in Pittsburgh language, food and history to find out. Here’s the verdict.

Nick Amoscato / flickr
MJ Slaby

It’s not a new discussion: What region is Pittsburgh in?

Sure there are some similarities to both but is Pittsburgh a Midwestern city? Or a part of the East Coast? We could argue about it for hours. Many Pittsburghers scoff at the idea of being lumped in with the flatlands to the west.  But being in an East Coast group with Boston and Philly doesn’t seem right either. Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh. But can a city have no region?

To settle it once and for all, The Incline turned to the experts in three areas — language, food and history — to see what they had to say. Here’s what they say about our enigmatic city:

Yinzers and Pennsylvanians

Urban accents specific to one city are nothing new, especially in older cities. Think about New York or Boston. So Pittsburgh having its own accent that’s different from Philly or Erie makes sense, said Barbara Johnstone, a professor of English and linguistics who studies Pittsburghese at Carnegie Mellon University.

She said many words and pronunciations used in Pittsburgh go back to Scotch-Irish immigrants — slippy, red up, yinz.

Plus, Johnstone said there are a few pronunciations that may have even originated in Pittsburgh. Take the example of dahntahn — Johnstone said it’s too hard to know for sure, since there aren’t recordings old enough to prove it, but the pronunciation may have come from Eastern European immigrants who substituted sounds when they said the word. There’s also the merger of cot and caught sounding the same and the using the same pronunciation for the names Don and Dawn, that could have started here, she said.

However, Johnstone said there are some language overlaps with places in the Midwest. For example, you’ll hear, “This shirt needs washed” instead of: “This shirt needs to be washed” in places in Indiana and Ohio, especially along the Ohio River.

And the Midwest has Pittsburgh’s back when it comes to the great pop vs. soda debate.

But there is a bit of “regional exceptionalism” — a.k.a. the idea that one region is like no other — when it comes to the way Pittsburghers talk.

“So much of the Pittsburghese phenomenon is less about what people say and more about ideas about it,” Johnstone said. (Example: T-shirts and other souvenirs with yinz or jagoff on them.)

But people in Pittsburgh are more likely to identify as Pittsburghers or Yinzers, then as residents of a specific region, she said. As a native of State College, Pa., Johnston said unlike Texans who use that label often, very few people use the term Pennsylvannian to describe themselves.

“It sounds like something the governor would say, ‘my fellow Pennsylvanians … ’” she said. “We don’t think of ourselves as that, it’s just not a thing.”

Ruling: In Johnstone’s opinion, Pittsburgh is not in the Midwest, and regional exceptionalism holds true for Western Pa. — Pittsburgh is its own unique place.

Garden foods and ranch dressing

The Midwest is full of towns that love meat and potatoes, even if they all do it slightly differently, and Pittsburgh is no exception, said Scott Walton, chef and co-owner of Acorn in Shadyside.

Walton moved to Pittsburgh three years ago from Chicago and said the cities have very similar foods, in part because of the immigrant groups that settled in both cities from Poland, Germany and Ireland. Pierogies are available everywhere on the south side of Chicago, and “pierogies are famous here” in Pittsburgh, he said, adding same goes for sausages.

Both places are filled with what he called “garden food,” foods that moms made from what they grew in their gardens, he added.

But there are some differences. Walton said Chicagoans are used to more diversity in their foods and welcome spicy and ethnic foods. Pittsburgh doesn’t have a lot of spicy yet, but it’s working on it as more and more people move to the city from around the country.

“That’s the beautiful part of being in Pittsburgh, they’re opening their eyes to it and in Chicago, it’s been done for 20 years,” Walton said.

What about Pittsburgh’s love of ranch? Does that make it a Midwestern city? Yes, and no, according to Walton.

While ranch is beloved in the Midwest, Pittsburgh might have a claim on it, he said. Walton said he was disgusted to see ranch come with his pizza on his first day living in Pittsburgh, but now “he’s fallen into the pattern” will dip his crust in the dressing. Pittsburghers will debate the best ranch, and that’s not something people do Chicago, he said.

Fries on everything is also specific to Pittsburgh, he said. “I get it, but I don’t get it. It’s just another vehicle to dip in ranch.”

But both ranch and fries go back to Pittsburgh’s overindulgent side, something it has in common with states to the east.

“Pittsburgh has the stronghold on carnival food, really the whole Midwest does,” he said. “No one needs to eat a 2 pound sandwich, but it’s delicious.”

Ruling: When it comes to food, Walton said Pittsburgh is “100 percent” Midwestern, no doubt in his mind.

Statelines and trendsetters

The tongue in cheek saying goes: “The midwest starts at the Ohio border,” joked Edward Mueller, a University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus who taught Pittsburgh history for decades.

To determine Pittsburgh’s region, he looks to the history of the city.

There was a point before the Revolutionary War when both Virginia and Pennsylvania claimed Pittsburgh, but after the revolution, it became part of the latter, Mueller said, adding that with that came a government structure that was much more northern than southern.

For example, northern states tend to have towns, boroughs, townships and cities as their smallest municipalities. In the south, many towns are unincorporated and the smallest unit of government is the county. Plus, there was also the obvious difference at the time of slave ownership, Mueller said.

Clearly a northern city, Pittsburgh was also influenced more by the East than the Midwest, he said. Civic leaders looked to New York and sometimes Boston as the model more often than Chicago. And when the elite started to send their sons away to school, they went to eastern schools like Princeton and Yale universities.

“That’s a clue,” Mueller said, “The trendsetters were looking to the east more than anywhere else.”

But Pittsburgh also has a distinction from New England, he said. “It’s a messy answer.”

Ruling: Mueller said the answer came to him while working on an atlas of Pennsylvania in the 1980s, Pittsburgh is an eastern city in its culture, but not East Coast.