Evolution Home Bookstore Manuscripts Ordering
Evolution Publishing
PO Box 1333
Merchantville NJ 08109, USA

Email: info@arxpub.com


Linguistic Geography of Pennsylvania

©1999 C. Salvucci

The above map is historically skewed, in that boundaries follow the most modern studies when possible, but where current information is not available the boundaries must often reflect the 1939 LAMSAS data. At certain points the modern and older studies clearly conflict: Schuylkill County with its consistent monophthongization would have been better classified with the Lehigh Valley and Reading in 1939; today, its acceptance of the low back merger shows that it clearly belongs to the Anthracite region.

Hudson Valley

Geographical extent: Pike, Monroe, Carbon counties. Might also include Wayne and northeastern Northampton counties.

Urban centers: local center perhaps at Stroudsburg-East Stroudsburg; but original center on Hudson River in southeastern New York State, along New York-Albany axis.

Summary: Hudson Valley/Dutch lexical base.

Part of a larger dialect type that encompasses southeastern New York State and northern New Jersey, the Pocono Mountain area represents an extension of Hudson Valley speech into Pennsylvania. The Hudson Valley is linguistically distinctive because of the variety of Dutch called "Jersey Dutch" or "Albany Dutch," spoken there into the twentieth century. Jersey Dutch is a variety of the true Dutch language spoken in Holland, as opposed to "Pennsylvania Dutch" which is actually a dialect of German.
In modern times the region has lost much of its distinctive lexicon such as file for dishcloth, and kees/kush as a cow call, and in terms of pronunciation it seems to follow the Eastern Pennsylvania pattern with no apparent idiosyncrasies. The low back merger of O and AW which is prevalent in the Anthracite Region of Scranton-Wilkes Barre to the west is not present here. The heavily Pennsylvania German-influenced dialect of the Lehigh Valley-Reading area forms a border to the south. And to the north there is a significant lexical (and probably phonological) break where the Upstate New York-influenced dialect begins.

Anthracite Region

Geographical extent: Luzerne and Schuylkill Counties, western Lackawanna County--region of extensive anthracite coal mining.

Urban centers: Scranton/Wilkes-Barre

Summary: Northern dialect, with a complicated linguistic history. Upstate New York-type in origin, with later mixture of Eastern Pennsylvania (German) features, and more recently Slavic superstrata due to immigration. Schuylkill county somewhat different situation: originally heavily Germanized dialect of Lehigh Valley-type, now following Scranton-Wilkes Barre pattern.
The area's first settlers from Connecticut and Upstate New York brought with them a "Yankee" dialect, but Pennsylvania Midland dialects began blending with it soon after, as Pennsylvania Germans began immigrating in numbers. More recently, there seems also to have been input from metropolitan Philadelphia. Interestingly, there are some significant parallels with New York City pronunciation: consistent reduction of hard and soft TH: dis (this), tink (think); full pronunciation of the G in final -ng, e.g. coming gup (coming up), and use of the glottal stop for medial -tt-: bo'l (bottle). The reduction of TH is common to many other urban dialects of the north, but in the Scranton area it appears to be practiced much more consistently and is even recognized as a local shibboleth (De Camp 1940).
It is possible that such changes are due to Eastern European immigration at the turn of the century. One particularly recent characteristic of the Anthracite dialect attributed to Slavic influence, is the merger of O and AW in cot and caught. Herold's study (1990) determined that this was not an extension of the Western Pennsylvania merger, but was rather an independant local development among coal mining immigrants, which is now establishing itself in the entire speech community.

Central Pennsylvania

Geographical extent: Central counties west of the Susquehanna: Clinton, Centre, Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Cumberland, Franklin, Huntingdon, Fulton, Bedford and Blair.

Urban centers: Uncertain.

Summary: Midland dialect of the Western Pennsylvania type. Slightly higher percentage of Pennsylvania Germanisms than Upper Ohio Valley, particularly in the southern counties.

In his Word Geography (1949), Kurath uses the term "Central Pennsylvania" in table II (pp. 28-29) as a sub-region between "Western Pennsylvania" and the "Great Valley." Judging by the distribution of the terms he cites for this region, his notion of "Central Pennsylvania" corresponds precisely with mine; see especially (arm)load (fig. 73) and quarter till (fig. 44).
But this same area was included within the territory of Eastern Pennsylvania in KurathÕs LAMSAS map; and the evidence for that inclusion is weak. Contemporary though less scrupulous research by Thomas (1958), includes Central PA within the Western Pennsylvania area; this conclusion is more easily justifiable, since both areas share the merger of O and AW.
Carver (1989) shows that the area of heavy Pennsylvania German lexical influence extends into Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Cumberland, and Franklin counties, perhaps including portions of Huntingdon and Fulton. Yet is also possible to see the Pennsylvania German lexicon gradually dissipating as it extends westward, without any clear demarcations. One researcher has proposed a "Bedford" subarea, which would involve Blair, Bedford, western Huntingdon, Fulton, and perhaps also portions of Somerset counties, which lack a heavy concentration of Pennsylvania Germanisms and also lack many typically Western Pennsylvania terms (Ashcom 1953)

Upper Susquehanna

Geographical extent: Lycoming, Sullivan, Columbia, Montour, Union, Snyder and Northumberland.

Urban centers: Williamsport?

Summary: Midland dialect of the Eastern Pennsylvania type, but with few apparent lexical or phonological idiosyncracies.

The dialect of this area is poorly known. Its boundaries are fairly well well marked only because we know where the adjacent dialects end, not because the Upper Susquehanna has any definite characteristics that we know of. Either it is a linguistically conservative bastion within Eastern Pennsylvania, or it has developed distinctive characteristics that simply have not appeared in the data available to us.
It can be noted, though, that the counties of Union and Snyder are something of a special case. They are quite strongly associated with the rest of the Central Pennsylvania region lexically, yet Herold's study (1990) found the low back vowels distinct in both of these counties: a clear link to the east. No doubt the Susquehanna river to their east forms an effective barrier to lexical diffusion; but it is unclear why the low back merger has not occurred here.

Lehigh Valley-Berks County

Geographical extent: all of Lehigh, Berks and Lebanon counties, the northern tip of Lancaster county, almost certainly also western Northampton County and perhaps also the southeastern tip of Carbon County. The 1939 data does not show Easton as belonging to this dialect area, although at present it very well may, considering EastonÕs proximity to the Allentown-Bethlehem metropolitan area.

Urban Centers: Allentown-Bethlehem, Reading

Summary: Midland dialect of the Eastern Pennsylvania type, heavily influenced by Pennsylvania German. Some Philadelphia influence, but to a lesser degree than the Lower Susquehanna area.

The heavy influence from Pennsylvania German and the distinction between short o and au suggests a close kinship with the Lower Susquehanna area such as Harrisburg, Lancaster and York. But both the Lehigh Valley and Reading in 1939 showed consistant monophthongization of the long vowels o and a, while the Lower Susquehanna cities followed the Philadelphia pattern of diphthongal vowels. Characteristic words include rain worm for earthworm, and Italian sandwich for submarine sandwich Philadelphia influence seems to be increasing in this area at present, but historically to a lesser degree than the Lower Susquehanna, probably because migration from the Delaware Valley was primarily directed westward towards the frontier rather than northward.
If we were only considering the Linguistic Atlas data, Schuylkill county would certainly be included here, since it clearly shows the Germanisms and monophthongization characteristic of this area. But Herold's research showing the presence of the low back merger there takes precedence, and Schuylkill County has accordingly been grouped in the anthracite region, albeit as something of a transitional member. Conversely, the Easton informant for the Linguistic Atlas agreed much more consistently with his Pocono Mountain counterparts than those of the Lehigh Valley-Reading. But it is likely that a cultural absorption of Easton into the Allentown-Bethlehem orbit has taken place since then.

Lower Susquehanna

Geographical extent: Dauphin, Adams and York counties, almost all of Lancaster except for the northernmost tip. Seems to extend slightly into northern Maryland.

Urban Centers: Harrisburg, Lancaster, York.

Summary: Midland dialect of the Eastern Pennsylvania type. Heavily influenced by Pennsylvania German, stemming from settlement by Palatinate Germans beginning in 18th century. Substantial Philadelphia influence.

The urban centers of this region have not received much attention, since linguistic interest has usually been diverted to the rural Pennsylvania Dutch speakers nearby, although certainly even the largest cities of the Lower Susquehanna have preserved a great many "Dutch" usages. This area is widely considered the heartland of Pennsylvania German culture, and as such has radiated many of its features out past its borders throughout all of Pennsylvania, into Northern Maryland, and even into Ohio and Midwest.
Otherwise the dialect is solidly Midland, and aside from Germanisms bears a close affinity with the Philadelphia area, such as in its use of diphthongal long O and long A. This affinity reflects the historically important migration route from Philadelphia towards Pittsburgh and the Midwest--in this context it is useful to note the concentration of Philadelphia usages even further westward into the Bedford area. (Ashcom 1953).

Delaware Valley

Geographical extent: Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties, i.e. the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Outside Pennsylvania extends into New Castle County in Delaware (Wilmington area) and Southern half of New Jersey (including Trenton).

Urban Centers: Philadelphia

Summary: Midland dialect of the Eastern Pennsylvania type: hearth area for entire Midland. English Quaker settlement area, only slight Pennsylvania German influence. Status as major port city has made it receptive to trade words.

The Delaware Valley was the first part of Pennsylvania to be settled by Europeans: first by Swedes, then Dutch, then finally English. Maritime contact with English and American cities has been important historically, but as Philadelphia's population has grown and the port declined in importance, its "keystone" position on the Eastern seaboard has become the major outside factor in dialect development. In particular, Labov (1991) has found that while Philadelphia's back vowels are following the Southern Shift, the front vowels are following the northern pattern.
Philadelphia and Baltimore are the only port cities on the Atlantic to have preserved R in all positions. Even so, there is some historic indication of sporadic R-dropping in Philadelphia, but it was probably an upper-class phenomenon, never quite catching on among common citizens.

Upper Ohio Valley/Western Pennsylvania

Geographical extent: Clearfield, Cambria and Somerset counties westward to the state border. The northern border runs above Mercer and Venango counties, and apparently continues through the middle of Forest, Elk, and Cameron. Outside Pennsylvania the dialect (with minor variations) extends into Youngstown Ohio; also Wheeling, the northern panhandle, and the Monongahela Valley in West Virginia.

Urban Centers: Pittsburgh

Summary: Midland dialect of the Western Pennsylvania type. Scotch-Irish substratum; as "Gateway to the West" shows affinities with Midwestern, and Appalachian dialects.

Since the early part of this century, the Western Pennsylvania dialect has been demarcated by its merger of short O and AU into an intermediate vowel, so that cot and caught sound alike. Although recently this merger has been spreading into the northern and southern tiers of Pennsylvania.
The dialect's lexicon owes a great deal to the Scotch-Irish frontiersmen who settled Western Pennsylvania and subsequently migrated southward down the Appalachian chain, mixing with Southern settlers from the Piedmont. The common Scotch-Irish base explains why the Midland dialect of the Pittsburgh area shares many similarities with the Southern dialects of the Appalachians such as the distinctive second person plural pronoun y'uns. A few Pennsylvania Germanisms have made their way into the dialect. Local to Pittsburgh is the flattening of the OW diphthong: aht (out).


Ashcom, B. B. 1953. Notes on the Language of the Bedford, Pennsylvania Subarea. American Speech 28:241-255.

Carver, Craig M. 1989. American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

De Camp, L. Sprague. 1940. Scranton Pronunciation. American Speech 15:368-372.

Herold, Ruth. 1990. Mechanisms of merger: the implementation and distribution of the low back merger in Eastern Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania dissertation.

Kurath, Hans. 1949. A Word Geography of the Eastern United States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kurath, Hans and Raven I. McDavid. 1961. The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Labov, William. 1991. The Three Dialects of English. In Penny Eckert, ed. New Ways of Analyzing Sound Change. New York:Academic Press, pp. 1-44.

Labov, William, Sharon Ash and Charles Boberg. 1997. A National Map of the Regional Dialects of American English. Available on the homepage of the Phonological Atlas of America.

Salvucci, Claudio R. 1997. A Dictionary of Pennsylvanianisms. Southampton, PA:Evolution Publishing.

Thomas, Charles K. 1958. The Phonetics of American English. New York.

Evolution Publishing | American Dialect Homepage