The Ancient Pronunciation of “Pittsburgh”

Many historians speculate that the name “Pittsburgh” was originally pronounced “PITTS-burrah,” the way Edinburgh is pronounced “ED-in-burrah.” After all, General Forbes, who gave the place its name, was a Scotsman: it would seem odd that he would not pronounce the “burgh” as in “Edinburgh.”

Today Father Pitt presents a tiny piece of evidence suggesting that the old pronunciation may have endured into the early 1800s. The evidence is only suggestive, not conclusive; but he thinks you will agree that it is at least very interesting.

Union Cemetery in Robinson Township is an old graveyard with a number of Revolutionary War veterans in it. Here we find, side by side, two early settlers’ tombstones.

First is Thomas Thornberry, a Revolutionary War veteran. His stone is regrettably so badly damaged that we can read nothing on it. But a plaque in front of the stone identifies it as belonging to Thomas Thornberry, a Revolutionary War veteran. Presumably the name comes from the church records, but Father Pitt is not sure of that. Perhaps someone from the church could enlighten us more.

Beside his stone is a legible stone for a woman who is obviously his wife.

IN MEMORY OF
DINAH Wife of
Thomas Thornburgh

who departed this life
July 26th, 1830,
aged 70 years.

And here is our evidence. Inscriptions on tombstones of the early 1800s around here are commonly semi-literate; it is common to find variant spellings of the same name. Here we have the same name spelled “Thornburgh” and “Thornberry.” Now, it is not possible to imagine the name “Thornberry” being pronounced “THORN-burg,” but it is quite possible to imagine both “Thornburgh” and “Thornberry” being pronounced “THORN-burrah.” And if that is the case, then we have evidence that, in western Pennsylvania, the spelling “burgh” indicated the sound “burrah” at least to some residents as late as 1830.

Old Pa Pitt repeats that this is not evidence of very high quality. But it is some evidence.

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