Visitors to the Historical Society of Carnegie typically come for two reasons: they love former Pittsburgh Pirates great Honus Wagner or they have a connection to the small, southwestern Pennsylvania borough.
The building houses a small museum dedicated to the famous shortstop, and a tiny replica of the borough’s Main Street, old photographs of mill workers and genealogical records. And depending on where the visitors are originally from, they might pronounce the name of the borough differently.
Good Question! listener Ali Scarr has lived all around the country and said she’s never heard the word pronounced like it is in western Pennsylvania.
“Everywhere else I’ve lived they say ‘CAR-nuh-gie,’ but here they say ‘Car-NAY-gie’ with a bigger emphasis on the middle syllable,” Scarr asked. “I was just wondering, why?”
This region is filled with buildings and institutions that bear the name of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. He was born in Dunfermline, Scotland, raised in Allegheny City (now the North Side) and by the late 19th century, had become one of the wealthiest industrialists in the country. His companies employed many throughout western Pennsylvania, including residents in the community that would become Carnegie.
The borough was once two separate municipalities, Mansfield and Chartiers, but because they were already sharing police and fire departments, they decided to merge in 1894. Historical Society Secretary Jeff Keenan said the town held a contest to determine the new name and Carnegie was the winner. As a nod to the honor, Andrew Carnegie donated one of his first libraries to the borough.
“The Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall … is still a very vital part of Carnegie,” Keenan said. The town celebrates its 125th birthday this year. Kennan said through the years, Carnegie’s endured floods and fires, but has managed to stay afloat while small former steel towns around it struggled.
Residents of the nearly 8,000-person borough call their home Car-NAY-gie, because that’s how Andrew would have said it. A video by the Carnegie Corporation of New York features Scottish people in Carnegie’s hometown saying his name the way western Pennsylvanians would, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Barbara Johnstone, a retired professor of linguistics and rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University, said while there is technically no “correct” pronunciation of proper nouns, it’s generally accepted to say a word the way the person with the name would say it.
“We just have to look at usage,” Johnstone said. “Then in a few cases, if there are people who are out there saying, ‘this way is correct’ or ‘that way is correct,’ we can take that into consideration.”
In this case, no group is very vocal about correcting pronunciation, but it is clear that there is a regionally-specific difference. When it comes to “Carnegie,” Johnstone said the syllable count could contribute to its vocal delivery. Consider other three-syllable words like carnival or character, she said, for which the emphasis is on the first syllable.
“That kind of default way to pronounce a word with three syllables, with certain exceptions, is to put the stress on the first,” Johnstone said. “So I think people have somewhat ‘American-ized’ or ‘English-ized’ [Carnegie.]”
After all, people in his home country of Scotland still place the emphasis on the second syllable. When he moved to Pittsburgh and developed his companies, people started saying his name more and more often as his fame and wealth grew. Johnstone said because Pittsburgh is blocked to the east by the Appalachian Mountains, the city became relatively isolated linguistically.
“Things have kind of stuck on here, kept on going here, that have gotten lost elsewhere,” Johnstone said. Take for example, the dialect referred to as Pittsburghese, with words like “yinz” and “nebby,” and phrases like “redd-up.” These might seem foreign to non-western Pennsylvanians because they didn’t spread across the country in the same way as other terms. Pittsburgh experienced such a big wave of immigration at the turn of the 19th century that all the non-English speakers’ languages mixed with English to form a blended dialect.
Varied pronunciations usually make little difference to the meaning of a word, Johnstone said. But she says a word’s pronunciation is illustrative of something more.
“On the face of it, it really doesn't matter. Why would anybody make a fuss about it?” Johnstone said. “But these differences can come to matter. Words are important and how and even pronunciations are important.”
For Jeff Keenan at the Carnegie Historical Society, the alternative way of saying his borough doesn’t bother him.
“In the realm of all that's important, as my father would say, I don't think it's worth getting upset over.”