Cathedral of Learning or Cathy? Explaining the Pitt’s Most Iconic Building Debate

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A generational divide?

For Professor Soudi, the Cathy or Cathedral debate is an opportune and playful example to talk about sociolinguistics and the power of language.

“Language is found in every aspect of our human experience and existence, and it obviously affects and influences how we and others perceive the world and each other,” Soudi said.

Just as language is not static, our identities also change and evolve. And the two are intertwined, he said. “We convey and express our identity through language and it is a salient means, or really one of the central means, of marking our group identity and belonging.”

For students entering a new community, language is an important element in marking your place in a new space and indicating that you belong and expressing who you are.

It’s almost universally accepted that the Cathy/Cathedral divide is generational, but it’s hard to tell where the line lies.

The nickname “Cathy” seems to have been popularized in the early 2010s and has become increasingly popular over the past few years. Now it is the default term for the building for many current Pitt students.

While the popularization of “Cathy” is almost certainly partly an expression of the less formal approach of recent students, it could also have something to do with the student experience of recent years.

Morton told the story of an outstanding student who shared that losing access to the building during COVID-19 closures actively hindered his academic success.

“Right now, situationally, historically, in the midst of the pandemic, there’s a level of comfort in calling her Cathy,” Morton said.

The abbreviated term with its suffix -y is a diminutive, or what some linguists call “hypocorism”, Soudi said. Although the words sound alike, a diminutive does not mean diminish, but rather expresses intimacy and affection for something.

“It’s a lexical expression of affection,” Soudi said.

[Photos: Students make a sweet rendering of a gingerbread Cathedral of Learning]

That said, former students — now alumni — have also marked their status as Pitt students through language, including calling it the cathedral.

“If people are using this word to negotiate buy-in and show solidarity with others, asking them to drop that lexical variant, you’re asking them to drop all of those things,” Soudi said. “You’re asking them to drop who they are.”

Morton noted a connection to how other types of formal titles also evolved. Students and faculty have ditched formal titles for each other in more contexts. Some professors include notes in their programs to call them by name. His own students call him by his initials, TJM.

“Do they respect a teacher less if they call him by his first name?” I’d bet a dozen donuts that wouldn’t change their level of respect,” he said.

words matter

In an era of rapidly changing cultural norms, technological change and divisive political rhetoric, most would agree that the fight for “Cathy” is not the most pressing topic of debate. Ultimately, all are united by their love and respect for the building and the “moments of great victory” it symbolizes.

But just because something is “objectively stupid,” Morgan Flood said, “doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense.”

“Looking at something that is objectively fluffy always tells you something valuable and interesting,” Flood added.

For Morton, what the students think of “Cathy” is that the building is sustainable and, from an architectural point of view, a success. “I love that they have such an attachment to a building on campus. I think it’s more important for people to have that connection than to call her Cathy or The Cathedral.”

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