Dese, Dose and Dibs: the Midwest’s Weird Word World
How can you tell someone is from Chicago?
You could ask them what a carbonated beverage is called, or whether it’s OK to park in a spot someone else shoveled out – or you can listen to the way they say the name of their own city.
Same goes for the rest of the great Midwestern linguistic region – from Minnesota’s “you betcha” to the “who dey?” of Ohio.
Ted McClelland, the author of the new book, “How to Speak Midwestern,” joins us to talk about quirky terms and rounded vowels that make Midwest-speak unique.
Below, an excerpt from the book. Learn more at the book’s Facebook page.
At a movie theater in a Minneapolis suburb, a man walked out of an afternoon screening of Fargo, and delivered a one-word review even more devastating than a Siskel and Ebert thumbs down.
“Well,” he grumbled, “that was different.”
The state of Minnesota has a complicated relationship with Fargo, which was produced by Joel and Ethan Coen, who grew up in St. Louis Park in the 1950s and ’60s. On the one hand, it provided a lot of work for local actors and showcased such landmarks as the Paul Bunyan statue in Brainerd, where heroine Marge Gunderson was police chief. On the other hand, it stereotyped Minnesotans as over-agreeable yokels who speak a sing-songy English larded with such corny sayings as “you betcha” and “yer darn tootin’.” Even today, saying “I didn’t like Fargo” is a good way to ingratiate yourself with a Minnesotan.
Larissa Kokernot was a Minneapolis stage actress when she was cast as Hooker #1 (the prostitute who reveals that Steve Buscemi’s character “wasn’t circumcised.”) She was also enlisted to work as a dialect coach for Frances McDormand, who won an Academy Award for her role as Marge. Kokernot delivered the most authentic Minnesota accent in the movie, and director Joel Coen decided he wanted McDormand to sound like her. So the two actresses spent an afternoon together, in which Kokernot schooled McDormand not only on the technical aspects of Minnesota speech, but the social forces that produced it.
“We talked about nodding: being agreeable and wanting agreement,” says Kokernot. “Even if you’re making a statement, you’re wanting agreement. It’s that Norwegian thing of, ‘We’re not going to get through these winters without working together.’ And then the ‘ooo’ sounds, like in ‘knooow.’ We talked about the musicality of it, going back to Norwegian. And then how it flattens out a bit. It’s very forward. It comes out of the top of the mouth. We talked about the ‘yah,’ because the ‘yah’ lives in the same place.”
In the service of black comedy, the Coen Brothers thought it would be funny to hear characters talking about murder in chirpy, exaggerated Up North accents. The result was so memorable that it put Minnesota on the dialectical map.
“Canadian had a national profile,” Kokernot says. “I don’t think people had an idea of what Minnesotan sounded like. There was something about that movie, people focused in on that Minnesota sound. I do feel like it has that cachet now. I put in on my resume as one of my dialects: Minnesotan.”
So how accurate is the Fargo accent? In the winter of 2016, I spent a week in Brainerd. It’s a wonderful place to cross-country ski, curl, ice fish and snowmobile. It is not, however, a place to hear people talk like Marge Gunderson or Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless car salesman whose plot to have his wife kidnapped and held for ransom sets the movie’s plot in motion. You won’t hear it at Yesterday’s Gone Bar & Grill. Nor at Ernie’s on Gull, the supper club where I enjoyed walleye and a Brandy Alexander. Nor in the fish house where I caught a perch with Bobby Adams, the handyman at Kavanagh’s Resort. Nor at the city council meeting, the Antique Snowmobile Rendezvous, or the Brainerd Lakes Curling Association. There’s only one place in Brainerd to hear the drawn-out vowels of Marge and Jerry. That’s in the Oral History archives of the Crow Wing County Historical Society, which contains taped interviews conducted in the 1970s with rural Minnesotans born in the early 20th Century, often to Norwegians who spoke the Old World language at home. One interviewer identifies himself as “Bill Hansen of Brainerd, Minnesohhta.” When his subject talks about losing her American citizenship by marrying a Norwegian, he responds, “Oh, when ya married him you were a citizen of Norway then, ooh, f’ra little vhile ’til he got his papers straight.”
That accent, heavily influenced by Scandinavian inflections, would still have been common among older Minnesotans when the Coen Brothers were growing up. But they left for college in New York in the mid-1970s. By the time they returned to film Fargo, 20 years later, the accent they set out to caricature was dead and buried, or living in a nursing home. So were some of the phrases that made their way into the script. “Yes sir, you betcha,” an enthusiastic affirmative meant to exemplify Minnestoans’ agreeableness, is today only used in the context of mocking stereotypically Minnesotan behavior. At Jax Café in Minneapolis, I asked the steward if the restaurant served lutefisk, a tasteless, lye-treated piece of whitefish that Minnesotans eat at Christmastime to remember the ocean voyages of their Norwegian ancestors.
“Oh, you betcha,” he said, with a smirk.
To my ear, the best Minnesota accent ever committed to film was delivered by Kurt Russell, who played 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks – a Twin Cities-area native – in the movie Miracle. Russell’s accent is clipped, brisk, nasal, capturing not only the no-nonsense nature of the man he’s portraying, but the practicality and restraint of Minnesotans. Both Russell and McDormand realized that the Minnesota accent originates from the front of the mouth, but Russell understood that it emerges from the nose, while McDormand’s distended vowels vibrate off her palate – in pursuit of the comic effect the Coen Brothers were seeking, she overemphasizes the forwardness of words’ origins. McDormand won Best Actress, but Russell gets a gold statue for speaking Minnesotan. McDormand delivered a more subtle Minnesota accent in the North Country, a movie about a sexual harassment case in an Iron Range mine.
While researching the local dialect, actors were asked, “You’re not going to do that Fargo accent, are you?” They didn’t.
“I definitely felt like they were trying to hold onto the seriousness of that story, so instead of leaning into it, they were backing,” Kokernot observes. “It wasn’t that the sounds aren’t there; they didn’t lean into them as much.”
Unlike most Midwesterners, Minnesotans are highly conscious of the way they speak, and of how the rest of the country hears them.
“Whenever I go to an event out of state, people say, ‘You’re from Minnesota, aren’t you?’” I was told by Dave Guenther, an art teacher and snowmobile enthusiast from Pequot Lakes.
This self-consciousness predates Fargo. It’s been a long-running source of humor on the public radio program A Prairie Home Companion, hosted by Minnesotan Garrison Keillor, and broadcast nationwide from St. Paul. One of the show’s writers, Howard Mohr, published a book titled How to Talk Minnesotan, which caricatures Minnesotans’ reputation for being inoffensive and self-effacing, a trait known as “Minnesota Nice.” Sample advice: never accept food from a Minnesotan until you’re asked three times:
“Abrupt and eager acceptance of any offer is a common mistake made by Minnesota’s visitors. If a Minnesotan says:
□ Can I get you coffee?
You should not say:
□ “Yeah, that would be great, thanks, with a little cream and sugar. And how about one of those cookies.”
We never accept until the third offer and then reluctantly. On the other hand, if a Minnesotan does not make an offer three times, it’s not serious.”
Minnesota is in the heart of the North Central dialect region, which also includes the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, northern Wisconsin, northern Iowa and the eastern Dakotas. Like Inland North and Midland, it is coterminous with a pattern of migration, in this case, of Germans and Scandinavians who arrived in the late 19th Century, often settling on land too far north to be useful to native-born farmers, and working in extractive industries such as logging and mining. The newcomers transposed elements of their native languages onto English. Norwegian and Swedish both have pitch patterns, in which words’ meanings differ according to pronunciation. They also include many words with elongated vowels. Those features both contributed to the sing-songy cadence heard among Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants. From Swedish, Minnesotans acquired monophtongization, the compression of a double-stepped vowel into a single sound. Most pronounce “know” by slightly dropping the pitch of the “o.” In Minnesota, it’s pronounced “knooow.” This is also results in “Minnesohhta.”
Like Pittsburghers, Minnesotans’ speech consciousness has led them to claim as cultural touchstones some words and phrases that are now only used ironically. Gift shops sell “Uff Da” t-shirts, advertising a Norwegian phrase that means, roughly, “oy vey” or “ay caramba.” They may have heard Grandpa Larsen use it when he was trying to loosen a bolt on the furnace cover, but they don’t use it among their friends in Minneapolis, except as a goof.
The German influence on North Central speech is strongest in Wisconsin, which was a destination for refugees from the failed revolution of 1848. To this day, German words, pronunciations and sentence structures are part of the Wisconsin lexicon. The most obvious is “yah,” from the German ja, for yes. It’s both a statement of agreement, and a conversational cue meaning “I’m listening; go on.” It’s part of the greeting “Yah hey dere,” which is to Wisconsin what “you betcha” is to Minnesota. Budweiser filmed a Wisconsinized version of its “Wassup” commercial, with Cheeseheads shouting “Yah hey dere!” into their cell phones from a tavern, a Packer game and a deer camp. “Dere,” of course, is a legacy of the fact that German and the Scandinavian languages lack the interdental fricative, or “th” sound. Another example is “borrow.” In the German settlement areas of Wisconsin, someone might ask, “Can you borrow me five dollars?” In German, borgen can either mean “to borrow” or “to lend.” It’s both transitive and intransitive. German immigrants assigned the same qualities to its English equivalent. Some Wisconsinites add “no” or “not” to the end of a sentence as a tag question – an interrogative intended to invite a response from a listener. As in, “It’s getting cold today, no?” Or “Brewers gonna have a good season this year, not?” This comes from nicht, which performs that function at the end of German sentences. “By” is used like bei, which can mean “at” or “to.” When a Wisconsinite says, “We had dinner by Steve’s,” he or she means “We had dinner over at Steve’s house.” This also resulted in “how’s by you?” a now mostly ironic Wisconisism that roughly translates to “What’s happening in your neck of the woods?”
“Come with” is a common phrase throughout the Midwest: “We’re goin’ over to Jim’s. You wanna come with?” This derives from a German construction in which mit functions as a particle, the same way “up” does in “pick it up.” In German, Er kommt mit means “He’s coming with us.”
“We believe part of the reason why with can appear as both a preposition and a particle here in Wisconsin is that many of the immigrant languages brought to Wisconsin such as German, Dutch and Danish have their version of with as a particle,” wrote Thomas Purnell, Eric Raimy, and Joseph Salmons in their book Wisconsin Englishes. “To put it another way, when immigrants arrived in Wisconsin and began to learn English, they sometimes just directly translated what they wanted to word by word. If this type of translation gets close enough to work within a community, then the construction will be adopted. We can see this type of affect with a few other words in Wisconsin, too. Both the words yet and once have Wisconsin-specific uses in sentences, such as ‘Get me a beer once as long as you’re up yet,’ in Lou and Peter Berryman’s folk song ‘Squirrelly Valley.’ As in the come with example, we believe we can trace these to the language of German immigrants again because a word-by-word translation from German to English produces these types of sentences.”
(Lou and Peter Berryman are a Madison duo who, needless to say, play accordion and have performed on A Prairie Home Companion.)
“Get me a beer once” doesn’t mean “Get me one beer” or “Get me a beer one time.” Once is a translation of mal, which means “a point in time,” and is used to sound less demanding. It’s like saying, “Could you get me a beer when you have a chance?”
“Yet comes from noch, which means both ‘still’ and ‘yet.’ In this instance, German immigrants used ‘yet’ to cover all the meanings of ‘noch,’ and other Wisconsinites picked it up.”
Wisconsin is the linguistic crossroads of the Midwest, the only state in which Inland North, Midland and North Central are spoken. The Northern Cities Vowel Shift is strong in the eastern part of the state, with its connections to Chicago and the Great Lakes. Southwestern Wisconsin, settled by Illinois farmers, is a salient of the Midland dialect region. The North Country speaks North Central, with its trademark interjections of “yah” and “hey dere.” Dialect maps show a boundary cutting through Manitowoc County. The Netflix series Making a Murderer, about Steven Avery, a man falsely imprisoned for rape, then rearrested for murder two years after his release, takes place there. The police, judges and prosecutors in the lakefront county seat of Manitowoc speak with urbanized Inland North accents, while the rural Averys are pure North Central, with “deys,” “dats,” “ya knows” and drawn-out, monophthongal “o”s. For those who listen closely to accents, the subjects’ voices reinforce the theme of social class’s role in the justice system.
YOOPANESE AND RAYNCHER
“So, ah, I gotta take a shore and then I’ll be over to your hoase in aboat an oar, eh.”
That was the Flivv, my freshman hall mate at the University of Michigan, telling a friend he needed to take a shower, and would be over at his house in an hour. We called him the Flivv because he came from Kingsford, the Upper Peninsula charcoal-making town whose high school teams are nicknamed the Flivvers. Imitating his Yooper accent became a popular pastime on the third floor of Alice Lloyd Hall.
Few places in America speak a dialect more distinct from the rest of the state as the U.P., but few places are more isolated. Until the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957, only a ferry transported travelers between Michigan’s two peninsulas. It was easier to get there from Ontario or Wisconsin, so naturally, the U.P. developed a pattern of speech that more closely resembled those neighbors’. Yoopanese, as it is called, is marked by the use of “eh” and “youse,” Canadian raising of vowels, the dental fricative which turns “th” into “d,” and a cot-caught merger with a broad “o.” Its lexicon includes such terms as “pank,” for patting down snow, “chook” for hat, and “Holy wah!” as an exclamation of surprise. These are all unknown to “trolls” – Downstaters who live under the (Mackinac) bridge.
The western U.P., the stronghold of Yoopanese, contains the only counties in the U.S. where Finns are the dominant ethnic group. They arrived in the late 19th Century to work in the copper mines, and spoke a non-Indo European language that had nothing in common with English. Had the Finns emigrated to New York, they would have adopted the local speech patterns, adding little or nothing of their own. Instead, they arrived in a remote region where they had little contact with other English speakers, save the mine bosses and the Cornish miners who had preceded them. For reasons of geography and the difficulty of learning an unrelated language, the U.P.’s Finns clung to their native language longer than most immigrants.
(Finlandia College in Hancock is the only American institution of higher learning with a Finnish studies program.) As an isolated community in a strange land, the Finns had to work out their own version of English. As a result, Finnish was such an important influence on Yoopanese that the dialect is also called “Finglish.”
Take, for example, my classmate Jim’s pronunciation of “shower.” Stressing the initial vowel sound is a feature of Finnish, which overwhelmed the American English tendency to pronounce “ow” as a diphthong. Finnish also lacks the “th” sound, so pronouncing “them,” “there” and “through” as “dem,” “dere” and “t’rough” is the source of much U.P. humor. A band called Da Yoopers recorded a song called “Second Week of Deer Camp.” (It’s da second week of deer camp/ And all da guys are here/ We drink, play cards and shoot da bull/ But never shoot no deer.”) Michigan actor Jeff Daniels wrote and produced the movie Escanaba in Da Moonlight, about a “buckless Yooper” who has never killed a deer. In the 1980s, a “Say Yah to Da U.P., Eh” bumper sticker appeared on cars all over the state, as a peninsular response to the Rust Belt-era “Say Yes to Michigan” campaign.
Other immigrant groups also influenced Yoopanese. The Flivv’s rendering of hour as “oar” and about as “aboat” are examples of “Canadian raising,” in which words are pronounced higher in the mouth than in General American English. Despite the U.P.’s proximity to Canada, however, that “o” vowel is more likely to have come from Swedish or German, which pronounces “boat” as boot. The crisp Yooper “r,” pronounced far back in the mouth (“MAR-ket” for “Marquette”), comes from Cornish speech. And then of course, there’s “eh,” which one Yoopanese scholar believes is derived from the French-Canadian “hein.”
The tapping out of the copper mines, which forced Yoopers to leave the peninsula for jobs and education, and the building of the Mackinac Bridge, which connected it by road to the rest of the state, led to a heightened consciousness of Yoopanese’s distinctiveness, and an embrace of the dialect as a totem of local pride. For decades, U.P. high schools didn’t even compete against the Lower Peninsula in sports, because of the travel difficulties. A previously peninsular people were suddenly exposed to an outside world in which their accents distinguished them as Up North rubes – as the Flivv discovered in Ann Arbor. As happened in Pittsburgh after the steel crisis, this led to both dialect leveling – schoolchildren were instructed not to say “dat” and “dose” – and a nostalgic embrace of local argot. The term “Yooper” only dates to 1978, when increasing regional awareness inspired the Escanaba Daily News to hold a contest to name inhabitants of the U.P. Linguist Kathryn Remlinger interviewed a Yooper who became acutely self-conscious about his accent after enrolling at the State Police Academy in Lansing: “They asked me about the way I talk and all that. If everybody talks like me who are up here.”
The dialect of Minnesota’s Iron Range – called “Da Raynch” by its natives – has a history and phonology similar to Yoopanese. The Iron Range was also settled during the 19th Century mining boom, by a melting pot of immigrants with a heavy dollop of Finns, and the Rangers were isolated from their mother state by geography and occupation. Up in Minnesota’s Arrowhead region, northwest of Duluth, the Range is even today beyond the reach of any interstate highway. Its largest settlement is pop. 16,000 Hibbing, best known as the hometown of musician Bob Dylan.
“In the 1800s, the Iron Range had been ignored by westward-migrating Americans looking for farmland because of the dense forests, rocky land and foreboding blizzards,” wrote University of Minnesota-Duluth professor Michael D. Linn in “The Origin and Development of the Iron Range Dialect in Northern Minnesota. “As a result, there was no base of English- speaking residents in the area where the rich iron ore deposits were discovered and began to be mined in the 1890s. When the mines were first being developed, there was a large number of non-English speaking immigrants working for a small number of English-speaking bosses. At this time the workers created a foreign or immigrant workers’ speech, not unlike that of a plantation pidgin. Like pidgin speakers, these immigrants were actively excluded from the social life of the English-speaking supervisors by the caste system of the locations.”
Mining wasn’t slavery, but the linguistic result was similar. Just as slaves from different African empires had to figure out how to speak to each other in their new country’s language, a Finn, a Croatian and an Italian thrown together on a work team had only English as a common means of communication. To discourage labor organizing, mine bosses deliberately mixed workers of different nationalities, and did not offer English classes. (Plantations owners had done the same thing, to prevent slaves from plotting revolts.) This led, then, to sentences without “to be,” such as “He late” and “Where you at?” – a feature also found in African American Vernacular English. It also led to a lack of verb endings – “We stay ’til we move here.” Because Finnish lacks prepositions, miners would say “Let’s go Dulut’.” Best became “bestest,” and words were placed out of order: “You play with five cards just.”
Sara Schmelzer Loss, an Iron Range native, wrote a doctoral dissertation on the long- distance reflexive use of “himself” in Iron Range English. On the Iron Range, the sentence “Jill said that Hillary believes in herself” can mean “Jill said that Hillary believes in her.” The Iron Range is Minnesota’s Minnesota. Even as the rest of the country mocks the Fargo accent, flatland Minnesotans make fun of Rangers for compressing “did you eat?” into “jeet?” As a result, young people who leave the Range for the University of Minnesota adopt a standard North Central accent. Even older residents limit their use of “Rayncher” to other Rangers, as a way of showing off their native status and expressing community solidarity against outsiders.
“There are things that only older generations are doing,” Loss says. “If you’re older, you’re more likely not to say the preposition. I can’t even say ‘Let’s go Dulut’’ with a straight face. Very old people I’ve heard say it with a straight face. I think a lot of where we change our speech is to be more like other parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s a process where you say something, and other people make fun of it.”
Although their grammar is perfectly correct English, prominent modern Iron Rangers still maintain distinctive pronunciations. Former Gov. Rudy Perpich, from Hibbing, and state Sen.
Tom Rukavina, from Virginia, both said “aboot” for “about,” “tok” for “talk,” “knooo” for “know,” “tree” for “three” and “cawledge” for “college.” (The pronunciations are similar to those of Michigan State University basketball coach Tom Izzo, a Yooper from Iron Mountain, Mich.) Calling the Iron Range “Da Raynch” is an example of final obstruent devoicing, which was carried over from immigrant languages.
“A lot of ‘voiced’ sounds (ones pronounced with your vocal cord vibrating) are produced without the vocal cords vibrating so they sound voiceless in Iron Range (and some other Midwestern varieties,” Loss says. “Therefore, it’s not just “j” that can sound like “ch” – but also “z” that can sound like “s” and “g” that can sound like “k.” Devoicing obstruents at the ends of words is a process we see in a lot of languages – German, Russian, Serbo-Croatian.”
(Pronouncing final “s” as “sss” rather than “z” is common throughout the North Central region.)
North Country captures this by having a character call a judge a “chudge.” Loss also hears the devoiced obstruent in “Blowin’ in the Wind,” when Bob Dylan sings “How many yearsss can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free?”
Accurate or not, Fargo has fixed the Minnesota accent so well in the nation’s mind that when Sarah Palin delivered her vice presidential acceptance speech (in St. Paul), journalists commented on her “Fargo accent.” This was not far off base. Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley, where Palin grew up, was settled during the Depression by farm families from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, transplanted there by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. For better or for worse, Minnesotan is now the most recognizable form of Midwestern speech, a status furthered by Fargo’s FX television spinoff. Once, far outside the Midwest, I got a haircut from a barber heard my Midwestern accent, and asked if I was from Minnesota. He was a fan of the TV show. I told him he should go to Brainerd to see and hear the real thing. The snowmobiling is great there, too.
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Aug. 9: A visit from Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor. She's here to help us make peace with changes to the English language.
April 1: Erin McKean founded the world's biggest online dictionary, Wordnik. A graduate of The University of Chicago, she has also written books on weird words and given TED Talks about the subject.