American Dialect: Upper Midwest

Even if you have never been there, most of us are familiar with the accent of the Upper Midwest states from movies such as Fargo (1996) and Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion on National Public Radio. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Minnesota, and the Dakotas (a.k.a. Baja Manitoba) have some distinct features of pronunciation and vocabulary.

The patterns we examined last month also apply up here. The Northern Cities Shift is active in the region, but there are some other pronunciation changes that are unique to the Upper Midwest.

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Word Of The Month: Mount Everest

Fifty years ago this month, on 29 May 1953, two men, New Zealander Edmund Hillary (b. 1919) and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (1914–1986) became the first humans to ascend to the summit of Mount Everest, at 29,028 feet (8848 meters) the highest mountain on earth.

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary of this event, our Word of the Month is:

Mount Everest, prop.n., Himalayan peak on the border of Nepal and Tibet, the highest in the world. It is named for Sir George Everest (1790-1866), surveyor-general of India. Cf. Chomolungma, Sagarmatha.

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War Words Part Deux

Last month, we featured various military terms that were likely to be on the news. Of course, predictions are not perfect. There are host of jargon and slang terms that have cropped up in the reporting on the war in Iraq. Here are some that we missed last month. Not all of these are relevant to or used in the current conflict. Some are historical, evoked by recent events.

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American Dialect: The Northern Cities Shift and the Great Lakes Region

The dialect of the inland north, or the Great Lakes region, has the distinction of being “normal” American speech. As such, it is often difficult to categorize and people from the region are often not recognized as having a distinct dialect at all. Of course they do have one; all people speak with a distinct dialect. It is just that in this case there is not much to distinguish it from what is considered “standard” American speech. But there is one very distinctive feature of the accent of the region. It is one of the more distinctive pronunciation patterns in American speech. It is known as the:

The Northern Cities Shift
The shift is evident is a swath of territory stretching from the Hudson River valley in New York, across northern Ohio and Indiana, to Chicago and Detroit, encompassing the rust-belt cities of the northern Midwest. The shift is a distinctive pronunciation of short vowel sounds that was first identified by linguist William Labov and colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973. Now, not everyone in the region displays the shift; many opt for “normal” American pronunciation. Some people only display the shift with specific vowels, opting for the standard pronunciation for the others. But if one spends any significant time in the region, one can begin to identify the shift.

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Book Review: Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories

It seems lately that we have been reviewing books that are not in and of themselves bad or especially flawed, but whose utility is limited. The market for books on words and language is a crowded one, yet publishers seem intent on pumping out books that do not fit a particular niche or offer anything new or different.

This month we review yet another. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, edited by Glynnis Chantrell, is a book that has no obvious flaws. The scholarship is uniformly excellent, relying on the extensive lexicographic files of Oxford Press. There are over 12,000 entries, which give the book considerable scope. Yet, in reading it one continually wonders if anyone would actually ever find this book useful.

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Word of the Month: Space

On 1 February, the space shuttle Columbia and her crew of seven were lost during their return to earth. In the weeks since, news reports have treated the public with detailed insights into NASA and the US space program and exposed millions to jargon terms used by astronauts and aeronautical engineers. So to honor the seven who lost their lives in the exploration of the heavens, our word of the month is:

Space, n., the expanse of the universe beyond the earth’s atmosphere. This sense was first used in 1667 by Milton in Paradise Lost. From the Old French espace.

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Book Reviews: Dog Days and Dandelions & Coined By God

This month we take a look at two new trade etymology books, Dog Days and Dandelions by Martha Barnette and Coined by God by Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain. Both are well-written, well-researched works that look at the origins of words connected with a specific topic. But both books suffer from a common defect of etymology books, organization by alphabetical order, a defect that makes what could have been interesting topics that shed light into how English creates and adopts words and turns them into volumes of etymological trivia. Both books are fine works for what they are, but one is a bit disappointed when one considers what they could have been.

On the surface, one might think that alphabetical order would be a natural arrangement for books on etymology. After all, that is how dictionaries are organized and it makes finding individual words quick and easy. But while alphabetical order is appropriate for comprehensive reference tomes like dictionaries, it is not the best format for other works. Alphabetical order masks common themes and patterns of etymological change. Other formats sacrifice the ease of looking up a particular word or phrase, but this is easily addressed with an index.

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American Dialect: African-American Speech

Our study of American dialect cannot be solely based on regional differences. While regional distinctions are perhaps the most significant influences on the way we speak, other distinctions play a role as well and one of these distinctions is race and ethnicity. For most ethnic groups, patterns of speech are quickly assimilated into the local speech, becoming indistinguishable from the regional dialect, except perhaps for some specific cultural terms.

But African-American speech is different in that it transcends regional differences. African Americans have distinctive patterns of speech that are recognizable regardless of region. That is not to say that there are not regional differences among African Americans, but the similarities in the dialect across the nation are strong.

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Words of the Month: Military & Navy

The United States and Britain are deploying large numbers of soldiers, sailors, and airmen to the Persian Gulf. The United States and its allies are gearing up for another war with Iraq, so the words of the month are Military, adj., pertaining to soldiers, from the Latin miles or soldier, 1585, and Navy, n., a fleet or force of warships, from the Latin navis or ship, c. 1330.

We will take a look at some of the words that are used by and about the military, some official, some slang. Most of the technical or official terms dealt with here relate the US military. The definitions used by foreign militaries may be somewhat different and foreign militaries may employ synonyms for the words discussed here.

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Book Review: Weird and Wonderful Words

Weird and Wonderful Words by Erin McKean is a fun, little book for those who delight in rare and odd words. If you ever wanted to know what jumentous means, this is the book for you (it means “resembling horse urine"). Or perhaps you were wondering about quangocrat? If so, McKean’s book will tell you it is a British English word for a petty bureaucrat who works at a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization, or quango.

Now, this book and the words contained therein are not useful in any sense—unless you actually live a lifestyle where you might actually use the word jumentous, in which case I really do not want to know about it. The words are too obscure even for crossword puzzles. They most definitely are not kenspeckle (easily recognizable). Weird and Wonderful Words is strictly for fun.

The book is illustrated by New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. She provides many ostrobogulous (unusual, interesting) drawings to illustrate various uses of the words.
If you like odd words, you could do worse than picking this book up. Who knows, it might help you increase your scibility (power of knowing).

Hardcover; 144 pages; Oxford University Press; October 2002; ISBN: 0195159055; $16.95.

[Note: Erin McKean was my editor at OUP for Word Myths.]

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