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.

The chief difference between the Upper Midwest accent and that of most other English dialects is the treatment of long vowels. In most English dialects, long vowels glide at the end, either up or down. Up in the frozen north, however, there is no glide. Take the ubiquitous OK for example. Most Americans pronounce this as /owe-kay/. In the Upper Midwest it is generally pronounced /ohh-keh/. You can also see this lack of a glide in the names of some of the states in the region. Elsewhere in the United States, Minnesota and Dakota are pronounced /min-i-sowe-ta/ and /da-kowe-ta/, but natives of those states say /min-i-sohh-ta/ and /da-kohh-ta/.

As you travel northward in Minnesota and the Dakotas, Canadian pronunciation patterns begin to dominate. In particular one begins to hear the Canadian raising. In most of the United States, the OU and long I sounds begin with an /ah/. But in much of Canada and the Northern Tier states the /ah/ shifts to an /uh/. Instead of being pronounced /ah-oot/ for example, the word out is /uh-oot/.

The other major Canadian influence is the tendency to end sentences with a questioning eh?

The region was largely settled by immigrants from Scandinavia and the Nordic languages have influenced the dialect of the region. This can be seen in the vocabulary of the region, especially in the use of yah instead of yes.

There are also some consonant changes that are often heard in the region. The consonants B, D, and G are often changed to P, T, and K, respectively, when ending a word. Stab becomes /stap/, bed is pronounced /bet/, and dog is /dok/.

Upper Midwest Vocabulary

Rubber binder, n., rubber band, also just binder (Minn.)

Bismarck, n., an oblong, deep-fried cake, often jelly-filled, cf. Chicago.

Bluff, n., a clump of trees in otherwise open country or prairie (N.D., Wis.)

Boodlebag, n., a purse or money bag, from the Dutch boedel, estate or property (Wis.)

Brat, n., clipping of bratwurst (esp. Wis.)

Bubbler, n., a water fountain, esp. one found outdoors (esp. Wis.)

Budge, v., to insert one oneself, to merge without permission, to budge in line (Wis.)

Cheesehead, n., someone from Wisconsin, originally (1919) a non-regionalism for a stupid or awkward person. Transferred specifically to Wisconsin because of the dairy industry there. Recently adopted with pride by Wisconsinites as a nickname. Current use is often in reference to Green Bay Packer fans.

Cherry soup, n., a cold soup made from cherries (Wis.)

Chicago, n., an oblong, deep-fried cake, often jelly-filled, cf. Bismarck, (Wis., Minn., N.D.)

Cornhusker, n., nickname for a Nebraskan.

Dugout, n., a primitive home built at least partly underground, a cellar (Okla., Kan., Neb.)

Flickertail, n., a ground squirrel (esp. N.D.)

Flowage, n., flood water, a lake formed by a dam (Wis.)

Green Bay fly, n., a mayfly (Wis., northeast Mich.)

Grinnie, n., a ground squirrel (Iowa)

Hot dish, n., a casserole or main dish at a meal (Mich., Wis., Minn., N.D.)

Inso?, interrog. exclam., contraction of isn’t it so? Frequently appended to declaratory sentences (Wis.)

Ishy, adj., icky (Minn., Wis.)

Jackpine savage, n., a rustic or yokel (Minn., Wis.)

Jayhawk, n., a nickname for a Kansan, also jayhawker.

Kolacky, n., a type of pastry, from the Czech kola─Ź (Wis.)

Kringle, n., a type of pastry, usually in the shape of a ring with a fruit or nut filling, from the Danish for ring or loop (Wis.)

Lefse, n., a thin, unleavened bread made with mashed potatoes, from the Norwegian (Minn., Wis.)

Loose-meat sandwich, n., ground or shredded beef served on a bun, a sloppy joe (Iowa)

Muskeg, n., a marsh or bog, from Algonquin (Minn., also Alaska and Canada)

Ostkaka, n., a type of cheescake or pudding, from the Swedish (Minn.)

Pop, n., carbonated soft drink, soda, widespread throughout the United States, but chiefly found in the Upper Midwest.

Runza, prop. n., trademark for sandwich of ground beef, cabbage, onions, and spices in a pocket of bread. Probably from the German Ranzen, a satchel.

Snow-stayed, adj., snowed in (N.D.)

Stop and Go Light, n., a traffic light (Wis.)

Uff da, interj., an expression of surprise or disgust (Minn.)

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