Pittsburgh toilet, squeaky cheese, city chicken, shampoo banana, and Chevy in the Hole are all phrases that are familiar to Midwesterners but sound foreign to anyone living outside the region. This book explains not only what Midwesterners say but also how and why they say it and covers such topics as: the causes of the Northern cities vowel shift, why the accents in Fargo miss the nasality that’s a hallmark of Minnesota speech, and why Chicagoans talk more like people from Buffalo than their next-door neighbors in Wisconsin. Readers from the Midwest will have a better understanding of why they talk the way they do, and readers who are not from the Midwest will know exactly what to say the next time someone ends a sentence with ”eh?”.
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About the Author
Edward McClelland is a journalist. His writing has appeared in publications such as the Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Salon. He is the author of Nothin’ But Blue Skies and Young Mr. Obama. He lives in Chicago.
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How to Speak Midwestern
By Edward McClelland
Belt PublishingCopyright © 2016 Edward McClelland
All rights reserved.
The first time I visited Houston, I asked a local, "How far is it to Dallas?"
"To where?" she replied. "To Dale's house?"
Using speech patterns acquired during my childhood in industrial Michigan, I had pronounced the name of Texas's second-largest city as "Dayel-is." That's what linguists call "a raising," and it's a signature of the Inland North accent, which is spoken from Rochester, N.Y. on the east to St. Louis and Milwaukee on the west, an area roughly coterminous with the Rust Belt.
The Inland North accent originated in the mid-nineteenth century, and was spread through the lower Great Lakes by Yankee settlers migrating west along the Erie Canal and across Lake Erie. The influence of New England and western New York can be seen all over the Upper Midwest. Place names were transplanted — my own hometown of Lansing, Mich., was named for Lansing, N.Y., in the Finger Lakes region, and Saugatuck, Mich., was named for Saugatuck, Conn. The Midwest's private liberal arts colleges were founded by Eastern clergymen seeking to spread the doctrines of abolitionism, women's equality, and temperance. Ohio's Oberlin College and Michigan's Olivet College were both the creation of John Jay Shipherd, a Presbyterian minister educated in Vermont. Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., was founded by Methodists from western New York's Burned-over District, the forcing ground of many of the era's most fervent religious revivals. Cultural geographers such as David Hackett Fischer and Colin Woodard have lumped New England and the Upper Midwest together in a single region called "Greater New England" or "Yankeedom," sharing the values of social reform and communitarianism.
If the Midwest was settled from New England, then why don't Midwesterners talk like New Englanders? Because the first waves of settlement came from western New England, west of the Connecticut River, an isolated agricultural area that was phonologically distinct from coastal Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine. One of the most significant differences was rhoticity. When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620, they almost certainly pronounced their r's, since this was standard speech in England at the time. Fischer writes of immigrants from East Anglia who spoke a "harsh, high-pitched nasal accent" that became known as the "Yankee twang" when introduced to America. That sounds a lot like a modern Inland North accent. However, in the eighteenth century, r dropping became fashionable in London, and spread throughout the country, creating the English accent we know today. Due to the British Empire's cultural and commercial influence, this non-rhotic speech was adopted in Atlantic port cities that traded with England. However, the innovation never reached the hinterlands of New England, so when its sons and daughters began moving west, seeking farmland more fertile than the stony soil of the Green Mountains and the Berkshires, they carried with them the traditional English r pronunciation. (A classic example of this migration was Stephen Douglas, who left western Vermont in 1833 to seek his fortune in Illinois, where he was elected to the Senate and bought an estate in Chicago.) The Western Reserve, which became northeastern Ohio, was originally claimed by Connecticut, as it lay directly west of that state. Connecticut formed a land company to sell property to New Englanders, and reserved a tract known as the Firelands for residents whose homes had been burned by the British during the Revolution. To this day, the contours of the Western Reserve match the section of Ohio where Inland North is spoken: a "transition zone" separating Inland North speech from Midland speech runs just south of Akron. To use an example of two well-known Ohio natives, actor Fred Willard, who grew up in Shaker Heights, is an Inland North speaker, while basketball coach Bob Knight, who grew up 57 miles south in Massillon, is a Midland speaker.
In Illinois, Inland North speech is heard only in the far northeastern corner of the state, which was settled by New Englanders who followed the Great Lakes to their terminus in Chicago. It's also the dominant accent in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, and in southeastern Wisconsin, around Milwaukee.
The Inland North accent as we know it today began to develop in the early twentieth century, as a result of one of the most remarkable linguistic transitions of the modern era: the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Vowels whose pronunciations had been stable for a thousand years, since the days of feudal England, began taking on new inflections in the mouths of Upper Midwesterners. The changes were first detected by linguists doing field research in Chicago and Detroit in the late 1960s. In his book Dialect Diversity in America, William Labov describes the Shift as a series, or chain, of pronunciation changes. The Shift affects five different vowel sounds, but Labov believes it was triggered by the short a that makes "Dallas" incomprehensible to Texans.
"The logic that connects these five changes resembled a game of 'musical chairs,' in which each inhabitant of a position moves one unit to dislodge the next," Labov wrote. "The initiating event appears to be the shift of short-a in bat to a front, raised position, a sound very much like the vowel of yeah ... Into the gap created by this shift, the vowel of got moves forward. In the most extreme form, cot sounds like cat, block like black, socks like sacks ... The vowel of bought then moves down and front toward this position, along with other members of the 'long open-o' word class: law, talk, cross, dawn, dog, etc ... Short-e then shifts to the back toward short-u, producing a confusion between desk and dusk as short-e enters short-u territory. Most recently, short-u has responded to the intrusion by moving back, producing the potential confusion between busses and bosses, cud and cawed ... The chain shift has come full circle."
These pronunciations should sound familiar to anyone who has eavesdropped on a conversation between two on-break sales associates at the Golf Mill Mall in Niles, Ill., or ordered a Texas Red Hot from a waitress at Louie's in Buffalo.
"Just in terms of numbers, you're talking about a lot of vowels moving around, that's a pretty significant thing," says linguist Matthew Gordon, now an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri. "Some of these particular vowels, the short i, the short a, the short e those have been pretty stable throughout the history of English, for over a thousand years."
While researching his doctoral thesis, Small Town Values, Big-City Vowels: A Study of the Northern Cities Shift in Michigan, Gordon listened to recordings of Grand Rapidians born in the late nineteenth century. None of them produced the vowel inflections associated with the Shift. (Neither did President Gerald Ford, who was raised in Grand Rapids in the 1910s and 20s.)
"When you listen to them, they don't sound at all like modern Michiganders," Gordon says. "All the evidence seems to show the Northern Cities Shift got started some time in the twentieth century, and really got ramped up. Definitely, the first half of the twentieth century was when it progressed to the point you would really hear it like you do today."
But why did the Shift start then, and why has it been confined to the Inland North accent region? Labov theorizes that its origins date back nearly two hundred years, when New Englanders, New Yorkers, and immigrants arrived in upstate New York to dig the Erie Canal. All had different ways of pronouncing the vowel a. Southwestern New Englanders usually raised it, making "Ann" sound like "Ian." Rhode Islanders and Mainers only raised short a before nasal consonants — m and n. Bostonians never did, pronouncing "laugh" and "half" with the a in "father." New Yorkers randomly distributed raised and lax a's throughout their vocabulary. From this melting pot of dialects emerged a single system, in which the short a was always raised. The new dialect then spread westward, as settlers followed the canal into the Great Lakes. Because Yankees were community-minded, with entire towns moving en masse to form orderly new Midwestern villages, the Inland North accent is remarkably consistent from one end of the Great Lakes to the other. That's why Chicagoans sound more like Buffalonians than they do like residents of central Illinois.
Charles Boberg of Canada's McGill University believes the Shift was already beginning before the first Midwesterners left Connecticut and Vermont. He cites a late-twentieth-century interview with a man from New Britain, Conn., whose "vowel system approximates those of paradigmatic Northern Cities speakers of the Great Lakes region." Boberg theorizes that Western New England supplied "the pivot conditions for the shift," which then advanced simultaneously there and in the Great Lakes. He concludes that "the origins of the Northern Cities Shift clearly lie on the banks of the lower Connecticut River."
As I pointed out in the introduction, Inland North was once considered "standard" American speech, so much so that the Southern linguist Raven McDavid dubbed it SWINE: Standard White Inland North English. This is no longer the case, due both to changes in the accent, and to its home region's loss of economic and political power. The Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which was less advanced in the 1920s than in later generations, has made Buffalonians, Clevelanders, Detroiters, and Chicagoans sound more distinct from the rest of the country, so much so that Saturday Night Liveparodied it in two sketches.
"Bill Swerski's Superfans" made "Da Bears" a national catchphrase, and exaggerated the fronted o's of Chicagoans: one of the characters was a south-side Irishman who pronounced his name "Tahhd O'Cahhnor." Another sketch, "1-600-LANSING," was a parody advertisement for a phone sex line for men turned on by women with nasal Michigan accents. The animated sitcom Family Guy also once did a cutaway bit about a Wisconsin nymphomaniac who cries "oh Gahhhd" and "oh cray-ep" during sex.
Perhaps as a result, some younger urban Midwesterners have been altering their speech to sound less regional, says David Durian, a native of Chicago's suburbs and an adjunct professor of English at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill. In Chicago, for example, the tendency to replace th with d or t (known as "stops") has been diminishing. It was a product of the fact that most European languages do not contain the th sound, known as the interdental fricative. Not even the Irish mastered it when they switched from Gaelic to English, and so "dese, dem, and dose" or "t'ree," "t'rough," and "t'anks" became common pronunciations in immigrant communities. In fact, "Dese, Dem, and Dose Guys" is a term for a certain type of down-to-earth Chicagoan, usually from a white south side neighborhood or an inner-ring suburb. But it's becoming less frequently heard among speakers born after 1970. The sixtysomething auto dealer who sold me a Ford Escape at Bredemann Ford in Glenview, Ill., did it, but his twentysomething assistant didn't. The same is not true in some blue-collar neighborhoods and suburbs, though. Durian reports some younger speakers in suburbs like Brookfield or Riverside, and city neighborhoods like Bridgeport, continue to use it. I used to go to the racetrack with a guy from the inner-ring suburb of Burbank. Whenever I cashed a bet, he'd exclaim, "Dayt's awesome!" Blame its demise in middle class speech on the Superfans.
"It's become so stereotyped as a pronunciation, and it's pointed out so often in speech that some people are actually shifting away from it," Durian says.
This feature of the Chicago accent was most widespread during the city's industrial heyday. Blue-collar work and strong regional speech are closely connected: if you graduated from high school in the 1960s, you didn't need to go to college, or even leave your neighborhood, to get a good job, and once you got that job, you didn't have to talk to anyone outside your house, your factory, your tavern, or your parish. A regular Joe accent was a sign of masculinity and local cred, bonding forces important for the teamwork of industrial labor. A 1970s study of steelworker families on Chicago's East Side by linguist Robin Herndobler found that women were less likely than their husbands to say "dese, dem, and dose," because they dealt with doctors, teachers, and other professionals. After the mills closed, kids went to college, where they learned not to say "dat," and took office jobs requiring interaction with people outside the neighborhood.
(Something similar is happening in Buffalo, which, like Chicago, had large-scale immigration from Ireland and Poland, and a steel industry that shut down during the deindustrialization of the 1980s. I know a Buffalonian from the baby boom generation who doesn't fully pronounce th, but every Gen Xer and Millennial I've met there does.)
In fact, Durian is beginning to hear the Northern Cities Vowel Shift weaken among young, middle class speakers in the Chicago area born after the late 1970s. Durian and his colleague, University of Illinois-Chicago linguist Richard Cameron, have been working on a project called Five Generations of Language Change in Chicago, in which they are looking at changes to the Chicago accent since the late 1800s. To do so, they have been analyzing speech differences among speakers born as early as 1875, by comparing recordings they themselves made in recent years with recordings made by the linguist Lee Pederson during a dialect study he conducted in 1962-1963. Durian and Cameron have been finding that the short o "box" vowel is backing up among some young middle class speakers, bringing it closer to the "cot-caught" merger, while the short a, after being raised a little bit higher by each generation of Chicagoans since the early 1900s, seems to have plateaued among young middle class speakers, advancing as high as it can go. However, young working class Chicagoans still use the same fronted o's and raised a's as their parents and grandparents, the baby boomers and World War II veterans who spoke the classic Chicago accent caricatured by "Superfans" creator George Wendt, who grew up in a white ethnic neighborhood on Chicago's southwest side.
To those interested in the connection between accents and cultural identity, there is something poignant about the "Superfans" sketches. They captured that accent, and the people who spoke it, at a time when both were ceasing to define what it meant to be a Chicagoan. In the mid-1980s, when the Superfans' beloved coach Mike Ditka led "da Bears" to the Super Bowl, the city's steel mills were closing, threatening the livelihoods of Chicago's working class. After a half century of Irish mayors, city hall was under the control of an African-American, Harold Washington, who was almost unanimously opposed by white ethnics, the community most associated with the classic Chicago accent. Chicagoese, as newspaper columnist Mike Royko called the dialect, was the language of hardworking, traditional, churchgoing, neighborhood-loyal people who had advanced from immigrant to middle class in two generations. Ditka, himself a Slav from a Pennsylvania steel town, understood (and was part of) the team's appeal to his fellow ethnics. He dubbed his players "Grabowskis," suggesting that, like a Polish plumber or steelworker, they were tough pluggers who got the job done. The classic Chicago accent is heard less often these days because the white working class is less numerous, and less influential, than it was in the twentieth century. It has been pushed to the margins of city life, both figuratively and geographically, by multiculturalism and globalization: the accent is most prevalent in blue-collar suburbs and in all-white neighborhoods in the northwest and southwest corners of the city, which are heavily populated by city workers whose families have lived in Chicago for generations. Beginning in the 1990s, Chicago became a regional business and financial capital, attracting college graduates from Ohio and Indiana who speak a more neutral strain of Midwestern. It has also attracted Third World immigrants who are not adopting the "classic" accent. As what it means to be a Chicagoan changes, so does what a Chicagoan sounds like.
Inland North's rise to linguistic distinction and its subsequent subsumation into generic American speech among younger middle class speakers may turn out to be coeval with the industrial Midwest's own rise and decline. "When [Midwestern cities] were going through a period of growth, up until about 1950, the times that the Northern Cities Shift was most active were up through that sort of World War II period," Durian says. "And then what happens from 1950 to 2000, you see the Northern Cities Shift slowly beginning to shift towards eroding. So it seemed that as the population decreased in these cities, that's also had an impact on the shift beginning to erode. Possibly among some younger speakers, we may be starting to see the emergence of a more generic American accent. ... I think regional identity still matters to some extent to these kinds of speakers, but I don't think it matters as much as it did fifty years ago. I think now some people are more likely to identify with the idea that you're a Midwesterner, rather than a Chicagoan or a Buffalonian. That may be having some influence on reducing some of those stronger characteristics."
As the Upper Midwest has become less powerful, less populous and less influential, so has its native accent. Now, some linguists argue, the Midland accent — heard in Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Peoria — has replaced Inland North as the most "neutral" American dialect.
Excerpted from How to Speak Midwestern by Edward McClelland. Copyright © 2016 Edward McClelland. Excerpted by permission of Belt Publishing.
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