Ac­cents and their role in Mid­west­ern iden­tity

The Washington Times Daily - - EDITORIAL - By John R. Coyne Jr. John R. Coyne Jr., a for­mer White House speech­writer, is co-au­thor of “Strictly Right: Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr. and the Amer­i­can Con­ser­va­tive Move­ment” (Wi­ley).

Ana­tive of Lans­ing, Michi­gan and res­i­dent of Chicago, Ed­ward McClel­land “ended up vot­ing for Chicago na­tive Hil­lary Clin­ton, be­cause we haven’t had a pres­i­dent with an In­land North ac­cent since Ger­ald Ford.” And has any po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst sal­vaged any bet­ter rea­son for vot­ing for Mrs. Clin­ton?

But “How to Speak Mid­west­ern” isn’t in any way a po­lit­i­cal book. Mr. McClel­land doesn’t men­tion Don­ald Trump at all (who would vote for a New Yorker be­cause of his Man­hat­tan ac­cent?); and Bernie San­ders, cursed with an aw­ful Brook­lyn ac­cent per­haps best suited for Trot­skyite ha­rangues, gets only one men­tion, as does the Matanuska Val­ley’s Sarah Palin, for her Fargo-like in­to­na­tions.

As for Mrs. Clin­ton, an erst­while Gold­wa­ter Girl from the Chicago ’burbs, most com­men­ta­tors now agree that she would have done well to re­mem­ber those “de­plorables” who share her ori­gins and ac­cent. But then, she may not have re­al­ized that she had an ac­cent at all, or that it marked her with a re­gional iden­tity, which she might have done well to cul­ti­vate.

Mr. McClel­land be­lieves that ac­cents are an im­por­tant part of that iden­tity; but also that “an im­por­tant el­e­ment of Mid­west­ern Iden­tity is be­liev­ing you don’t have an ac­cent — that you speak a neu­tral brand of stan­dard­ized English from which all other Amer­i­cans de­vi­ate.” But in fact, he writes, ev­ery part of the United States has its own ac­cent — even the Mid­west.

For the pur­poses of his book, he de­fines the Mid­west as “west of exit 41 on the New York State Thruway, east of the Mis­souri River, and north of the Ohio River.” Within those bound­aries, he iden­ti­fies “three dis­tinct di­alect pat­terns, each formed by 19th-cen­tury mi­gra­tory pat­terns.”

The In­land North, run­ning from Buf­falo to Mil­wau­kee, “was set­tled by Yan­kees from west­ern New Eng­land.” The Mid­land, stretch­ing from west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia across Ohio, In­di­ana, Illi­nois, and Iowa, co­in­cides with the west­ward route taken by Scots-Ir­ish mi­grants who set out from Philadel­phia and Baltimore. And the North Cen­tral in­cludes Up­per Michi­gan, Wis­con­sin, and Min­nesota, “des­ti­na­tions for Ger­mans and Scan­di­na­vians who trans­posed pro­nun­ci­a­tions and and gram­mat­i­cal fea­tures from their na­tive lan­guages onto English.”

Mr. McClel­land dis­cusses these mi­gra­tions and the syn­tax and us­ages they gave rise to, as well as how they’ve evolved and the role so­cial pres­sures can play in that evo­lu­tion. In the case of the award-win­ning movie “Fargo,” for in­stance, younger Min­nesotans are em­bar­rassed by the ac­tors’ ex­ag­ger­ated ac­cents.

Those ac­cents may have been au­then­tic when the Coen broth­ers left Min­nesota. But when they re­turned two decades later to make the film, “the ac­cent they set out to car­i­ca­ture was dead and buried, or liv­ing in a nurs­ing home.”

Nev­er­the­less, the car­i­ca­ture per­sists. When Sarah Palin first ap­peared on the na­tional scene, jour­nal­ists com­mented on her “Fargo ac­cent.” Un­der­stand­able, he writes, be­cause “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.”

Ab­so­lutely right, to a point. But there were many Alaskan pi­o­neers, as they’re called, from other parts of the coun­try who made their own way to the Matanuska Val­ley, my for­mer wife’s par­ents among them. Her mother was a school teacher from an old Con­necti­cut Yan­kee fam­ily, her fa­ther a Ger­man-Amer­i­can mu­si­cian from New York. Their chil­dren emerged from the schools there with no dis­cernible re­gional ac­cents at all. (And apro­pos of noth­ing much be­yond parental pride, my son, one of Alaska’s most prom­i­nent artists, lives and works in the Matanuska val­ley to­day — ac­cent-free, of course.)

For those se­ri­ous about the study of lin­guis­tics, there are his dis­cus­sions of such phe­nom­ena as the North­ern Cities Vowel Shift, “which has made Buf­falo­ni­ans, Cleve­landers, Detroi­ters, and Chicagoans sound more dis­tinct from the rest of the coun­try,” and more like one another. For those of us of a less schol­arly bent, he pro­vides a glos­sary of terms and prac­tices pe­cu­liar to var­i­ous cities and states within the three Mid­west­ern re­gions.

There’s the 500-pound But­ter Cow sculpted an­nu­ally from but­ter for the Iowa State Fair, for in­stance. Or from Ohio, there’s “the Youngstown Tune-up,” an af­fec­tion­ate name for a car bomb: “Too small to have its own mob, Youngstown was the site of turf wars be­tween the Cleve­land and Pitts­burgh mobs. Blow­ing up a ri­val’s car was a fa­vorite method of as­sas­si­na­tion.”

And fi­nally, just one more from Far­goland, where, Mr. McClel­land tell us, a Pales­tinian woman and a Min­nesota man named their son “Yas­sir You­betcha.”

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