HOW TO SPEAK MIDWESTERN
By Edward McClelland
Belt Publishing, $16.95, 149 pages
A native 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 Bernard 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 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 Fargo-land, where, Mr. McClelland tell us, a Palestinian woman and a Minnesota man named their son “Yassir Youbetcha.”
• 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).